There was always going to be a certain fascination with seeing what this young, fresh-faced Kerry side could produce in Fitzgerald Stadium on Sunday, considering so many had never been on the senior championship stage before.
Nearly half the starting team still wet behind the ears, the most debutants Kerry have unveiled in a single sitting since 1975.
While still only a cub, I was old enough in 1992 to remember the drama caused by Clare beating a Kerry team in a real shock and awe championship moment.
Funnily enough, in the official match programme last Sunday, a page listed the Munster championship encounters between the two sides since 1904, with one notable exception; ’92 had been seemingly erased from the records books in Kerry, if not totally gone from memory. The Munster Council came out later that night to clarify that the list only represented semi-final clashes, but the salt was already in the wounds of the Clare faithful.
There were tailbacks heading to Killarney from every direction, brought on by the 16,000-plus supporters eager to say they were there to witness either a new dawn or a kick in the pants for a bunch of upstarts.
Before the game, it was difficult to contextualise where this Kerry side were at. There were too many variables to predict with any great certainty that they were capable of delivering the kind of performance which they subsequently produced on Sunday afternoon.
Up front, the three-headed attacking monster of a fit-again James O’Donoghue, Paul Geaney, and David Clifford all lived up to the hype and provided some dizzying movement, great handling and were willing passers any time someone was in a better position.
Kerry players out the field always seemed to have a target inside to kick the ball at and for much of the game the inside trio played in a large triangle, with one deeper than the other two.
It seemed pretty fluid, and they rotated their positioning as necessary.
They looked like three guys who had been playing with each other for years, such was the level of understanding and appreciation of space and the timing of the pass. You’d imagine, the more competitive minutes they get under their belts playing alongside one another, the better that relationship will become.
Sean O’Shea and Micheál Burns were the two rookies in that half-forward line, and like they’re inside men, they delivered on the promise of a relatively solid league campaign.
In college sports in the States, teams have the option of ‘red-shirting’ a player, essentially by allowing them to practice with the team but not play any competitive games. It’s a way of extending their collegiate eligibility by a year. They do this to build up their bodies or to help them to develop a better understanding of what is required to compete at that level.
Kerry effectively did the same with O’Shea last season. He trained all year with the squad and made matchday panels, but never played. He had the benefit of a year’s strength and conditioning work to get his body and engine ready for the rigours of senior inter-county and, as a result, his game looks much further down the line than you would expect from a kid carrying the responsibility of playing at centre-forward with such an illustrious inside line.
The three Kerry attacking debutants amassed 11 points between them, outscoring the Clare team on their own.
Defensively, it was difficult to quantify just how well Kerry played given the absence of a meaningful threat from the Banner County outside of the first five minutes when Gary Brennan and Cathal O’Connor dominated the middle sector.
Soon after, once David Moran and the relentless Jack Barry established a platform there, the Kerry forwards feasted on the plentiful supply of ball that was coming their way.
In recent meetings between the sides, Clare had given Kerry food for thought with their direct running style right through the heart of their defence.
Too many times, Clare had exposed running lanes with a simple overlap and Kerry had been exposed into conceding goal chances or forced into giving away frees to halt their gallop.
There were no such problems last Sunday, but whether this was thanks a coaching adjustment or down to the new personnel, it was hard to tell.
Éamonn Fitzmaurice has been eager to highlight the contribution made by the latest addition to his coaching ticket in the past few weeks. James Weldon is an accomplished basketball coach with both national and international experience, who is presumably sharing his knowledge of some of the key principles of the hard court game.
With that in mind, it was interesting to see how Kerry set up very deliberately against the Clare kick-out for much of the game. It was a tactical tweak, straight from the training pitch that saw three banks of four players spread out across the pitch with arms waving, making themselves big, pushed all the way up into the Clare half.
Kerry effectively suffocated all the space and ensured they had a numerical advantage wherever the ball landed when they were forced to go long. Kerry won 16 of Clare’s restarts, and scored from most of them.
It left only two Kerry players back in their own half, leaving one Clare forward unmarked behind them.
High risk, high reward.
It was something I highlighted a few weeks ago with regard to Dublin and Stephen Cluxton’s kick-out banker. With the rule change that no longer allows players to receive the kick-out inside the 21-metre line, it gives teams an opportunity to come up with something like Kerry showed over the weekend.
It was a novel coaching wrinkle and given the score, it allowed for the opportunity to continue the experiment and see how effective that big zone could be against a very combative Clare midfield.
I’m sure it’s something that will be refined as the championship rolls on, and it will be interesting to see if there are further tactical rabbits to be pulled out of the hat.
With the result long determined by the youthful colts, Fitzmaurice rolled in his substitutes, all eager for work and they ensured the relentless attacking verve wouldn’t subside until the last blast of the whistle.
It was all too much for Clare, who were simply overwhelmed on the day.
Nobody will be getting ahead of themselves and booking their accommodation in Dublin for September after one win in Munster, but last Sunday showed Kerry have the qualities for a long and exciting summer.
Suddenly, this team looks quick and dangerous again.
The squad and management appear deep and versatile, full of new blood and fresh ideas.
Even Kerry supporters can’t ask for much more than that in early June.
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