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Dean Rock: Time for Kerry to move up a gear in their quest to reclaim Sam

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It’s moving weekend for Kerry. Having quietly gone about their business until this point, it feels like the Kingdom are finally about to make some noise.

Kerry’s championship has been a series of routine victories over middle ranking opponents – they won four of their five matches by double digits.

Three of their championship outings were against Division Two teams – Cork, Meath and Louth – one against a Division Three side (Clare), while Monaghan were relegated from Division One.

Derry are the Division One National League champions. So, on the face of it, perhaps it’s understandable there is a school of thought that Kerry might be undercooked entering Sunday’s All-Ireland quarter-final.

But I’m expecting a big performance from Jack O’Connor side, because nothing on Kerry’s journey to this stage would have come as a surprise to them – they always planned to be in Croke Park this weekend and they’d have figured on getting here with minimal fuss.

I have no doubt Kerry have been timing their run and we’ll see them start to pick up the pace now. It’s not as if this is a scenario they haven’t previously experienced. Indeed, not only do I expect a big performance from Kerry, but I reckon they will beat Derry pretty convincingly.

Because if Kerry’s route to this point has been relatively straightforward and incident-free, Derry’s journey has been unconventional and chaotic.

I felt last week’s trip to Castlebar was going to be a real test of their character and, to be fair, they came away from MacHale Park with a significant victory. But the bar goes up another level again now because, with the greatest of respect to Mayo, I don’t believe that Mayo team are anywhere near the level of Kerry right now.

Had Mayo started strongly last weekend, Derry might have folded because they are still not operating at the level they were during the league. Derry are still fragile. However, Kevin McStay’s men weren’t able to deliver a knockout blow.

So, Kerry will look to put Derry on the back foot from the off in Croke Park, build up an early lead and test the resilience and desire of their opponents.

Despite the lack of a serious challenge and this perception Kerry are vulnerable by consequence of not having dug out wins from hard-fought matches, my hunch is they will be quite happy and content in terms of where they are at four weeks out from a potential All-Ireland final.

I can remember similar concerns doing the rounds about Dublin in relation to the Leinster championship for many years. It was suggested that a lack of competitive games in the provincial championship could leave us in danger of getting caught in the All-Ireland series.

Personally, I always felt there was a bit much made of it. The really good players generally rise to whatever level is put in front of them, these are the games they have been waiting for all season.

The Kerry players have been aware for months that the real test of their abilities lies beyond Munster and beyond the round-robin stages. The trick was to get to the end of June without key players picking up injuries – and they look to have negotiated that pretty well.

Graham O’Sullivan is coming back from injury and is named among the subs while Brian Ó Beaglaoich played the full match against Meath – the first time in two years he started and finished a game for the Kingdom, and he is again named in the first 15 for Sunday.

But when we talk about Kerry’s key players, clearly David Clifford and Seán O’Shea are central to their All-Ireland ambitions.

Having two players of that talent causes real headaches for opposing managers – because you have to put a lot of emphasis on curtailing those guys.

But that can free up other players to take advantage of the space created by double-ups on Clifford and O’Shea. And when they both play inside, it forces the opposition sweeper to also drop deep and take a position around the 20m line.

When the sweeper is situated there, that suits Kerry because it opens up space for their running game. And they have loads of options in that regard, with players driving forward and popping over scores.

The conundrum for the opposition then is – if Kerry are hurting you with their running game, should you push the sweeper further out the field to halt that closer to source? Because if you do push the sweeper out, you are creating an environment that allows Kerry to execute those kick passes in behind to Clifford and O’Shea.

Derry will be hoping to build a platform at midfield with Conor Glass and Brendan Rogers, so Kerry will need big performances from Diarmuid O’Connor and Joe O’Connor.

I rate Shane Ryan highly and his kickouts will be crucial. I’d expect Derry to push up at certain times and look to put a massive squeeze on Kerry restarts, which means there will be lots of contests around the middle and we are likely to see a lot of breaking ball battles. I think Kerry can hold their own in that area.

But if Derry do get joy on the kickouts, they must make it count on the scoreboard – because they haven’t been scoring enough recently to scare the top teams. Derry’s highest scoring return in a championship match this year is 0-17. Kerry’s lowest scoring return is 0-18.

Of course, there will be some extra resonance to the game on Sunday given the sad passing of Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh during the week.

My dad would have done a lot of match commentaries alongside Micheál, and as a kid I would have regularly tagged along. He was an incredible man, I can still remember him telling me he could see me playing for Dublin – long before that even felt like a possibility.

He was that kind of a grandad figure, you loved meeting him. His daughter, Doireann, would be there too at the matches and I’d be sitting beside her going through the programme.

There would have been family Sunday drives as well where dad would make sure we were all in the car for the start of whatever match was on, and so invariably you’d have Micheál’s voice filling the car for the entire trip.

You’d have been kicking around in the garden at times too when you’d find yourself self-commentating and using some of Micheál’s phrases. He was a national institution and his voice was a feature in the lives of so many people.

Micheál’s impact and legacy will continue to be present in the GAA for many years to come. As for his county’s footballers, chances are they will continue to feature in the championship beyond this weekend too.

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