Kerry footballers in search of their aura

The aura of invincibility that they cultivated through winning, which has since been annexed by Dublin, must be regained, writes John Fogarty.
Kerry footballers in search of their aura

A wry smile broke across Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s face on Sunday upon hearing at the fifth time of asking he had won an opening day league fixture. He wasn’t informed by the statistic – he would have already known – but being reminded of it amused him.

If 2017 is to be a success for him then he should get used to it. Records need straightening. This Saturday offers another opportunity to right a wrong – in his previous four first home league games of the year, Kerry have lost on each occasion (Dublin 2013, Derry ’14, Mayo ’15 and Roscommon ’16). Not since 2009 when they beat Donegal in Austin Stack Park have Kerry won their debut game on their own sod.

Their next opponents Mayo would make a strong case for claiming they have been hurt more by Dublin than Kerry these last two seasons, but if Jack O’Connor’s assertion a year without an All-Ireland in the Kingdom is the equivalent of 55 in Mayo then the opposite is true.

It’s a year that may just be decided by who has been wounded most by Dublin. Driving back from Letterkenny, a call came through from a Mayo man, who would know a thing or 20 about football.

“They’re gunning for Dublin,” he said suddenly. “Who?” I asked. “Kerry.” “How do you mean?” I asked again. “Their words. You can tell.” Fitzmaurice, Donnchadh Walsh and Paul Geaney have all spoken publicly these last couple of weeks. They mightn’t have mentioned Dublin at all had they not been asked about them but the sting is surely there.

It’s no coincidence all three have used the phrase “hit the ground running” just as they have made no secret the All-Ireland champions consume a lot of their thoughts. How could they not?

Fitzmaurice’s interview in Saturday’s Irish Times succinctly articulated the pain. Stopping Dublin doing the three-in-a-row, he said, is not a motivation. “It’s not, being honest. They have inflicted so much hurt on us going back to 2011 we don’t need any extra motivation. It’s not. Look, the history books and all that stuff . . . it is something you think about after you finish up. The immediacy is just about trying to get a win over them. We don’t need any additional motivation. We couldn’t need it.”

If they are to do it, they have to be more like themselves. The aura of invincibility that they cultivated through winning, which has since been annexed by Dublin, must be regained. Claiming leagues formed the platform for O’Connor’s three All-Ireland successes. Twice Cork checked them but the belief they had generated from earlier in the year ensured those defeats were nothing more than speed ramps.

Across four seasons with nine wins and one draw, Kerry under Fitzmaurice have made Munster their playground. Neither Cork nor Tipperary look like breaking that authority so the opportunity to extend the momentum from the league is there. Based on Letterkenny, Fitzmaurice realises what Kerry do now can echo further into the season. Mayo and Tipperary were exceptions last year but success bred success for Dublin (94% win rate) as it did Tyrone (69%, one defeat) as it did themselves (66%).

Kerry have been the part but looking it is just as essential. Diarmuid Murphy as a selector was a hard act to follow yet seeing a mic-ed Maurice Fitzgerald perched alongside Mikey Sheehy in the O’Donnell Park stand on Sunday couldn’t but impress. The word is in training Fitzgerald can’t stop preaching the necessity of the kick-pass. The impression created by his appointment, like the one given by the county’s overwhelming minor success, speaks volumes.

Last June, Darragh Ó Sé wrote Cork appeared to be immune to shame. Going down to this Dublin side is nothing to be embarrassed about but Ó Sé would have had reason to look within his own county borders for a team who didn’t seem to be affected by constant failure against a team. Pain alone won’t do it, though. Kerry must allow themselves to feel better about themselves. If they are to be supreme this year then it has to be about them more than stopping Dublin. We saw the last time it became about the other team for them – the qualifier win over Tyrone in 2012 – and how it meant little in the grand scheme of the summer.

In Letterkenny, there was a confidence about Kerry not seen in February for years. They could have won by double figures but chose not to. They could have humiliated Donegal but chose not to. Knowing they were capable of doing so was more than enough.

Retired Irish Independent GAA and athletics journalist Tom O’Riordan was fondly known for declaring he had seen the would-be All-Ireland champions earlier in the season. As a Kerry native, such an announcement on February 5 about his own would have him swelling with pride. Even in the era of a most dominant force in Dublin, Kerry are making the type of noises that can’t be ignored.

Kelly just can’t be another Canning

If we don’t see “Make Cork Great Again” red caps before the year is out then for shame Ireland’s entrepreneurial scene. Likewise, if somebody in the GAA merchandise area doesn’t capitalise on the genius of Tony Kelly soon they are missing a trick.

“Tony Kelly – Master At Work” has a nice ring and succinctly sums up his Semple Stadium display on Saturday. His Ballyea team-mate and man-of-the- match Niall Deasy said last week attempting to man-mark is a redundant exercise. Never have truer words been said.

Before Christmas following his Munster Club heroics, there was a strong online debate about whether Kelly could already be considered the best hurler in the game. After all, in 2013 he became the first in history to claim the game’s top individual honours, player and young player of the year, before Austin Gleeson achieved the feat last season.

Not since Joe Canning has so much expectation rested on one’s shoulders. Kelly, unlike Canning, has been to the summit, though. What’s more, he has shown with Ballyea he can bring the best out of those around him. That hasn’t been the case with Clare this past while where there has been a reliance on him, as there previously was with Galway and Canning, to save them.

Starting on Saturday in Páirc Uí Rinn, Clare must find ways of weaning off their dependency on Kelly. The chance comes by accident rather than design but it must be taken. Canning’s is hardly a tale of regret Galway are becoming more multi-faceted and have a fine chance of ending “the wait since ‘88” this year – but it’s a story that must be heeded. If Clare are to succeed Kelly has to be matched, not used as a crutch.

Do Down actually care?

There’s a reason why The Wire is one of the most quotable TV series of all time.

There’s a line for everything, even the pitiful demise of Down’s inter-county footballers. After seeing some of what happened and speaking to people who were in Newry on Saturday night, the conversation between Bunk, a detective, and Omar, the notorious stick-up man, came to mind. Bunk lambastes Omar for his latest violent tirade. He reminds him of how they went to the same school when their neighbourhood had a community. He lashes out (we’ll remove the expletive): “Makes me sick how far we done fell.” Does it make anybody sick in Down just how much they have descended these last 22 months? It doesn’t seem so. In that time, they have lost 13 straight matches. Their last victory came in April 2015. Eamon Burns has yet to experience either a victory or even a draw in that time.

Two years ago, Jim McCorry earned promotion to Division 1 but the board executive’s reaction to an early qualifier defeat left him feeling unwanted. His 45% win rate puts Burns’ record to shame but there was no rush by Down to hang out one of their own after a sharp championship exit last year. Pride comes before the fall but Down remain arrogant as they descend further into obscurity.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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