DARA O'CINNEIDE: More than a minor matter for Kerry

Both Kerry and Tipperary have some serious questions to answer

Watching the Tipperary minors overrun their Kerry counterparts on a cold April evening just six weeks ago, we may have got a glimpse of the way things might be in the future.

Big loose-limbed Tipperary players such as Ian Fahey and Philip Quirke lording it over the boys in green and gold and dynamic wing men such as Bill Maher and Jason Lonergan riding shotgun and beguiling Kerry defenders with their purposeful running. It was clever, methodical and novel to see Tipperary beat Kerry with such panache for the second year in a row.

Kerry may yet get to bridge the gap between the teams in July but it struck me that evening in Tralee that Tipperary’s progress at underage level is born of wisdom and humility. Those charged with the promotion of the game had the wisdom to invest their time and energies in the development of latent talent at a very young age and, crucially perhaps, the humility to accept the scene needed to be changed.

Out of the flurry of pre-championship press events this week emerged Colm Cooper’s question regarding whether or not they can maintain recent progress at senior level in a county where the minority sport tends to have its peaks and troughs. Despite all the good vibes at minor and U21, there is no doubt the senior team are currently in downtime.

Drawing Kerry three years in a row and watching teams on the other side of the draw have their Munster final days in the sun can depress morale. When Tipperary were climbing from Divisions 4 to 3 to 2 a few years back, it might have been easier to accept facing the Munster behemoth early in the championship but the slide back began only two years ago was unfortunate in that it also coincided with those fatal May meetings with Goliath.

John Evans’ role in the revival and subsequent demise of the current bunch of Tipperary players should neither be overstated nor understated. The optimism, energy and self-belief Evans brought to the table in the early days could never be nourished or sustained on a diet of mediocrity. Perhaps Voltaire was right; maybe optimism is the madness of insisting all is well when we are miserable.

Things came to a head after the 12-point defeat away to Sligo on St Patrick’s weekend. Evans duly walked, seemingly drained of optimism and unable to keep some of the best young players in the county from eyeing up the far away hills of America for the second year in a row.

It’s little over a year ago that Barry O’Brien, former chairman of Tipperary GAA, said the county could play in an All-Ireland senior football final by 2020 and Evans himself matched that ambition by saying he could envisage his charges playing “a serious category of football” by 2014. Such hopes seem naive now and it would be even more dispiriting to see Tipperary fall further back tomorrow.

Whether or not that happens depends mainly on Kerry’s mindset and on how keen the newcomers are to impress.

The minty fresh full-back line of Enright, Bohan and Young have buckets of pace but it remains to be seen if they have the street-smarts to nullify the top forwards in the game and to get the ball out of the danger zone as safely and as quickly as their supporters would like. Philip Austin gave Tom O’Sullivan plenty to think about in the first half two years ago in Semple and Michael Quinlivan brings an element of unpredictability. But the protection given by Bryan Sheehan, Anthony Maher, Paul Galvin and Darran O’Sullivan to those behind them should ensure that a repeat of Austin’s wonder goal of two years ago is unlikely. The 1-77 scored by Tipperary in seven league games this spring hardly points to any hidden potency up front either.

Peter Crowley’s selection in the half-back line is a reward for some explosive performances in the league. Kerry people will welcome an extra attacking dimension to an already offensive line but Crowley must be mindful of augmenting his ball-carrying ability with a more aggressive approach to the tackle.

The debate up front centres on the omission of Kieran Donaghy and the selection of Kieran O’Leary at wing-forward.

I know from harsh experience that the weeks between the end of the league and the first round of the championship are a time for observation. Word has it that Kerry have trained harder than usual for the transition between league and championship this time and we can only assume Donaghy hasn’t held up well under observation while Kieran O’Leary has.

I had a similar experience as captain of the team in 2004 and ended up out in the cold for the only time of my championship career. It was humbling, chastening and even downright humiliating but the key is to get busy doing what you did best and doing so on a consistent basis.

There is a groundswell of opinion in Kerry that says one of the reasons last year’s All-Ireland final was lost was because Donaghy did not start at full-forward. Those of us who were enthused and intrigued by some of his showings at wing-forward during the league had hoped to learn more of the possibilities but it appears we’ll have to wait. O’Leary must feel some kind of karmic justice is taking effect because his reward for a recent spurt of form is in direct contrast to the price paid for his opening 20 minutes in that fateful final last September.

Either way, O’Leary offers a busy outlet and link man at half-forward doing what he did best last season, only further out the field.

Nothing beats being there, the latest GAA slogan says. By the time the footballers clear the floor for the real show at 4pm tomorrow, those who make the pilgrimage from Kerry will hope to have seen a few minor revelations to add to their hopes and expectations going to Páirc Uí Chaoimh in a fortnight’s time.

As with all Munster championship games, victory alone is no longer sufficient unto the day.


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