What has become of Kerry’s middle-aged? That’s been the standout quandary of the Super 8.
Maybe they’d prefer a different label but I’m talking about the likes of Paul Geaney, James O’Donoghue, David Moran, Peter Crowley, and Paul Murphy. The guys in their prime who need to run the show.
After the disaster against Galway, at least Kerry hung in there against Monaghan. They stayed afloat. But it was the younger players driving it.
David Clifford, Tom O’Sullivan, Gavin White and, to a lesser extent, Sean O’Shea; they all threw whatever they had at it, even if they made mistakes.
But Kerry needed more, should expect more, from the middle axis.
It has baffled people in Kerry. The feeling around is the players are better than what they are showing. It’s in there, but we haven’t seen enough of it.
My question is, where has it gone?
Is it lack of confidence? Is the pressure getting to them? Is it the strength and conditioning?
How could the team look so laboured compared to the outfit that skipped around Páirc Uí Chaoimh a few weeks earlier, even allowing for the step up in class?
I’ve mentioned before how that slump can happen. We’ve been flat in All-Ireland quarter-finals, but that was after a month’s break.
You could question everything, but ultimately it must come down to the players. Sometimes, these modern mantras about sticking to the process don’t cut it.
You can eat all the right food, you can lift all the right weights, you can do all the right things, tick the boxes, fill out diaries during the week.
But unless you bring the fight within those lines for those 70 minutes, it’s no good. At this level, teams will walk all over you.
That small word ‘process’ has taken over the GAA. Not just in Kerry, across the board. The whole sporting world has bought into it.
Players are conditioned so much on process. They’re writing down what they eat, how many hours they sleep. They’re getting to the physio every second day.
Everything is being measured and everything is being done. That’s all fine.
But it only gets you to the starting line and puts you in the position to perform. If you don’t have the fire within yourself, and the drive and the desire, it’s not worth a bean.
You might have done everything right, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen for you. And sometimes in a match when someone comes at you, and is testing you physically and mentally, you have to meet fire with fire.
That’s been the disappointing thing for me as a Kerry supporter. I know they are training well and doing everything 100% right.
But what I haven’t seen from them is the fire in the belly. The conviction to make it happen.
I’ve been in their position. You’re always looking for reassurance, to lean back on the work you’ve done, the scores you’re clocking in training. Telling yourself you’re in great shape.
But you still have to fight. Preparing for games, I was always damn sure the opposition had done video analysis on me, they’d looked at my last few games, honed in on any frailties.
I knew they were going to try and break me, mentally and maybe physically. And I had to be ready for that.
You know what they say about fortune favouring the brave. Fortune might have favoured Kerry that they are alive at all right now. But it’s not down to bravery.
Maybe the team was too settled after Munster. You had Micheál Burns and Kevin McCarthy fighting for one position but everything else seemed to be nailed down.
Everyone can talk about the A v B games being competitive and cut-throat. But were they?
Anyway, you can get a false sense of security in there sometimes, in that familiar environment, isolated from everything.
Then one bad game and the whole thing is radically changed. Let’s get Donaghy back in, let’s change the goalie. That’s unsettling too.
Won a free off Vinny Corey and should have had another. Nearly fed Gavin White for a goal and got his fingers to that Hail Mary for Clifford’s miracle at the finish.
But mainly he led by example. He might not be able to cover the ground as quickly as he used to, it looked futile for him at times, all the chasing he was asked to do. But he fought all day long. He kept going.
He gets plenty of abuse from the opposing supporters but you know what, it doesn’t bother him in the slightest. While some players might go into their shell, he nearly embraces it.
He has that hardness and knowledge that he’s been down this road before and that’s a lesson to the players around him.
And sure, it’s not easy for them. The habitat is tough in Kerry when the team is struggling. Éamonn Fitzmaurice spoke during the week about the grief players ship, on social media and whatnot.
The management understand it. Éamonn, Maurice Fitz, Mikey, Liam Hassett; they’ll all have seen the highs of winning and being told they’re great, and they’ll all have seen how vicious it can get when things aren’t working out.
They know the routine so they won’t be too sensitive about it, though no doubt it hurts them at times. But they’re the ones who have to stay calm, because they can still come out of this smiling.
Kerry are a heavyweight boxer on the ropes. But they haven’t hit the canvas yet.
The bookies still have them as third favourites for the All-Ireland, which is amazing really given their struggles. But tonight is set up for them.
Their favourite pitch, everyone doubting them, playing a team who are competitive but not world-beaters.
They’ll need the process too, but it would be a good time to bring the fight.
And if Kerry do that, I expect them to win by at least the five-point margin they may require.
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