THE INSIDE TRACK BY MICHEÁL O'SULLIVAN
DAVID Clifford’s home club of Fossa is not even a five-minute drive from Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney – but Cork can’t allow the Kerry danger man any home comforts this Sunday afternoon. In fact, the Rebels need to make it as uncomfortable as possible for Clifford. Easier said than done, but how do you curb the Kingdom man’s threat and influence?
He is 22 years old, stands at six-foot two-inches tall, weighs in at about 14 stone – and the Gaelic football world is Clifford’s oyster. Having won two All-Ireland minor titles (2016 and ’17) he was considered too valuable to the Kerry senior set-up in their efforts to stop the Dubs to allow him progress through the natural channel that is U20 football. Already a two-time All-Star with a scoring average akin to Cristiano Ronaldo, trying to stop Clifford or at least limit him is top of every opposition manager's priorities when facing this Kerry team.
Here are some of the options that the Cork backroom team may be toying with in the run-up to the Munster football final.
OPTION 1: Daniel O’Mahony man-marking Clifford with Sean Powter sweeping – Against Westmeath in the Division 2 relegation play-off and against Limerick in the first round of the Munster SFC, Cork boss Ronan McCarthy used a sweeper system to curb dangerous inside players like John Heslin and Danny Neville. Against Limerick last time out, Daniel O’Mahony man-marked Neville with Sean Powter playing as the free man in a sweeping/doubling-up role in front. O’Mahony looks to have all the tools necessary with a fine display of tight, aggressive-from-the-front man-marking. He has the physicality, power, size and pace to take Clifford on in Killarney. Unlike the Munster SFC semi-final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh last November where Kerry played Briain Ó Beaglaoich and Ronan Buckley as two defensive wing forwards, Kerry boss Peter Keane is playing six out-and-out forwards this year. It meant Cork could ignore these two players and offer support in the form of double-ups to the defenders like Maurice Shanley who were enlisted with man-marking jobs. If Powter plays his sweeper role, which one of these six forwards are Cork going to select to let free?
OPTION 2: Concede the Kerry kick-out after shots from open play – Trying to get some measure of control on the opposition kick-out is the key to being competitive in the championship at inter-county level. After a free or set-play, the opposition has the best chance of pushing up, cutting out the short options and forcing the kick-out long where there is a higher chance of disruption. Kerry have enjoyed over an 80 percent win rate on their own kick-out in every game they have played this year so far. They are particularly dangerous from kick-outs after a point from open play or a wide ball. This is because the play is broken, players have been dragged out of position and there is less time to set up defensively. An option for Cork to curb Kerry’s fast-breaking defence and midfield and cut the space around Clifford is to concede the Kerry kick-out after a shot from open play. Leave one up and retreat to behind Cork’s attacking 45. Let Kerry go short, slow their play down and clutter the middle third to prevent quality service.
OPTION 3: Go man-to-man all over the park and trust your defenders – In the 20-plus championship games played so far in 2021, a lower division team has only beaten a higher division team once. The odds are stacked against Cork, and then there is Kerry’s unbeaten 26-year home football championship record in Killarney. Cork need something different if they want to pull off the shock of the championship, and it would surprise Kerry if Cork went man-to-man all over the park. The question is do Cork have the quality across the team to pull it off? With six scoring forwards who are not afraid of their defensive duties, Kerry often end up with a lot of quality coming from deep, especially the half-back line. Stop this at source with a ferocious work-rate and physicality and trust Daniel O’Mahony to go one-on-one knowing that help is on the way if he can delay Clifford.
OPTION 4: Stop Sean O’Shea – If Clifford is one edge of the sword that is looking to slay all before it on their way to a first All-Ireland in seven years, then Sean O’Shea is the equally sharp other edge. Often the foil to Clifford, the playmaker and unselfish provider of quality service, limiting his influence is key to restricting Clifford’s effectiveness. I remember last year Carbery Rangers travelled to Kenmare for a pre-championship run-out and it was my first time seeing Sean O’Shea up close and personal. We could do nothing with him the same day and what surprised me most about him was his size, strength and physicality. Tyrone tried to rough him up in the league game in Killarney in June, but O’Shea lapped that up. Sean Meehan is the man to do a man-marking job on the Kenmare footballer, but Meehan has to forget about everything else and focus on being inside his shirt all day and trust that help is coming if he can deny and delay.
OPTION 5: Don’t get sucked out. Go 6-6-2. Pressure the middle third. Leave two up – The one thing defenders like least is to be sucked out the field and end up running back towards their own goal, often ending up with their backs to the play. The defence doesn’t get a chance to get set, turn and face the on-coming attackers. We saw during the league, Clifford one-on-one by himself inside the 45-metre line with a long and accurate delivery coming from the middle third and the ensuing pandemonium it causes. It's important that the Cork defence doesn’t get sucked out in this situation. Always have a plus one or plus two, that is extra defenders filling the spaces either side of Clifford. Don’t be surprised if you see Peter Keane throw a spanner in the works though as already this year we have seen O’Shea and Clifford fill this role. To upset Cork's plans, you could see Paul Geaney drag the likes of Kevin O’Donovan into this scenario with Clifford and O’Shea dropping deep. Expect the unexpected.
With a player like Clifford, as a manager you have to ask yourself what you would be happy giving him before a ball is kicked. Six points, two from play and four frees, wouldn’t be bad. Cork will probably end up using a combination of the options outlined above or a new innovation could turn the game in Cork's favour. Either way it's going to be intriguing to see what they come up with.