Stephen O’Brien knows a thing or two about impressive entrances.
The Kenmare man’s first competitive game of senior ball for Kerry came five years ago and, while the Kingdom came up agonisingly short of Dublin in Croke Park that evening, the newcomer made his mark with a pair of points that were particularly pleasing to the eye.
Paul Murphy presented himself for a first dance in the big ballroom that is the county game that same day but the Kingdom has rarely ushered as many on to that floor in one go and with as much grace as has been the case this season under Peter Keane.
Talk of this ‘young’ Kerry team has been rife though it has drifted somewhere between simplistic and unsound.
Unbeaten through their four league games in Division One this spring, the new Kerry management started nine of the same players each of those days and another four have featured in the full quartet either as starters or substitutes. In all, 25 men have been handed game time so far.
The squad lost yet another heavy chunk of experience and talent during the off-season with the departures of vets such as Kieran Donaghy and Darran O’Sullivan, but they accounted for Galway last Sunday with a side lacking no little nous.
Keane’s success has been in getting the volume of new blood just right, with the majority of it being pooled in the opposition half.
Diarmuid O’Connor, Gavin O’Brien, and Dara Moynihan all roamed around Tuam last week and having Tommy Walsh was akin to the introduction of a new player too.
In company like that, Sean O’Shea qualified for senior rank in what is just his second season while O’Brien... well, five years at the coal face must have made him feel like a lifer, but he has been impressed with the injection of so much raw potential from the underage ranks.
“They are unreal. They are very talented and they are taking to it like a duck to water. We knew that those young lads were going to be very good because they won so much at underage. It is great to see them coming through now.
Tomás Ó Sé typified that lack of inhibition six days ago when introduced in injury-time and Kerry a point down to Galway thanks to the concession of a scrappy 65th-minute goal. Within seconds, he had hared through for a point. Shortly after and he set Tom O’Sullivan up for another.
“Yeah, he made a serious impact,” says O’Brien. “That was a great score to kick.”
The character Kerry have shown in claiming their eight points has been clear. Late, late scores were required to see off Dublin, Cavan, and Galway. Only on the first day, at home to Tyrone, have they enjoyed anything like a buffer and that was built on some exceptional defence.
No-one would say it has been a becalmed ride. Kerry looked rudderless for stages away to Cavan and Galway so, while the mood is high, there is no temptation to think that the living has been easy.
“We won the last two games by a point so they could easily have been two losses,” said O’Brien. “So I don’t think anyone is getting carried away, but it is nice to be coming out the right side of it. It is nice to string a few wins together.”
Excitement is permitted, all the same.
Keane still have David Clifford and James O’Donoghue to reintroduce to the new ecosystem and they did fine without the likes of Paul Geaney and David Moran last week when the return of Walsh to a starting 15 for the first time in three years dominated the discourse.
The Kerins O’Rahillys man turned 31 two days after his star turn in Galway and, after years ‘lost’ to his time in the AFL and, on his return, to injury frustrations, he gave a performance that merited comparison with anything delivered in his Kerry pomp a decade before.
And he’s having an effect beyond the park, too.
“He’s a huge vocal presence in the dressing room,” said O’Brien. “He has obviously been a professional athlete for five years so he has that depth of knowledge to draw on. That is huge for me, so I just can’t imagine what it is like for the young fellows to be learning off him.”