Around the 40m line on the open terrace in Tralee, two feet frozen but the heart warming, we ticked off the little tests this new Kerry side were passing, one by one. Work-rate and support? Yes. Gameplan? Yes. Young lads standing up? Absolutely. Senior players reenergised? Definitely. Decision-making under pressure? Most of the time, writes Colm Cooper.
It was my first time seeing Peter Keane's new regime. Tralee in February is very different from Croke Park in August. And a Dublin side nowhere near full pelt still racked up twenty points. But the intensity, the want and the willingness of the Kerry players to run themselves to a standstill wasn't long firing me and every other local supporter up. We came with plenty of questions and left Austin Stack Park with lots of positives.
How would this new look, young Kerry side fare against a seasoned, clinical Dublin team? Encouragingly well as it transpired. The standout feature was Kerry's appetite and application for work. Those who had seen their first two wins over Tyrone and Cavan reckoned Keane and his management had set the team up very defensively. I didn't see it like that. They are working like dogs. They don't have a full-time extra man in defence. Diarmuid O'Connor hovered around midfield and Paul Murphy held his ground. But generally, they went man-for-man and filtered back when they didn't have the ball. Players aren't just concerning themselves with their own man, they are harassing, tackling and trying to smell danger. We haven't seen from Kerry in a while.
Last season Kerry defended individually. They were marking man and hoping everyone else was doing the same. There was no secondary help. The opposition were not being pressured in the middle third, hence playing the ball uncontested into one-on-one situations. Not now. Kerry are tighter and more physical in all sectors.
Briain O Beaglaoich had a huge battle with Paul Mannion which, in key moments, he came off second best in. But the Gaeltacht man played the whole match. He never threw in the towel and that was telling, just as it was that management left him on for the duration.
Dara Moynihan was cramping towards the end, Jack Barry was blowing hard down in front of us as he chased Brian Fenton back in the closing stages. Kerry started to make mistakes that were as much physical as mental. A Mark Griffin pass went astray, as did a David Moran sideline. Tommy Walsh missed a handy mark, and they conceded a soft free for Dublin to level it. But after all that, Kerry showed huge composure to set up the attack wide and time their runs to create the opening for Peter Crowley's winning point. That is hugely encouraging in itself.
A lot of the Kerry performances were quietly effective, and that's the way Peter Keane wants them to be. Think about what Adrian Spillane and Jack Barry did? You couldn't say they were massively influential in ball-playing terms, but they did all the dirty work superbly. The stuff that only colleagues and management notice. Barry did a marking job on Fenton. Peter Kelly did the same job in Clones for Monaghan. Counties in the top tier are learning that Fenton is the heartbeat of Dublin and you have to make special provisions for him.
The players got a lot of flak last year, but Kerry people underestimated the job Eamonn Fitzmaurice had in blooding seven championship newcomers. They just weren't ready to knock the likes of Dublin off their perch. Now with a winter behind them, they look further down the line. It's beginning to take shape.
David Clifford will be a huge addition, maybe Kevin McCarthy if he can bring his Kilcummin form into the set up, and also the likes of Gavin White. I am beginning to see the shape of a team emerging now. It's only three games into a new season, but there's a sense in Kerry that this is a project we can all hitch our wagons to. I went for coffee in Killarney Sunday morning, and the lift it has given everybody around is amazing. A lot of the younger lads are not carrying any of the baggage of defeats to Dublin since 2011. They are used to winning. If you were to characterise their performance for an hour last night, you will call it fearless.
That was typified by Tom O'Sullivan. He was the best player in the Kerry county championship last year. Dingle gave him a free licence and he used it well but my question was how he would cope defensively when pressured. On the basis of Saturday night, he has not shown me anything to be worried about.
The players are working so hard in all sectors of the field. Example: Stephen O'Brien, Sean O'Shea, Diarmuid O'Connor and others in the middle third all getting pressure on the Dubs, forcing them to go laterally and backwards. If you hop a ball in front of Mannion, O'Callaghan and Costello, it's very difficult to mark them one-on-one there - particularly when the ground is hard in Croke Park. But this Kerry group are all hands to the pump.
Dublin didn't need Tralee to inform them that they still need to solve the size issue in defence. Cluxton's absence covers a multitude in terms of ball retention, but his return won't help the fact that they struggle with size. Dublin's biggest threat going forward from midfield was James McCarthy, who kicked three points. But when Tommy Walsh went in for Kerry, they had to drop the Ballymun man back because they were mismatched back there. Geaney won two frees, and the Kerry goal came from an aerial bomb. Murchan, Fitzsimons and Cooper are all speed merchants but they can't deal authoritatively with pressure from the skies. Even against Monaghan, when they went direct to McManus, there was problems.
It's no coincidence that Dublin have played two away games and came up short both times. If people think playing outside Croke Park doesn't make a difference to the Dubs, they are wrong. Donegal's motion to Congress regarding Dublin's Croke Park games should be an interesting debate and one that shouldn't be decided on the basis of finance. It bestows an unfair advantage on them to have two Super 8 games at headquarters. They're still No 1 in the country. But the league is a proper indicator of where everyone should be ranked. The fact that it's graded means you've no mismatches. Look at yesterday's Division 1 and 2 games, most of them one-score affairs. The League format is showing that gaelic football is alive and not everything has to be at Croke Park.
Kerry are coming. They are on the right track. I am getting excited at what their forward line will look like come championship. Might they have with four out-and-out forwards and two grafters? Clifford, Geaney, O'Donoghue, Sean O'Shea and Stephen O'Brien might have seemed in pole position at the start of the year, but suddenly there's a different conversation kicking off.