Lessons for Cork: Hitting the mark and turnovers are Kerry’s strengths

'Jack O’Connor always favoured the kicking game but striking that balance – especially around turnovers – is the key conundrum now'
Lessons for Cork: Hitting the mark and turnovers are Kerry’s strengths

David Clifford of Kerry call for a mark during the win over Mayo at Croke Park this summer. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

WHEN Jack O’Connor returned to Kerry last year for a third stint as Kerry manager, he went to David Clifford with a directive about marrying his talent and power to add to his arsenal and increase his potential for even greater destruction.

O’Connor was clear and concise in his instructions to Clifford, which he recalled in detail after the All-Ireland final in July.

“I said, ‘David you’re 6’ 3”, 15 and half stone and it’s one of the weapons we’ll try and develop this year with you’,” recalled O’Connor. “I’ve always liked that in an inside forward to be an aerial threat.”

Clifford certainly was. He scored two points from marks in the final but that weapon was always in Clifford’s armoury. After nailing two points from marks against Tyrone in the 2021 All-Ireland semi-final, Clifford has now scored 0-7 from that source in his last four championship matches in Croke Park.

O’Connor has always used that tactic wisely, especially in All-Ireland finals, ranging from Johnny Crowley in the 2004 decider, to Kieran Donaghy in the 2006 final and Clifford this year.

It hasn’t always worked either, as Tyrone proved in the 2008 final (albeit not on O’Connor’s watch) when Justin and Joe McMahon shut down the twin towers of Donaghy and Tommy Walsh.

But Kerry have still largely profited from the tactic on the big day. In the 2014 All-Ireland final, they identified the height advantage Paul Geaney would have over Donegal’s Paddy McGrath. Kerry’s first goal that day came from a high ball into the square which was caught and finished by Geaney.

O’Connor first showed his coaching class and intelligence around that area in the 2004 final.

With Mayo having small inside forwards, the Kerry manager felt that their full-back line would not be used to dealing with high ball in training.

So he exploited it with Crowley and even Colm Cooper, whose outstanding goal that day originated from a huge, long delivery from Éamonn Fitzmaurice, which Cooper caught over the head of Pat Kelly.

The game has radically changed though, since then. Precision and percentages govern so much of the modern game now. A few years ago, one of the top football managers in the game revised his statistical analysis midway through the season, removing the category of a turnover originating from a kick-pass.

He felt that players were becoming afraid to try and make that accurate kick-pass into the full-forward line out of fear of getting hammered in the statistical analysis feedback for turning the ball over.

Despite all of their talent and their ability - and desire to kick the ball – the standout statistic from Kerry in the All-Ireland final was how little they turned over the ball; Kerry only turned the ball over 10 times, and conceded just 0-2 off that possession.

Five of those turnovers were from balls kicked into their forward line, but Kerry still won 12 of the 18 balls they kicked in that afternoon, mining 0-6 from that possession, three of which were marks.

When Kerry defeated Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final, it was that tactic that largely decided the game. The strategy was always a risk, especially when Dublin had a rotating sweeper, but Kerry never wavered in their conviction around that ploy.

In the first half, Kerry kicked eight long balls into their full-forward line and won five, mining 1-3 from that possession. They continued with that policy in the third quarter when winning every one of the nine balls kicked in, and translating that possession into three more points.

When Dublin got a grip midway through the half and Kerry were sucked further back the field, Kerry were forced to run the ball more. They didn’t kick the ball in again throughout the fourth quarter but they did when the need was greatest. Kerry’s last two scores came from long direct balls, with Seán O’Shea and David Clifford fouled for the two late frees converted by O’Shea.

O’Connor has always favoured the kicking game, and has felt Kerry are a kicking team, but striking that balance – especially around turnovers – is the key conundrum for most teams in the game.

Kerry manager Jack O'Connor at Páirc Uí Rinn. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Kerry manager Jack O'Connor at Páirc Uí Rinn. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Kerry are lucky that they have targets in their inside line but, if the advanced mark wasn’t in place, would they kick the ball as often as they want, or would like?

For all the criticism of the advanced mark, kicking has increased by 20% since the rule was introduced in 2018.

In that context, it is almost a fundamental requirement in the modern game, especially when every team is trying so hard to protect possession and not give it away.

Yet there are still big concerns around the mark, the most recent of which have come from referees. At last weekend’s Central Council meeting – which included several referees - the chairman of the Standing Committee on Playing Rules (SCPR), Prof David Hassan, gave a presentation on stats gathered from the 2022 football and hurling championships.

A number of findings on those numbers were discussed, one of which was around the advanced mark. Concerns were expressed around the difficulty in officiating the regulation, especially when referees have so much information to process when making the decision to award the mark.

There is a desire to see the mark simplified, but that is certainly more positive than any move to get rid of the mark, which many people want. Yet given the way football has gone now, how much kicking would be in the game if the advanced mark wasn’t there?

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