Ever since Stephen O’Brien revealed how a February weekend’s graft at the beach helped their recovery from losing to Dublin and Roscommon, their time there was regarded more and more as a turning point.
By September 18, the benefits of Banna Strand may still be heralded in the Kingdom. A Division 1 final defeat isn’t going to upset them. Another defeat to Dublin, though? Well, that’s what will occupy Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s thoughts on his walks with his dog along that golden stretch outside Tralee.
Sunday hasn’t so much revealed anything to Fitzmaurice as confirmed what he most likely already knew. Forgeting last year’s rain-drenched final, Kerry can stick with Dublin for around an hour but it’s in the final straight where they are left for dead. With more additional time now being played because of the 20 seconds allocated per substitute, there is a greater chance Dublin will stretch further ahead as the finishing line beckons.
On Sunday, Kerry were outscored 2-3 to no score in the last 11 minutes. In the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final, Dublin posted 2-1 in the last seven minutes, while Kerry again failed to manage a score. In the final six minutes of their final five years ago, Dublin were better again, managing 1-3 to Kerry’s 0-1. It’s simply a pathetic record.
Just as disappointing for Fitzmaurice is the little he has gained from his bench compared to Jim Gavin’s awesome auxiliaries.
In the five times the pair have squared off in Croke Park under these managers, Dublin’s substitutes have contributed 3-11 to Kerry’s 0-4. Sunday was the third of those five matches in which the Kerry bench has made no contribution to the score.
Having used 35 players, one less than Gavin, over the course of this league campaign and Anthony Maher and James O’Donoghue still to come back, it’s not as if Fitzmaurice is without choices. Paul Geaney will be a major boost when he is fully fit. However, Kerry don’t have the like-for-like personnel exchanges that Gavin enjoys.
There are already calls — and there will be more — for Kerry’s older guard to be held in reserve until the last quarter of games. Nobody was complaining when two defenders who turn 36 this year were starring in Kerry’s six-game winning run but Croke Park holds up an unflattering mirror to age. With Croke Park games in mind, we may not see Marc Ó Sé and Aidan O’Mahony start alongside each other again.
Nothing motivates Ó Sé like a chastening experience. Fitzmaurice provided him with one in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final replay and up to his injury prior to last year’s final, he still looked as if he was vexed. After being fleeced by Bernard Brogan in the build-up to Dublin’s second goal, as well as being taken for four points by his marker just four years his junior, Ó Sé hasn’t a point to prove but points. Should Kerry win Munster and progress to an All-Ireland semi-final on August 28, it’s possible he will break his brother Tomás’ all-time championship appearances record against Dublin. He won’t want to be sitting in the Hogan Stand for that throw-in.
O’Mahony has been excellent in a sweeping role this spring but when tasked with shadowing Paul Flynn, found the going tougher. A lack of discipline on his part was evident before the latest sending off. In last year’s All-Ireland final, he was black carded for bringing down Kevin McManamon. In the 2014 league opener in Croke Park, he was yellow carded for diving, having come on as a replacement. Against physical opponents like Donegal, O’Mahony thrives but he has struggled when the muscle has been matched by manic movement.
It’s also getting to the stage now where Kerry must choose if it pays to start Kieran Donaghy when he doesn’t seem to be getting his just rewards from referees. Both Eddie Kinsella and David Coldrick have turned down legitimate penalty claims by Donaghy in the last seven months. His constant jabbering with officials doesn’t help his cause, though, and he’s turned into the-boy-who-cried-wolf sort of figure.
Fitzmaurice must take so much into account now as Kerry look ahead to their warm weather training in Portugal next month. The challenge will appeal to him. In 2014, he worked the oracle, emulating what Donegal put in front of Kerry. In 2013, he saw goals against Dublin when nobody else did. Last year, he took responsibility for Kerry’s abject All-Ireland final performance and yet he remains the most astute tactician in his county.
If there is a way to beat Dublin apart from saying novenas, that they may be struck down with a torrent of injuries, Fitzmaurice will find it. A man who made triumph out of transition and fashioned an All-Ireland title without Colm Cooper has earned that trust.
Dublin’s biggest rivals are themselves
It wasn’t so long ago when there was a suggestion in Armagh all-conquering Crossmaglen should be made the county’s ready-made represen tatives in the Ulster Club SFC and the rest compete for intermediate honours. How long before something similar is proposed in Leinster as the Dublin juggernaut look set for another cakewalk under Jim Gavin?
The only group now asking questions of them are themselves.
It was noted by observers on Sunday how Philly McMahon, Diarmuid Connolly, and Cormac Costello were each advised by selector Mick Deegan to do better than they had been doing. McMahon and Connolly’s efforts were deemed insufficient to remain on and the pair were duly whisked off.
Unlike the late Noughties when Brian Cody was blessed with an array of stars, we will likely see McMahon and Connolly start in Nowlan Park the next day because they are afforded to opportunity to make amends and should take it.
But the benchmark is rising each time. Paul Mannion has put on 8kg of muscle in his return to the group. After the semi-final win over Donegal, there was no socialising. It was strictly business. At times, it appears the current Dublin outfit is devoid of fun. The possibility of both Jack McCaffrey and Rory O’Carroll lining out in the Chicago championship this summer might point to the necessity of an escape valve.
They aren’t yet being missed, though. The show must go on.
Banner County’s Brennan an early All Star contender
One look at the paltry 8,362 crowd that attended Saturday’s Division 3 and 4 finals would suggest the games should be moved away from Croke Park. The figure alone hardly justified opening the stadium.
Yet for the players of Antrim, Clare, and Louth, if not Kildare, it would have meant everything. And once more we were treated to another jaw-dropping example of leadership on the Croke Park turf by Clare captain Gary Brennan.
Following on from his brilliance against the Australians there in last November’s International Rules test, Brennan was the catalyst for the county’s comeback victory over Kildare.
For club, county, province and country, the Clondegad man has been a marvel and deserves all the plaudits coming his way. It’s on the big occasion that he has truly come into his own. Give the man a stage and he will sing. Should Clare see off Limerick next month, there would be nothing Brennan would like better than to duel with Kerry’s midfield pair in Killarney in a June Munster semi-final.
It’s 24 years since Seamus Clancy won the county’s one and only football All-Star but Brennan appears to be their greatest shout of a second since that famous season.
Yes, it is early to be talking about such things and an early Clare championship exit would put paid to such suggestions. But there is more to be believed than doubted about this Colm Collins’ team - most notably their captain.