By Frank Craig
Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston believes Sunday’s Super 8s showdown between Donegal and Kerry could be a stormer.
Their last championship meeting – the 2014 All-Ireland final – was an instantly forgettable affair. It was a cagey, dour spectacle that completely betrayed the occasion.
Donegal were a counter attacking force but Kerry were far too cute and decided against engaging. Dublin’s naivety, arrogance even, had proved their undoing in the previous semi-final. But that wasn’t where Eamon Fitzmaurice took his learnings from.
Before that decider I was fortunate enough to get a hold of Darragh Ó Sé. I remember asking him what lessons Kerry would take from that spectacular Tir Chonaill raid on the Dubs.
His instant reply was, “nothing”. He said Kerry would be better served looking at Armagh’s approach at the All-Ireland quarter finals stage. It was a fascinating statement at the time – especially from someone of Ó Sé’s stature. This was Kerry after all.
But an ordinary Orchard side had refused to be sucked into that suffocating green and gold web. They simply didn’t take the bait set by Jim McGuinness. It levelled the playing field somewhat and meant that Donegal wouldn’t be playing out the next 70 odd minutes completely on their terms. It too was another standoffish and scrappy encounter that Donegal just about edged.
But it pulled a sort of curtain back. And Kerry – even with all their style and flair – were more than prepared to put tradition and pride to one side. They stood off.
The end would ultimately justify the means. Ó Sé’s footballing premonition came to pass and the Sam Maguire was heading back south.
Fast forward five seasons and the landscape in the All-Ireland series has changed so much. Dublin scaled the mountain the immediate season after and have resided there ever since.
But something feels a little different this summer. Dublin have had their issues and it’s spawned some glimmer of hope. Much of that hope seems to centre on Kerry and Donegal.
That pair have also had their own problems and question marks do hang over both sides’ defences. But Sunday should reveal so much more about their respective potential.
What can’t be denied is that there is a more openness to how teams are now setting up. And for that reason alone, Donegal and Kerry could be a seriously entertaining affair.
Liston, speaking exclusively to the Donegal News, agrees we could have a shootout on our hands.
He said: “I’m really looking forward to it. There is a lot at stake. We still don’t know where Kerry’s true form is at. Is it what we seen against Cork? We were poor that day. Or was it what we were given last weekend against Mayo?
“Maybe our true worth is somewhere in between. I think it’s the exact same in Donegal. They’ve had some very good performances but they have been average enough at times in those games as well.
“Either side, at their brilliant best, I feel could rattle Dublin and give them a bit of a fright.
“For us, it’s going to be really interesting to see how our defence copes with the likes of Patrick McBrearty, (Jamie) Brennan, Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh.
“There are some real geniuses there.”
The game, he feels, has opened up and the entertainment factor is edging back into Gaelic football. But Liston believes it will still be the side that strikes the right balance between defence and attack, throughout the remainder of summer, that will prevail. That team, at this moment in time, remains Dublin.
He explained: “It is more expansive and that will leave more gaps. But the best sides will be the ones that are still able to find the right balance. Donegal in fairness, have shown they are more organised than Kerry.
“Dublin still look like they are ahead of everyone else. They’ll have to hit a bad day and whoever it is, Donegal, Kerry or whoever, will need to find their best effort if the Dubs are to be stopped from getting that five in a row.
“There is no doubt about it, all of Kerry will be hoping they slip up. They haven’t yet met the pressure that will come with chasing that piece of history. In a semi-final or final, coming down the stretch, trying to make history; it will be a huge burden.
“If they do it, and they show they are the team, then you’ll just have to say fair play to them. But lets see how they handle that cauldron of pressure.”
‘Bomber’ knows all about Donegal and says he’s very impressed with Shaun Patton and what he’s bringing to the equation for Declan Bonner’s side. But he signals two men in particular out for special mention.
Liston has been part of numerous International Rules management teams in the last decade with Michael Murphy and Neil McGee making lasting impressions.
On the Donegal skipper, he said: “He’d be the first pick I’d say in any forward line in Ireland. And he can play midfield and even back on his own ’40. He’s a free taker, a leader.
“Look at all his skills. He has strength, power, discipline… there is absolutely no ego. He can handle being targeted and doubled marked. And he does all that so beautifully. He has it all rolled into one. He’s a marvellous player. He’s a pleasure to watch.
“But he’s more than that. He’s a right good lad. And that was very evident in the time I spent with him on International duty. You knew right away you were in the company of greatness. He’s a special individual.”
Liston says Neil McGee was tailor-made for International Rules. And one of the players that thrived on the physicalness of the hybrid game when it was at its most bruising zenith.
“Look at the heart, strength and the pace he operates at,” he said on the Gaoth Dobhair man. “He’s another born leader. He’s ferociously competitive and to the bitter end. He plays on the edge.
“He’s a supreme footballer. But he has got that little bit of bite to him. And I know he’ll take that as a complement. Another great lad that I really enjoyed being in the company of. Any side would love to have that drive at the heart of their defence.”