When Donegal beat Kerry in last year’s All-Ireland Championship quarter-final, Jim McGuinness’s reaction at the final whistle said it all. Normally fairly stoic in victory, McGuinness refused to contain his emotions as he jumped and punched the air.
The Donegal manager’s response was entirely understandable. Kerry, as we know, have been the benchmark. All-Ireland winners in 2000, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2009, they were also beaten finalists in 2002, 2005, 2008 and 2011. They’ve been our September perennials. Always there. And if not the winners, then the winners had to beat them.
When Kerry trimmed Donegal in last year’s league, McGuinness knew he had encountered the side that could stop him from delivering an All-Ireland title. A year later and the landscape has changed. Last Sunday, Donegal whipped the Kingdom, 1-12 to 0-6.
Excuses about Kerry fielding an experimental team should be ignored. Their starting line-up included 10 of the side which lost to Donegal in last year’s quarter-final.
Instead, the result confirmed what has been widely predicted. Kerry are on the wane. Bottom of Division 1, and without a win after four games, relegation is a distinct possibility.
While Kerry’s stable of quality footballers should enable them to produce a last stand in this year’s championship, the forecast beyond 2013 looks bleak.
The grim fact is that Kerry’s best players are past their peak and the new recruits are out of their depth. It needs to be stressed the newcomers to this Kerry side shouldn’t be held responsible.
Observers at the game in Ballybofey noted Kerry’s ‘newbies’ were pushed out of the way. They couldn’t compete with Donegal’s power.
But how could they? They are totally ill-equipped for the physical challenge facing them. While most counties during the past decade set up strength and conditioning programmes for underage squads, Kerry were an exception. They did nothing.
Content to enjoy the victories of their senior squad, they ignored their underage structures. This was partly out of negligence but also a bit of snobbery. In the Kingdom, there is a fundamental belief in the innate superiority of the Kerry footballer. Ultimately, they believe the skills of the Kerry footballer will triumph ‘uber alles’.
In Kerry, they believe that weightlifting is okay if you are from somewhere like Kildare. They think boys pumping iron is just plain wrong. They should be kicking a ball.
While there is much to admire in this philosophy, it is proving to be ill-founded. Tipperary have three strength and conditioning coaches who work solely with their football squads.
Tipperary have won the last two Munster MFC titles. They won the All-Ireland minor title in 2011. Kerry haven’t done that since 1994. But it’s not just Tipperary who have realised strength and conditioning training is no longer the preserve of senior players. Cavan hired professional consultants who designed and supervised the programmes for their underage squads and won the last two Ulster U21 Championships.
Apart from giving minors and U21s a slight advantage at that level, the real benefit of a sustained programme of strength and conditioning training is that players come into senior football properly prepared.
When they do eventually reach that grade, they’ve already developed a solid base. In short, they’re not cannon fodder. They’ll certainly not be bullied the same way as the Kerry players were in Ballybofey. However, if Kerry are going to hire a raft of new coaches and claw themselves out of the hole they are slipping into, the county board is going to face some major decisions.
In the past, Kerry have ploughed money into their football squads. Most Kerry players will freely admit they were well looked after. Look at the evidence. Name the last player who voluntarily left the Kerry senior squad. But treating players with such deference comes at cost. Just two years ago, Kerry’s expenditure on their teams was nearly double Tyrone’s.
Tyrone aren’t being skinflints. They just don’t channel all their income in one direction. A fortnight ago, the Tyrone senior squad had their first training session at Garvaghey, the county’s new £6.7m (€7.7m) training and administrative headquarters.
Located on a 48-acre site, the complex includes five pitches, a full-sized 3G pitch and 10 changing rooms. Garvaghey will now become the hub of Tyrone GAA, the HQ for all squads from U15 to senior.
Kerry has no such centre of excellence. While these facilities aren’t a necessity, they’re certainly a huge help, particularly when training underage squads. Of course, Kerry will argue that northern projects such as Garvaghey receive significant funding from the British exchequer. That case is sometimes overstated.
The Tyrone board coughed up 48% of the total cost — that equates to a figure of nearly £3.25m (€3.7m). Kerry fans might note that a sizeable chunk of the cash came from the Club Tyrone supporters who contributed £500 per year, and the 250 Garvaghey patrons who pledged £5,000 over five years. GAA funding from Croke Park (24% and the Ulster Council (5%) accounted for 29%. Government grants amounted to just 23%. Subtract the money allocated from the public purse, and Tyrone and the GAA funding still totalled a massive £5,159,000 (€5.938m).
Of course, the Dublin senior footballers don’t need to develop a centre of excellence. They can train at Parnell Park, and they have the use of the ultra-modern gym at Dublin City University. Dublin also has a population of more than one million people.
Meanwhile, rural depopulation has become a huge concern in Kerry. A recent South Kerry minor final featured six different clubs. In order to field a team, one side was an amalgamation of Valentia Island, Sneem, Skellig Rangers and Derrynane. The other side was an amalgamation of St Mary’s, Cahirciveen and Renard.
In previous decades, Kerry have experienced slumps, but they didn’t need to put a lot of thinking into how they would renew themselves.
Generally speaking, they just relied on the good women of Kerry to produce another crop of great footballers.
This strategy has worked a treat. In 1997, Maurice Fitzgerald ended 11 years of austerity all on his own. The success of the last decade stemmed largely from glittering talent.
But there was also warning signs during the noughties. Before the climax to each year’s Championship, RTÉ pundit Colm O’Rourke used to say: “The team with the best players wins the All-Ireland final.”
But after watching a Kerry side laden with brilliant players lose four finals, the penny eventually dropped with Colm. Last year he said: “The best team wins the All-Ireland final.”
Nowadays, it’s about teams and that poses a major problem for Kerry, a county that has specialised in producing footballers of the highest calibre. But the answer to Kerry’s pending decline is not to be found in a maternity ward. Football is no longer just about talent. It’s about strength. About underage structures. About tactical systems. This means a new kind of famine is heading to Kerry. And they’ll need to start thinking differently if they ever want it to end.
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