So what’s different about the Kingdom ahead of their 2018 Championship opener tomorrow against Clare in Killarney?
NEW DEFENSIVE STRUCTURE
Éamonn Fitzmaurice smiled when he was asked could we anticipate a different Kingdom rearguard for the summer.
“We’ve been working on it throughout the year,” he insisted this week.
However, the road test didn’t go to plan in the league, with Kerry leaking the highest total in all four divisions. On these pages two weeks ago, Colm Cooper wrote that Kerry needed to change their defensive personnel or system — or both.
Fitzmaurice is the hands-on coach for the defensive unit and agrees it’s a “work in progress”. He may not roll it out tomorrow, but supporters will be looking for clear and obvious signs of improvement and an ability to stop opposition players galloping at the heart of the Kerry defence.
Not so much. Despite all the winter and spring talk about a new, younger, more vibrant Kerry, only David Clifford from tomorrow’s squad has no experience of a Championship match day.
One of the key changes since last year’s Championship has fitted in so seamlessly that his introduction has virtually passed without comment — goalkeeper Shane Murphy from Dr Crokes. But for him, Dr Crokes might have been routed in the Munster Club SFC final defeat to Nemo Rangers last winter and he has continued that shot-stopping form, allied to a consistent kickout, this term. For the likes of Jason Foley and Ronan Shanahan, it’s good to know Murphy’s got their back.
NEW COACHING IDEAS
Kieran Shannon, of this parish, who has sat at the end of the same Ul Huskies Women’s Superleague bench as James Weldon, recognises the value of Kerry bringing in the basketball coach this season.
“Weldon brings much more than tactics, footwork etc. He comes from an international sport with a huge knowledge of how to coach as well as what (to coach). Can safely say he leaves 95% of county coaches-selectors in the shade,” Shannon tweeted this week.
Fitzmaurice values throwing something different at the players every season, and in bringing the Killarney man into the Kingdom set-up this season, he was bringing more than basketball smarts.
“We wanted our thinking as a management challenged,” he explained, “and he has done that. He’s taking parts of training, he’s a different eye with a different take on things. He’s been excellent.”
NEW TRAINING BASE
You’d think the Kerry players would savour the switch back to Fitzgerald Stadium as a training base in recent weeks. Trotting out on Fitzgerald Stadium’s firm sod means showtime can’t be far off. Summer sessions at the park are a rite of passage for any Kerry footballer.
However, there’s been a bit of a bounce too in the sessions at the new centre of excellence at Currans that have little to do with the underfoot sod. “It’s nice to be there with other Kerry teams, underage, hurling, etc,” said one player last week. “There’s a sense of We Are Kerry about the place, and the novelty of having a dedicated training base, where we train and eat, has been a real positive.”
DOMESTIC CLEAN SLATE
It’s one of the frustrations of every inter-county manager, one always uttered with a wince. ‘We hand them back to their clubs now’.
In Kerry, not everyone in clubland was singing the praises of Fitzmaurice and Kerry in April, but the decision by the County Board to run off the club senior championship and the intermediate, premier junior, and junior championships over a five-week period ensures that Kerry will have full and undiluted access to their squad up to and until their interest in the All-Ireland concludes. Only then will the blue riband, the Kerry SFC, kick off.
Kerry is one of a handful of counties which has maintained a bloated squad into the summer, with obvious cost implications. They had 34 players involved in a final internal game — it’s no longer politically correct, apparently, to call them A v B games — last weekend, and the manager’s reasoning is self-evident. “Because it’s a new format and a unique circumstance to some degree, we may need a big squad (where everyone’s) ready to go.”
However, such is the changed landscape these days that a team manager is as likely as a county board treasurer to be discussing ‘sustainable models’.
“It’s big business,” said Fitzmaurice. “At a very basic level, before you start going into any bells and whistles, there’s feeding the teams, travelling expenses, going away for matches at weekends, hotel costs, and all that stuff.”
Hence the appointment of the county’s first full-time professional commercial manager, Maurice O’Meara, whose job it is to grease the wheels bidding to keep pace with the boys in blue.
One could calculate on a stopwatch the amount of time David Clifford has spent on the same pitch as James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney. The Legion man’s absence for all but five minutes of the National League means that tomorrow against Clare is the first opportunity the Kingdom faithful has to salivate over the possibilities of such an imaginative attacking arsenal. The trick will beas the French like to call it, the combination of this trio with other seductive options like Sean O’Shea, Stephen O’Brien, Kieran Donaghy, and Michael Burns.
Remember too that Daithi Casey, Donnchadh Walsh, and Johnny Buckley are all unavailable to Kerry at the moment.