Howard took his young Kerry team up to Newry on Saturday for a first round tie in the Christy Ring Cup, winning a tight game in a competition they won in 2011.
Whether they win it again this year or not, Howard wonders about the merits of hurling’s current structures.
How do teams like Kerry and Down measure improvement and mark progression? “There are several tiers in hurling still and the gap is getting wider and wider,” he said.
“Kerry won the Christy Ring two years ago and came back and played the Christy Ring the following year — that is not doing anything for the standard of Kerry hurling.
“Being able to compete at your own level and prove you can be successful at your own level, and then have something that you can step up to is a natural, incremental way of showing you are improving. Of course you don’t want to go too far, because getting beat by 20 points three years in a row is no good either.
“Structurally, there are things I think the GAA can do to help.”
The Clare native would like to see an intermediary competition introduced, which would include the strongest of the Christy Ring teams plus the weakest counties currently competing in Leinster.
Having the likes of Westmeath, Antrim, London, Laois and Carlow competing in the same arena as Kilkenny is something Howard suggests is a mistake.
“For a county like Kerry to go from the Christy Ring into the Munster championship is probably a bridge too far, so I do think there is a need for an intermediary competition.
“They could possibly beef up the Christy Ring, which I think there are plans to do.
“There are four or five teams who are competing in the Leinster championship, whom in my opinion, clearly are not really good enough to compete for honours. While they are making strides and improving all the time, then they go in to play against the likes of Kilkenny and the gap is too big.
“Kerry would be in the same situation in Munster so we need something else to target beyond the Christy Ring in its current format.”
Willie O’Dwyer is ideally placed to assess the chasm between, say, Kilkenny and Kerry. He won five All-Ireland senior hurling titles with the Cats before work commitments took him to Killarney.
Aged 28, he had no doubts about a transfer to the Kingdom last year, a move he insists he hasn’t regretted for a second.
“I grew up with hurling so when I went to Kerry it was great to play hurling again and it is a privilege to play with these lads,” he said. “They are a good, honest group of lads. You look at the Kilkennys and the Tipps, they have a lot of talent underage and that feeds into the senior set up and really creates a level of competition for places that maybe isn’t there in the weaker counties.
“In Kilkenny you have maybe 35, 40 lads who are of an even standard and they are really pushing each other.
“But I think the work being done at underage level in Kerry is starting to come through. This year performances are improving.
“One problem is that the lads here put in the hard work but the competition is over at the end of May and they’re not getting a chance to show what they can do on the good ground.”
Former Waterford hurler Paul Flynn joined the Down back-room team this year and has been impressed with the standard of hurling.
“We have some really good players, players that you’d find anywhere, and there is plenty of interest — but it’s not going to change overnight. It’s got to be a county effort. Clubs have to row in and the county team has to become the priority.
“You need everybody going in the one direction.”
On the field, Kerry led from start to finish on Saturday but had to survive a strong second-half comeback from Down.
Kerry looked comfortable at half-time when they led by 2-11 to 1-8, O’Dwyer and captain Aidan Boyle scoring the goals.
Down inched their way back into the game with a flurry of points, substitute Kevin McGarry getting two of them. Kerry were anxious as Down closed the gap to within a point before defender Liam Boyle, who recently came out of retirement to rejoin the panel, steadied the nerves with a huge point from 70metres.
“We’ve had a positive start to the year,” added Howard, “we’ve won five out of six competitive games. We have lost 10 players from last year’s team and we have a lot of 19, 20 and 21-year-olds so it is good to see us winning games and winning tight games.”
Scorers for Down: J Coyle 1-4, P Braniff 0-4 (2f, 1 ‘65), D Toner 1-1, G Johnston, C Woods, K McGarry 0-2 each, P Sheehan, M Turlet 0-1 each.
Scorers for Kerry: S Nolan 0-9 (7f), W O’Dywer, B O’Leary 1-2 each, A Boyle 1-0, C Harty, D Collins, L Boyle 0-1 each.
DOWN: S Keith; M Conlan, P Flynn, P Hughes; C Coulter, B Toner, B Nicholson; M Ennis, C Woods; P Sheehan, P Braniff, S Nicholson; D Toner, G Johnston, J Coyle.
Subs: M Hughes for B Nicholson (37), K McGarry for Sheehan (54), M Turlet for Coyle (59).
KERRY: B Rochford; B Murphy, L Boyle, P Costello; D O’Connell, T Murnane, D Dineen; J Griffin, B Brosnan; D Collins, B O’Leary, C Harty; S Nolan, A Boyle, W O’Dwyer.
Subs: S Page for Brosnan (HT), P O’Keeffe for Murphy (40), G O’Brien for Harty (44), P Boyle for O’Brien (65).
Referee: Anthony Stapleton (Laois).