Since manager William O’Sullivan stepped into the breach in 2010, the Kingdom’s championship route followed a pattern. The annual Munster final defeat to Cork first, then a slip of the championship highway and on to the qualifier route, rack up a victory or two and catch whatever provincial champion was unfortunate enough to draw Kerry at the quarter-final.
Not this season, however. O’Sullivan’s side showed their hand early on. Successive victories over Cork in the provincial championship, complimented by Division 2 league success moved Kerry to the top of the rankings. Poacher turned gamekeeper. Certainly that is how Mayo will view their opponents today in their All-Ireland quarter-final clash at Birr (throw-in 12.30pm).
The slender win over Cork in early July put paid to the Rebels’ 10-in-row bid, but there was a down side to the Kerry triumph. There would be no qualifier journey this summer, forcing the squad into a six-week lay-off.
The Munster champions had to adapt to a new pattern and it hasn’t been easy, admitted William O’Sullivan.
“I would be very worried about this game because we have been six weeks out of action,” he said. “Every other year Cork has beaten us and we went through the back door. So we would have had a maximum of four weeks’ waiting time between the Munster final and either the first or second round of qualifiers.
“We trained hard for Munster which was different to other years. Other years we wouldn’t have trained hard for Munster, we would have had our eye on the qualifiers. We wouldn’t have put it up to Cork in Munster. We would have felt we would be best served going through the qualifiers and then catching a provincial winner in the quarter-final. That is what we have done. We have caught Mayo, Galway and Dublin at the quarter-final stage.
“We are now at it from the other side. In Mayo, I see the qualities we showed in previous years, coming nice and quietly through the qualifiers and then hitting someone in the quarter-finals. That is why I am worried about this game.”
O’Sullivan travelled to Pearse Park a fortnight ago to watch Mayo peerlessly dismantle Westmeath. The ever-imperious Cora Staunton contributed 4-8 of her side’s 5-11 and the Kerry boss couldn’t but be impressed.
Indeed, O’Sullivan is well acquainted with rival manager Peter Clarke. The Dubliner was at the helm of his native county when they collided with Kerry in last year’s quarter-final. Kerry performed their usual routine of turning over a provincial winner, if only just.
“They reached the semi-finals of Division 1, which is no mean achievement. They even beat Monaghan in the league semi-final, which was a shock. Any team that has Cora Staunton in their ranks needs to be watched.
“They have many very good players on top of Cora though. They have Fiona McHale and a very good spine in Claire Egan and Martha Carter. Last year we didn’t clash in the championship, but we met twice in the league and they beat us in the league proper and then they beat us by 10 points in the league semi.”
O’Sullivan acknowledged Kerry were handed probably the most difficult quarter-final assignment, but if they are to live up to their gamekeeper status, then Mayo, Cork and the rest have to be accounted for.
“If you have any pretences about making a final or winning it out, you are going to have to beat the likes of Mayo along the way. I am sure they are looking at us in exactly the same light. I look at Mayo this year and I see a lot of how we operated last year in them.
“What you don’t want is if today’s game is tight and with five minutes to go the girls are saying to themselves, ‘sure look we have had a good year’. That is major, that is not what you want. We have addressed it. I think there is a major chance here. We haven’t had such an open championship in a long time.”