By Brendan O’Brien
Éamonn Fitzmaurice has every faith that the fresher faces in his rejigged Kerry squad are ready and able to handle the step up in class when the Munster champions take on Galway in the first of their Super 8 ties this Sunday.
The evolution of the county team this year has been considerable.
The Kerry manager handed out seven Championship debuts for his side’s provincial opener against Clare in Killarney. Nine of those who took on Cork in the Munster final were playing in Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the first time as seniors.
The vast majority of the new men have been hanging on to the fringes of the senior squad for the last year or two. David Clifford is the obvious exception to that but most have visits to HQ from their underage days to call on.
“It’s all part of the development process,” said Fitzmaurice.
“They are only bursting to get up to Croke Park and play in big games so we are looking forward to see what they bring. They are only starting out in their careers so a huge performance or a not-so-good performance will just be part of the overall story at the end.
“They are well able for it and I have every faith and confidence in them.”
The effect all this change has had on the DNA of the side has been striking with veterans such as Kieran Donaghy, Darran O’Sullivan, and Killian Young coming off the bench against Cork and captain Fionn Fitzgerald failing to earn a single appearance yet this summer.
“It’s form, the squad is being picked on form,” said Fitzmaurice when asked specifically about Fitzgerald’s absences.
“There is severe competition there but, to be fair to all the lads, they have all bought into the squad mentality big time. The presence of so much new blood in the ranks has been well-timed given the extra demands the new group phase will place on those squads involved but the infusion wasn’t accelerated or timed with that fact in mind.”
Fitzmaurice doesn’t feel that the likes of Sean O’Shea, Jason Foley, Micheal Burns, or Gavin White were ready for the physicality of senior championship football 12 months ago, even if he might have turned to them by necessity had the Super 8s been in situ then.
The Kingdom enter the All-Ireland series in a curious position.
Though imperious against Clare and Cork, the inadequacies of the challenges facing them on both days has qualified the perceived worth of the wins. All the more so since the Rebels limped to an embarrassing 16-point defeat to Tyrone on Sunday.
Kerry have shown some signs of cohesion up front where they are again spoiled for choice but their defence has been on less steady ground in recent times and Cork’s Ruairi Deane exposed a familiar flaw when running at them and mining a pair of goals. Galway aren’t bad on the counter either.
“I would never hide from the fact we are very much a work in progress. We are far from the finished article. There are plenty of things we need to be working on and, of course, after the Cork game that was one of the things we would have addressed as a group.
“Does that mean we won’t concede a goal the next day? It doesn’t but it is something we worked on and we will keep working on it until we get it right. So, it’s not something I’m worried about. Sometimes you have to give credit to the opposition.”
Kerry football is in fine nick right now. The seniors, juniors, U20s, and minors are all custodians of Munster titles and Fitzmaurice is happy to feed off that positivity rather than feel burdened by any rise in expectation.
“Expectation is going to be there anyway,” he said.
That it is. Kerry can hardly exceed those expectations this month, only fall short of them by failing to secure one of the four places in the All-Ireland semi-finals. Such is the way of things in a county wedded to success and the very idea of it.
“We know we have to bring a big performance to win (the Galway) game. After that, win lose or draw, it is about who is next up and what we can do the next weekend. It will be very open and very even, throughout our group in particular.”