Once the stable doors were opened last Friday night and the Kerry public first heard the team of young colts that would be running wild and free in Fitzgerald Stadium on Sunday, an unusual and unseasonal excitement began to spread.
Fast forward to yesterday and the Munster final-esque type traffic jams had supporters stuck sitting bumper to bumper in long delays hoping to get into the ground before throw-in. You just knew this was different.
Over 10,000 fans came to witness the dawning of what they hoped would be a new Kerry breed. This was the kind of mass unleashing of youth that Kerry supporters have been craving for a year or more. It is all well and good winning four minor All-Ireland’s in a row, but they’re only a stepping stone; a means to an end.
They came for David Clifford. For Seanie Shea. How would Cormac Coffey and Micheal Burns do? Could Ronan Shanahan regain the form that had him looking so impressive last season? Could Gavin Crowley lay claim to centre-back long term? Would Shane Murphy be a difference maker in goals?
As with most Januarys, there were far more questions than answers, and with that brought an unusual feeling of uncertainty for those filling the stand and terraces in Killarney.
Clifford certainly looked comfortable without being anything spectacular in his first senior start. The biggest difference between minor inter-county, or club level and senior inter-county is level of intensity in the contest to win possession. Most every ball you win as an inside forward is done with a guy clawing all over you and another just waiting to double team and strip you of possession. Unlike minor level, where he had a distinct size advantage over his direct opponent, those opponents are now stronger, more physical and aggressive.
I thought he coped reasonably well with that aspect of the senior game, but it’s something he’ll have to keep figuring out. That big frame and bigger ability obviously marks him out as a special talent, but it remains his vision and unselfish decision making that illustrates how good a player he is likely to be at this level. He could easily have tried to turn and force a shot at goal after a hard-won possession midway through the first half, but he had the presence of mind to slip a handpass to Stephen O’Brien for an easy tap-in finish.
For Clifford, the ball winning and the adjusting to the pace and physicality of the senior game will come with competitive minutes but it’s far easier to improve those attributes rather than having to coach somebody to make better decisions in the middle of chaos. Fortunately, he already has that in his locker.
Sean O’Shea is the other young Kerry tyro everybody was talking about and he didn’t disappoint. Another superb former minor winner, he looked every inch a starting senior half forward for the year ahead. He has the frame, great athleticism, good hands and is a solid kicker off both feet. Apparently, he’s also not somebody who suffers from a lack of confidence either, to say he was on free-taking duties head of Paul Geaney all afternoon. Seven points, with three from play was a decent haul on his first day out and like the rest of his teammates, will have learned a great deal about what it takes to actually kill a team and win a game at this level.
To their immense credit, Donegal gave a superb account of themselves, even more so after they were reduced to 14 men. In Paddy McBrearty, they had the best player on the pitch. And at times, it looked as though he was single-handily keeping the visitors in the game and displayed every attribute you would want from a top-level inside forward.
The quality of his ball-winning and score taking was easy to appreciate from the terraces, but it was his leadership that inspired his teammates to force Kerry to have to keep trying to win a game that they thought they had already won.
For Éamonn Fitzmaurice and his youthful charges, it couldn’t have worked out much better. Perhaps he didn’t have much choice considering the extensive number of established players unavailable to him, but they’re out now for all to see and the next few weeks and games will provide a huge learning experience for all of them.