Litmus test for the Oak Leafers


Derry v Kerry

Sunday, Croke Park, 4pm
Live on RTÉ and BBC

By Niall Gartland

ECHOES of 2012? Recall the celebrations when Kerry beat their Tyrone, by then a pale shadow of the team that had won three All-Irelands, out the gate in Killarney. Paul Galvin was leaping around, Kieran Donaghy held the rather more lightweight Colm Cooper aloft – you’d almost thought Kerry had won the All-Ireland.

The stark reality hit them square in the face two weeks later when they were knocked out of the championship in an All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal. The manager? Jack O’Connor, who seems to have mellowed a bit in his ‘oul age’.

Will it be a similar story this Sunday? Kerry trounced Tyrone a fortnight ago and are strong favourites to plot Derry’s downfall and cruise into the All-Ireland final, but time will well whether they’re truly as strong as their win over the Red Hands, who have now won only three of their last nine championship matches, suggested.

That said, it was hard not to be impressed by their slick and powerful performance as they set about dismantling Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher’s team. It was a bit of a role reversal from their famous semi-final defeat to Tyrone two years ago. This time it was Kerry forcing turnovers and landing point-after-point on the counter attack, and by the final ten minutes, Tyrone were basically a beaten docket.

Their somewhat maligned midfield pairing of Diarmuid O’Connor and Jack Barry got through a mountain of work and will fancy their chances of breaking even or better against Conor Glass and Brendan Rogers this weekend. O’Connor in particular was a revelation – he’s bulked up but hasn’t lost any athleticism or pace and scored 1-2 against the Red Hands.

David Clifford is unlikely to have such a bad game by his standards again – he attempted nine shots from play and only scored one point, some of which were genuinely bad misses considering the calibre of the man. Expect Chrissy McKaigue to pick him up, while it could be Conor McCluskey who’s tasked with curtailing Sean O’Shea while Conor Doherty, an exceptionally important cog in Derry’s overall play, may well have a personal dual with Paudie Clifford, a similar type player to himself.

This is a really big game in the development of this Derry project. They’ve proven themselves in Ulster with back-to-back titles, no mean feat, but the jury is still out on whether they have an All-Ireland title in them. They’ve had some bad Croke Park defeats (against Galway in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final and in this year’s league showdown against Dublin) but manager Ciarán Meenagh defended his side’s record in Headquarters in recent comments, pointing out that their players have bucket-loads of experience in playing in Croker between their schools, clubs and county.

But the narrative will no doubt persist that they aren’t a ‘Croke Park team’ if they don’t, at the very least, put on a strong showing against the Kingdom. Their performance against Cork a fortnight ago was stellar: they blotted out their key men and reacted very well to the concession of an against-the-run-of-play goal in the second-half, and they’ll have taken confidence from getting that win under their belts at Croker.

There’s not much to go by in terms of previous meetings between Derry and the Kingdom. Their last meeting was all the way back in 2015 – a lot of water has passed under the bridge since – but the hope from a Derry perspective is that they’re more tuned in than Tyrone at the moment and they’ll give Kerry their fill of it.

It really is an acid test – if they get things right at the back, the longer the game will go on, the more Meenagh’s side will grow in confidence. They score more than people realise, averaging just short of 20 points a game in the group stages, albeit Kerry have a mean and formidable defensive unit honed by a certain Paddy Tally. The gut feeling is that Derry will be up for this one and that Kerry aren’t yet the finished product, but that O’Connor’s side will ultimately have enough to sneak a hard-fought contest.

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