Is a glass ceiling hindering Kerry?
Given almost 50 league campaigns have come and gone since, it’s quite possible the last time Kerry failed to score in a half of league football before last Sunday came after 1966.
By John Fogarty
That November, though, saw Kerry fail to raise either flag in the first half of a two-point win over Wicklow in Tralee.
“Never before had I heard the men in green and gold booed of the field by their own supporters,” recalled Weeshie Fogarty, who was at that game.
The Radio Kerry analyst recalls 1903 All-Ireland winner Denny Curran saying afterwards that he had ‘never seen worse’ in his life.
Stuck on 20 All-Ireland titles since ‘62, Kerry’s dominance in Munster had come to an end earlier in ‘66. It marked the start of a particularly dark period for football in the county.
Two years later, though, Mick O’Dwyer organised a challenge game between past and present players in Tralee. The past players won by two points.
The game was the platform from which Mick O’Connell, then 31, and O’Dwyer, 30, returned to Kerry colours having earlier retired. A couple of others followed their example and Kerry went on to win the 1969 and ‘70 All-Ireland titles.
Long before William Kirby, Mike McCarthy and Eoin Brosnan, Kerry were reinventing themselves.
Jack O’Connor was the master of rediscovery, wringing every drop of effort from the glittering array of players of the last decade.
His motivation for doing these past couple of years, though, was to delay dreaded transition for as long as he could.
That ugly responsibility has fallen in the lap of Eamonn Fitzmaurice, who isn’t so fortunate to be able to ask any of those who put themselves out to pasture back to the well.
Tom O’Sullivan is only 34 and younger than Tomás Ó Sé but his appetite for the inter-county game is satiated. Tadhg Kennelly’s time is split between this country and Australia.
Tommy Walsh seems determined to make a name for himself in AFL despite a slow start since his move from St Kilda to the Sydney Swans. Micheál Quirke is only 30 this year but it’s not in midfield where Kerry’s biggest problems are anymore.
Unlike O’Connor, Fitzmaurice appears more willing to grasp the nettle. Sunday’s defeat to Mayo, while depressing, was more a frightening glimpse of what the distant future might turn out to be than a reflection of now.
How many of the team that lost on Sunday will face Tipperary in May? Eight, maybe nine?
Missing in Castlebar were three footballers of the year, making up half of six absent players in Tomás Ó Sé, Paul Galvin, Declan O’Sullivan, Eoin Brosnan, Colm Cooper and Kieran Donaghy who between them have won 28 All-Ireland medals and 20 All Stars.
Any team would struggle without such a vaunted sextet. However, each and every one of them will be either 30 or over by the summer with it more than likely this will be the final season for two if not three of them.
The biggest challenge Fitzmaurice faces is ensuring one group of older players meet the crew of younger ones as the former’s graph levels off and the latter’s rises.
He also has to carefully stage-manage the expected barrage of inter-county retirements in the next couple of years so that he isn’t overwhelmed by an exodus.
It’s a juxtaposition that involves making his younger players believe they are good enough to make the team so much as they can make the team.
In recent years, there has been a glass ceiling in the Kerry panel. But for the odd slip-up from Galvin which was punished with demotion to the bench, O’Connor was extremely loyal to a number of players who didn’t exactly repay his faith in them.
The likes of Peter Crowley and Brian Maguire were groomed in last year’s league albeit only for spots on the bench.
Shane Enright and James O’Donoghue showed it could be broken but we ask the same question we put out there last August — would they have done so had Tom O’Sullivan not retired and Tommy Walsh not headed to Oz?
To come into a star-studded Kerry panel must be a daunting experience but to assume making the first team is nigh on impossible would surely curtail some players’ motivation.
Fitzmaurice, as he stated following the game, will stick by his greener footballers. “Some of the younger players coming through, we have a lot of time for them.”
Sunday, though, will have told him a lot about what’s wheat and what’s chaff. A response from the same group of players will be demanded against Dublin on Sunday. If it ends in defeat then it ends in defeat but it must at the very least be spirited. Lest we forget, O’Connor’s reign in 2004 began with in similarly humble circumstances when a strong Kerry team lost a February league opener to Longford. An All-Ireland title was won that September.
Fitzmaurice’s task is tougher but as much as 42 minutes without a score is a heck of a wait, seven months is so much longer.
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