Kerry crave space. If I was going all mystical, I would say it must have something to do with growing up with the Atlantic to the west and the wild and untamed lands all around that creating a desire for freedom. But, of course, it has nothing to do with that.
Kerry have a tradition of attacking, of great kick and catch Gaelic football and playing with pace either with foot or hand passes. The players are brought up to charge into space, to find it quickly and to try and make things happen. They want to kick it long and transition quickly. They crave space in Kerry, but then every forward does. The difference between forwards in many other teams and a Kerry forward is that a Kerry forward is used to having it, it’s something they feel entitled to. Galway, in the All Ireland final, won’t pander to their sense of entitlement.
The question Kerry – and in particular David Clifford – will have to answer is: what are they prepared to do to win a game that won’t be played on their terms?
Can they operate in the tight quarters that Galway will ensure is the stage for this game? All Ireland finals – like finals in the World Cup or Euros – are often won by the team designed to make fewer mistakes and frustrate the opposition. It is a simpler game to play in the tension of a major final but it is also a gameplan that this Kerry team have yet to prove they can overcome.
They have looked uncomfortable when they have been smothered. It took them 50 minutes to break free from Cork and Galway are a much better, more disciplined and more organised side than Cork. For that reason, I think Galway could sucker punch Kerry.
I don’t think the pressure is felt less in Galway than in Kerry, I’ve never believed that when it gets to this point of the competition. I played against enough underdogs to see the pressure they felt was as great as anything we as heavily fancied favourites were experiencing. It’s an All-Ireland final.
In towns like Tuam, they won’t have been talking about anything else. All you have to do is see all the flags to know how much it means. It can lift you but it also reminds you how much it means and the only way, in my experience, that you don’t feel pressure is if you can block out the external noise and persuade yourself the game is just another part of the process.
Kerry are expected to win. That would be the case most years but when they have a player who is regarded as one of the greatest the game has ever seen then that expectation increases. It increases on David Clifford too. I think he’s a phenomenon. His power, pace and his skill are too much for any one player to contain. But Galway won’t use one player to contain him and it is how he responds to that test which will determine the outcome of this final and go a long way to shaping his reputation.
This is the reality for Clifford. He is being positioned as one of the greatest players who has ever played the game, but you can’t do that without winning All-Irelands. Clifford isn’t playing for Carlow or Longford, he is a Kerry player and Kerry players are judged by their medals.
Some people question the players around Clifford at times but I’ve never played with a great player who didn’t raise the standards of all around them and these are the games when they do that.
This is, for me, the question mark that remains until Kerry win an All Ireland. Clifford can score for fun, he can pick up five points in a half like he did against Dublin, but this might be a different game.
Michael Jordan was scoring 40 points a match and feeling good about it until Phil Jackson came along and told him that he was a team player now, that he would judged on how deep the Chicago Bulls went into the season. They needed his points for that but they also needed an awareness of all that was around him. When he couldn’t score because of what the opposition did to stop him, he could play somebody else in instead.
This could be Clifford’s role in the final. It is a conundrum for a player as talented as he is. If he scores 1-8, Kerry will win, but if he tries to score 1-8 when Galway are cutting off all lines of attack, it might be Galway’s path to victory.
A really good game might not be him scoring, it might be a selfless act of creating space for one of the other forwards. Total selfless football.
We had it often in finals where the man of the match was somebody the public might not have expected but who we knew we could rely on in the tension of a final. Clifford’s game today might involve creating the platform for those players.
Because you can have all the talent in the world, but a final is about having the street smarts to know when to use it. Clifford has everything you would want when looking for a player but in an All Ireland final you discover one last thing: do you have the mental capacity that allows you to be patient. Against Galway, he must understand when to do the selfless thing and when to use his talents ruthlessly. The great players get this, and they do it on the big stage.
In his case, he might have to realise that he won’t be able to get the mark he wants when the high ball comes in because of the players around him. He might have to wait for the right chance to take a point but all the time he’s bringing others in to the game. Nothing else matters.
When Steven Gerrard slipped against Chelsea in 2014, people said he cost Liverpool a Premier League title. The slip didn’t but Gerrard’s reaction did nothing to help Liverpool get back into the game. He tried to score from every angle, to be the hero that would cancel out the mistake.
Clifford, like Gerrard, can do things ordinary players can only dream of but he must demonstrate a coolness against Galway as much as his ability.
He must take Kerry over the line for an All Ireland if that reputation is to stand up to scrutiny. There is no point producing the moments of magic, the shareable content that people love, if at the end of the weekend, Galway are the All Ireland champions.
If Clifford does what is required, it will be hard for Galway to stop Kerry. But it is no exaggeration to say his reputation will be shaped by what happens on an All Ireland final day. He is a leader for Kerry, he’s not an inexperienced player anymore. His legacy depends on the All Ireland medals he ends up with, and that starts with who lifts Sam Maguire on Sunday afternoon.