COLM COOPER: For Kerry’s coming class, it’s time to sit their first real exam

Don’t judge me. If I’m on trial for soaking up the splendours of the south of France this week, looking out at the mile-high yachts of Roman Abramovich and the like, I am guilty as charged, writes Colm Cooper. 

My defence? It was something I never got to do in 15 summers with Kerry, but the other-world experience didn’t last. It was straight back to the matter at hand yesterday in Croke Park, where Kerry GAA had a fundraiser. Kerry GAA doesn’t have Roman’s millions but much of the chat was of the county’s own assets and the exciting vista they present for the future.

I don’t reckon I’d much luck dousing expectation but Kerry supporters would still do well to get a grip. I am as excited as anyone in the county at the raft of prospects coming through from the underage grades, but in the context of what they have faced thus far, it is worth pointing out the fact their Honours Paper starts tomorrow in Croke Park. With Paper II a week later in Clones. Talk to me then.

That there is serious young talent coming through in Kerry is beyond dispute. But ‘coming through’ is still the appropriate term. They haven’t arrived yet. Proper tests are now at their doorstep, and we will get an excellent insight into these young lads over the next three to four weeks. 

For Kerry’s coming class, it’s time to sit their first real exam

And even if it doesn’t work out well for a few of them, it’s not the end of the road. They have time, and loads of it. But if they can prove themselves over the next few weeks, certainly you can say they have arrived. They are ready to take on the mantle.

So why the handbrake on hype? Because they will face individual and collective tests against Galway tomorrow and Monaghan a week later that they have yet to experience on a football pitch.

Going up to Clones, facing Galway in Croke Park and their aggressive zone set-up is going to be an interesting problem for the likes of Sean O’Shea and David Clifford to solve.

Sixteen years ago against the same opposition they face tomorrow, I earned my stripes as a Kerry footballer.

I had played for Kerry in 2001, but the All-Ireland quarter-final of 2002 was against Galway, the reigning All-Ireland champions and I was being marked by Corofin’s Kieran Fitzgerald, the reigning young footballer of the year.

It was my first time playing a big Championship game in Croke Park and ultimately I needed to know whether I could cut it on the big stage — which is Croke Park for a Kerry footballer.

I did my stuff that day and I knew then this wasn’t a stage too big for me. The injection of self-belief that comes from knowing you belong in this sort of environment is a rush few young men get to experience.

You need something like that, a gut test. I saw Kieran Fitzgerald, Galway and Croke Park as a real big challenge.

It was something that gave me huge confidence.

For Kerry’s coming class, it’s time to sit their first real exam

Tyrone’s dismantling of Cork last Saturday offered a different perspective on the Munster final in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and how fast the development of Jason Foley, Gavin White, Sean O’Shea, and David Clifford has actually been. Tomorrow we learn a little more. There’s a quantum leap in class from here on in. They must be prepared for that. At this level if you make mistakes, you are put to the knife. The closer you get to winning a tournament, the steeper the climb in standards and if you can’t rise and meet them, you won’t survive individually and you’ll be exposed as a fault line in the team.

Fact of life: The best teams get better as the season goes on.

Let’s say Jason Foley has a bad moment early in tomorrow’s opening Super 8 game. The challenge is more in the top six inches than anywhere else. Can he steady the ship, does he have the tools to put it out of his head and not only survive but thrive? Nine years ago in an All-Ireland final against Cork, Tommy Griffin got done for an early Colm O’Neill goal. It was a seminal moment in his career but he powered into the game in heroic fashion afterwards.

What about if Galway beat Kerry tomorrow? Have those young fellas the maturity to go from Croke Park straight into another big test in Clones? At half five Sunday evening, one provincial champion is going to have to regroup very quickly. That is one of the intriguing elements of this new format: Not just the turnaround, but the psychological baggage carried from one week to the next.

Bad and all as Cork were in the Munster final, they could have had three first-half goals, and that remains a problem for Kerry. That Éamonn Fitzmaurice gave Foley the marking job on Luke Connolly was a statement of intent and support and one I didn’t see coming. It was also a massive indication of trust by management in the young Ballydonoghue defender.

For Kerry’s coming class, it’s time to sit their first real exam

My own club-mate Gavin White is going to be a Kerry star for many years to come if he stays injury-free. The Kerry we are putting so much store in for the future will be built around the Cliffords, O’Sheas, and this fella. I knew from day one he’s a Rolls Royce player and only going to get better. Not only is he a really good performer, but his attitude is outstanding.

Paul Geaney’s scoring exploits deserved plaudits in the Munster final, but White’s was a man of the match performance in its own right.

He has been a star at home for the past two county championships and our run to the All-Ireland club in 2017. Pace is his biggest asset, but I’ve been astounded by how much he has developed the physical side of his game since he went in with Kerry last November and got a run without injury problems.

Gavin’s gone to another level again, and against a backdrop of being out of football for six months with a persistent groin issue. How many footballers can you remember in Ireland who can come into a set-up with zero senior experience behind him, not even a league game, and perform as he has for the first two games of the championship? That’s astonishing and only happens with top, top players.

That athleticism will be his most important ally tomorrow against a Galway attack with the fast, hard-running intensity of Heaney, Brannigan, Walsh, and Damien Comer.

Kerry won’t deviate from their horses for courses policy and they will have used a Carton House training camp to fine-tune those defensive match-ups.

The first thing I will look for is the Galway set-up, and the second thing will be whether Kerry defenders push onto their deep-lying Galway forwards or sit and hold. Presumably the former.

I was present for three of the four provincial finals this summer, and the one thing that stuck with me was the role of Eoin Brannigan of Galway in their Connacht final.

This lad is a serious flying machine, but he played ultra-defensively against Roscommon, which I couldn’t reconcile with the show he put on in the league in Tralee against Kerry where he caused us untold bother by running hard at Kerry’s defence. Then he wasn’t an offensive threat at all in Hyde Park so it will be instructive to see what Kevin Walsh does with him tomorrow.

If Walsh wants to be aggressive and on the front foot in Croke Park, he will be looking at Kerry’s frailties, but will they push those buttons tomorrow? I’d be gobsmacked if I see Galway playing conventionally with six, or even five, forwards because that demands a change of their basic shape and gameplan which would represent a massive gamble at this delicate point of the season.

But if Galway, or any side, is playing with a deep-lying set-up and extra men back, then you are still coughing up a lot of possession unless you’ve been years fine-tuning the system. And while that may be fine against Roscommon or Sligo, does Walsh really want to give Kerry that much of the ball? Galway may play with only two up at times and look to force Kerry down blind alleys with their structured defence, but I am not sure that game really gets you to where you want to go. That sort of team needs to be remarkably clinical.

If Kerry can hit the front early, Galway will be in bother. It’s too early to be throwing garlands at these young Kerry lads, but it’s worth pointing out that Éamonn Fitzmaurice has brought the project along very quietly, but rapidly, since March. If the full-back line still has question marks over it, the other lines seem to have bedded in sharpish, and there’s a lovely coherence to almost everything they do.

The next, critical, step is bringing all that to a Championship Sunday in Croke Park.

Something else: Don’t be surprised if Kerry’s decisive game isn’t this one, but Sunday week in Clones. Monaghan face Kildare in Croke Park tomorrow and Malachy O’Rourke’s players are going to have a massive say in Group 1. For a side that has come through the qualifiers, they are lightly-raced, despite a relatively shallow squad.

Meeting and beating Waterford, Leitrim and at a bit of a push, Laois is a schedule their management could hardly have plotted better themselves.

Yes, Kildare have some momentum, but if that convinces you, fine. I’m not, and the scores they racked up against Mayo and Fermanagh will be a lot harder earned tomorrow.

Expect Monaghan to end the day with two points.

 

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