We can’t say for certain if Mayo’s players will be back at Croke Park this year beyond Sunday but they will certainly be seeing the inside of plenty of churches. Newly-married Mayo defender Chris Barrett revealed how love is in the air in the county.
“Once one of us drops, the others drop, they’re all falling like flies now,” joked Barrett, who said it’s his understanding that Ger Cafferkey, Donie Vaughan, Colm Boyle, and Lee Keegan all plan to follow his lead and tie the knot this year.
The evergreen Andy Moran, now 35, is a married father of two. All of which must seem like another world to the batch of young Kerry players just out of minors that they’ll face in the Allianz League final. At 27, Paul Murphy is actually one of Kerry’s elder statesmen and lined out against Roscommon last weekend alongside Graham O’Sullivan, Diarmuid O’Connor, Dara Moynihan, Sean O’Shea, and David Clifford, All-Ireland minor winners in 2016.
“There isn’t many older than me, no,” acknowledged Murphy. “I was glad Tommy Walsh came back, he brought the average age up a bit! David Moran, Peter Crowley, and Shane Enright would be older. Jack Sherwood, Stephen O’Brien, and Mark Griffin would be the same year as me but they’re older so I’ll put them ahead of me as well. They have a few months on me.”
The great irony is that Mayo’s ageing core and Kerry’s rookie contingent are driven by the exact same goal; to win the All-Ireland, though for entirely different reasons. Kerry’s youngsters, propelled into the senior ranks off successful All-Ireland minor wins, see senior success as a logical next step while Mayo’s troop of veterans crave a breakthrough after years of near misses. Murphy described the “huge turnover” in the Kerry panel in recent seasons with the addition of so many talented minor graduates.
“You’re getting to know lads a bit now but at the start of the year, it was nearly unrecognisable from if you went back two or three years. The turnover from maybe 2016/2017 to this year has been huge.
"We’ve lost a lot of guys through retirement and things like that and a lot of younger lads have come through who’ve had success at underage level. It’s rarely straightforward for most lads though.
“A good minor doesn’t necessarily make a good senior so they’re trying to make their way and trying to bed themselves into the team. You never know how a guy will react. You can have a guy and you think he’ll take to it like a duck to water and it just doesn’t happen for him.”
They’ll ultimately be judged on whether or not they can win an All-Ireland. Since 2009, the most successful county of them all has won just one, in 2014. Murphy was on that team but says it feels like a lifetime ago now.
“It’s probably not that relevant now, it’s five years ago, it’s a completely new panel really,” he said, admitting that one All-Ireland in almost 10 years isn’t good enough. It’s not great from a Kerry point of view but sure there’s nothing you can do about the other nine at this stage. You have to just focus on the year coming. We’re not going to win any of those ones back.”
Beating Dublin in the league was an early statement of Kerry’s intentions and claiming the league title at Croke Park, a ground many of Peter Keane’s players won All-Ireland minor finals in, would be another signpost moment.
“They’ve had success at minor level and maybe schools level there but senior level is a different animal, it’s a step-up playing in Croke Park. But to get out there this early in the year and to get another game under our belts is definitely positive.”
The final will pit Donie Buckley, part of the Kerry management team, in opposition to a group of Mayo players he helped for six seasons until he stepped down last August.
“I’ve really enjoyed working with him so far,” said Murphy. “He’s a very good coach. He sets very high standards for you in training. Any drill you’re doing, he’s expecting you to perform it to the very best of your abilities.”
Buckley was praised for his work with the Mayo defence, and on the team’s tackling, and it may not be coincidence that after leaking 10 goals in last year’s league campaign, Kerry have conceded just four so far this year.
“It’s a balancing act to keep it tight at the back but also to give that impetus going forward,” said Murphy. “You don’t want to be just sitting back and inviting teams onto you either.”