The timing, mind you, couldn’t have been better - the Kerry footballers landing onto the beach in North Kerry one week after their surprise defeat at home to Roscommon in early February.
Granted, the sick bay had been close to overcrowding with the high volume of players unavailable for the visit of the westerners. Still, this was a fixture where Kerry were expected to claim maximum points. Kevin McStay and Fergal O’Donnell’s charges had fallen at home to Monaghan a week earlier and there was little to suggest a shock raid could be successfully carried out in Killarney.
Despite playing poorly into the face of a near-gale in the opening period, Kerry went in at the break one point ahead. And the 0-14 to 1-10 defeat left Fitzmaurice’s men without a point after their opening two games and so it was against this backdrop that the training weekend to Banna acquired even greater importance.
As corner-forward Stephen O’Brien remarked earlier this week: “Something outside of football can often be a help because you can keep going down the same line of football, but if it is not working, you maybe need something different.”
Banna provided a change of scenery and a very definite change of pace. The Kerry players spent the weekend negotiating sand dune after sand dune. The collective tank was emptied over and over again.
“At the time, the weather was bad and we were anxious to do something different,” said Fitzmaurice this week. “Banna beach has been very good to Kerry football teams down the years. I often went there myself when I was playing. Going back to Mikey Sheehy’s time, they used say that when they were getting ready and organising themselves for Mick O’Dwyer that they used to go back there in groups.
“It just seemed like it was a good idea and something good to do. The lads worked unbelievably hard that weekend and we got a lot out of it. It built a spirit and it narrowed the focus. We circled the wagons. It was an important weekend. We knew we would get a bit of work done that weekend which would help us get ready for the three games in-a-row. It was just making sure that we won the third game. We had been down the road before of losing our first two games and needing to win our third.”
Down, Donegal, Mayo, Monaghan and Cork were overcome in the subsequent weeks and here Kerry stand, on the verge of a first league final appearance since 2009. And it turns out Kerry weren’t the sole county surprised by Roscommon this spring for Fitzmaurice’s men must now reverse the result of February 7 if they are to progress to the decider.
“It is great to see counties threatening the top table and the counties that have traditionally been there for the last four or five years,” said the Kerry manager of Roscommon’s spring rising.
“Roscommon are not just going to be satisfied with making a league semi-final. They are going to want to go and win a league. They are going to want to go and do well in the championship, too, because if you think back to this time last year, they were in a very powerful position. They came up from Division 2 to Division 1, John Evans was being heralded.
“But then, when things didn’t go according to plan in the championship, he was ousted. I think they will be well aware up there of how fickle things can be.
“Ultimately, you are going to be measured on how well you do in the championship and for Roscommon, they are going to have one eye on the Connacht Championship, of course. If they were to win a Division 1 league, it would be a big achievement.”
Fitzmaurice was still operating inside the whitewash when these two counties last met in a knockout fixture – the 2003 All-Ireland quarter-final, so too was Colm Cooper and Marc Ó Sé. Cooper kicked six points against Cork last Sunday in Tralee.
Ó Sé popped up from corner-back to to put the Kingdom back on the front foot on 59 minutes after Cork had succeeded in closing a gap that at one juncture stood at eight points.
“The lads are remarkable. They are in great physical condition and that allows them to keep playing; why wouldn’t you when you are able to do it physically. The only thing that gets a bit more challenging when you get older is that if you are not getting as much football as you would like to be getting. The lads are hugely important members of our set-up. The fact that they were there in 2003 illustrates their longevity. Long may it continue.”
Meanwhile O’Connor Park in Tullamore will stage the two All-Ireland U21 football semi-finals next Saturday. Dublin face Mayo in the first game at 2.45pm followed by the clash of Cork and Monaghan at 4.30pm. Both will be televised live on TG4.