Kerry will welcome the opportunity to get away from the growing gloom in the county after Wednesday night’s defeat to Cork at U21 level while Cork, having beaten Dublin away a fortnight ago, will take to the road to see if that signpost of progress is real or imagined. What better way to find out than with another tough assignment away to Mayo in Castlebar?
It’s becoming an annual event in Kerry in mid-March. An U21 defeat followed by a period of deep introspection, followed by unsolicited advice from countless sources outside the county: Kerry should invest more time and energy in underage structures; Kerry should become more aware of modern tactical systems; Kerry should have developed their centre of excellence years ago; Kerry should put a greater emphasis on strength and conditioning programmes and not always be reliant on superior football skill. And on and on it goes until unfavourable comparisons are drawn with neighbours Cork, who, as is nearly always noted, “produce more physically imposing footballers” in almost every area of the pitch.
That may well be true but it doesn’t mean that everything Kerry are doing is wrong.
In an interesting essay a number of years back, Declan Kiberd wrote that “things are often studied only when they start to go wrong. The end of things is the moment when we start to understand them: and only when they are understood do we begin to realise what might be lost”.
Kiberd’s words have particular resonance for those of us in the Gaeltacht who are trying to preserve a language and certain ideals and traditions, while at the same time fulfilling a modern existence through interaction with the dominant English language.
Some of us have always maintained the fairly recent development of Irish Studies on college campuses and the proliferation of events marking Seachtain na Gaeilge is less cause for celebration than warning: that, as Kiberd suggested “the identities which they sponsored were, in effect, being codified before their possible eclipse”.
It’s the same with football. Rarely has Kerry football been scrutinised and analysed to the extent that it is now. Such has been the fascination with a Kerry team in transition — as it has been for four years, at this stage — that our national broadcaster saw fit to send its GAA correspondent down to the Kingdom when they went on their four-game losing streak this time last year. Hell, there was even a ghoulish curiosity on the terraces these last few weekends about how the post-Gooch era was evolving.
The sense of resignation of many Kerry supporters leaving Austin Stack Park on Wednesday was understandable but the indignation and sense of entitlement at the latest defeat to the Rebel county at U21 level ignores what’s been happening at that level in particular in recent times.
I’m not sure if enough of us have been listening to people, mainly in South Kerry, who have been telling us for the last six or seven years that rural depopulation is a serious concern; that in entire parishes, only one and two male teenagers are entering secondary school every year; that South Kerry minor finals have been featuring six different clubs because teams like Valentia Island, Sneem, Skellig Rangers and Derrynane have had to amalgamate to find numbers to play St Mary’s, Cahirciveen and Renard.
These things are happening and they don’t just happen in a vacuum. There are consequences down the food chain that supplies county U21 teams. I’ve stood on sidelines as part of our own club U21 management where you’re glad to be in a position to have 18 outfield players available to you to fulfil the fixture.
Good ambitious players at U21 level are still coming through but many are sensing that perhaps football shouldn’t be as high up the list of priorities as it might have been a few years earlier in their careers. Despite the good work carried out in schools such as Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne by Eamon Fitzmaurice, Tommy Griffin and others, players don’t always make that leap from being a good 18-year-old to being a decent U21.
Cork people know this too. But thanks to work being done in the clubs and the fact they have so many extra clubs to supply good underage players to the county set up, the effects of rural depopulation, while just as real and pressing in the Rebel county, aren’t as visible in the shop window of a county U21 team.
Both Cork and Kerry folk know that most times, the best team wins, that sometimes the team with the best players wins, and that almost always the team with the most quality players wins. That is what happened on Wednesday.
It has been said that where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure and that hope abides in Kerry who have gone far too long without major underage success. All the treasures unearthed in recent times — Fionn Fitzgerald, James O’Donoghue and Peter Crowley — have been found in an urban environment. Perhaps that is what is concerning us rural folk as much as anything else! The challenges facing Kerry and Cork this weekend are very different.
Cork face Mayo sitting pretty atop the league on eight points and all but qualified, have the luxury of fitting Kevin Crowley and Conor Dorman into a defensive unit that shipped three goals and struggled under long, high ball for spells last weekend against Derry. If either Dorman and Crowley struggle, they have a proven performer in James Loughrey to come in and do the business. It’s a good position to be in.
Kerry, meanwhile, because of their dearth of league points, need their tyros to come through against Kildare. They have gone with a full back line of Pa Kilkenny (impressive against Darren McCurry when introduced last Sunday), Paul Murphy (outstanding in loose play all through) and Mark Griffin who, while he may be suited to a wrestling match with Tomás O’Connor could struggle long term at full back because of his giddiness and energy. Full backs need to be disciplined closer to goal and Griffin is learning this the hard way throughout the league.
Paddy Brophy’s height will cause problems for either Murphy or Kilkenny but Kildare have their own issues at midfield and in defence where Mick Foley and Hugh McGrillen are hitting a rough patch, with only newcomer Mick O’Grady holding his own in the full back line.
By restricting Westmeath to just a solitary score from play in the second half last Sunday, Mayo, who welcome Cork to Castlebar, showed they may be getting their act together defensively. James Horan put their second-quarter collapse last weekend down to showboating, but with Colm O’Neill, Brian Hurley and Donncha O’Connor in the Cork full forward line, Mayo might feel that it’s time to get serious about the league.
Kerry too appeared to have turned a corner against Tyrone and I take themselves and Mayo to win.