Monday, September 22, 2014

Why Do Kerry Keep Winning?

There have been two great Kerry generations in the past thirty years. There was the Golden Years team of the 1970s and 80s, featuring men so famous in the game they are known by one name only –Jacko, Ogie, Páidí, Bomber. And there is the Darragh Ó Sé generation, where that great man had the likes of Paul Galvin, Colm Cooper and, of course, his brothers Tomás and Marc to help him out.

But it is mistaken analysis to think that that Kerry rack up All-Irelands the way they do because they enjoy golden generations the way the hurlers of Cork, Kilkenny or Tipp enjoy golden generations. No. Kerry lead the pack in terms of football All-Irelands won, thirty-seven titles in comparison to Dublin’s twenty-four in second place, because whenever a year looks like being below average, when a title is there to be picked up a team that is not outstanding, it’s generally Kerry that do the picking-up.

Above anything, Kerry are hungry for titles. Hungry in a way that’s hard to describe to those who have never experienced such a combination of want and obligation. If Kerry have a choice of playing to tradition or playing to win, they will play to win one hundred per cent of the time, because winning is the only thing. And what’s more, Kerry are dead right in doing so.

All-Irelands are won against teams in the here-and-now. They are not won against some mythical standard, existing pristine and immaculate in the collective Gaelic imagination.

Kerry go into every game knowing what it is they have to do and grim-set and determined to do it. You often hear of lesser teams that “have no Plan B” when they are dumped out of the Championship. You never hear that of Kerry.

Kerry have more plans than the alphabet has letters. Science-fiction fans may remember the second Terminator movie, that featured a virtually-indestructible robot that could adapt itself to its environment, that could be whatever it needed to be in any situation. Reader, that is Kerry football in a nutshell.

You want to play fancy? Kerry will play fancy, and win 3-18 to your 1-22. You want to box? Kerry will box, and win 0-9 to 0-8. It’s all the same to them. There are no asterisks on the roll of honour. All that’s there is a list of years. Thirty-seven of them in Kerry’s case, with room for plenty more.

And that’s exactly what Kerry did yesterday. Instead of being too proud to play Donegal’s game, they played Donegal’s game better than Donegal themselves. You dance with the girls in the hall and nobody, but nobody, does that better than Kerry.

In recent year, the nation outside of the Kingdom has been given a precious insight into just how Kerry look at things, thanks to Darragh Ó Sé’s column in the Irish Times every Wednesday, and Jack O’Connor’s before him. They are invaluable insights into a GAA football county that is like no other, and help us to understand how exactly it is that Kerry maintain standards in their Kingdom, year after year, generation after generation.

For instance: it is a thing in some counties to protect players from reading criticism on social media. The idea is that the players will retire to their bedrooms, weeping at the hurt, and won’t come out in play football anymore. In Kerry, they think a little differently about how to make up-and-coming aware of what life in the big time is like.

Billy Keane recounted a story about David Moran, one of this year’s All-Star midfielders, during his first time on the Kerry panel, when Darragh Ó Sé was still the old bull in the field. Ó Sé hit Moran a slap that left Moran with a badly-cut mouth. Keane asked Ó Sé what the hell he did that for.

“David is too nice,” said Darragh. “I was trying to put a bit of fire in him. He doesn't get it yet just how hard it is.” That’s what it’s like at the top. A bit more severe than some randomer saying that you’re smelly on Twitter.

But Kerry have one other incredible asset that no other county has, or is likely to have anytime soon. Kerry has the richest football tradition in Ireland.

One difference between playing Kerry in Croke Park and playing them in Limerick is that you can hear what the Kerry support are saying. And the amazing thing is, they all say the same thing.

In Mayo, if Aidan O’Shea has possession and is travelling towards goal, from the half-forward to the full-forward line, one-third of the Mayo support will urge him to go on and bury it, one third will implore him to pass, for God’s sake, and the remaining third will beg O’Shea, on their mothers’ lives, to take his bloody point.

In Kerry, they all shout the same thing. Kerry football people know exactly the right thing to do at any particular point in the game. That’s how deep football is in their marrow. And what they don’t know, they learn quickly.

Another county might have folded their tents after the infamous “puke football” semi-final of 2003. Kerry didn’t. Kerry learned how to play the new system, and have won five titles in the eleven years since. What they couldn’t beat, they joined.

And that’s the lesson for all the other counties in Ireland, now that the 2014 season is over. If you want to beat them, you have to join them. You must do as the best does if you’re to live with them and hope to beat them.

But that’s for another year. In the meantime, hard luck Donegal, and well done Kerry, deserving All-Ireland winners of 2014.