A full 118 days on from losing the All-Ireland to Dublin, and 15 from facing them all over again at Croke Park in the Allianz League, Stephen O’Brien is over the deepest of the heartache but is still regretful.
It was the Kenmare man who escaped the Dublin defence to bear down on goal in the 54th minute of last September’s loss only to slam the ball straight at Stephen Cluxton.
A goal then would have tied the game up at 1-13 apiece but instead it was Dublin that pulled away for a six-point win, securing the five in a row.
O’Brien looks back on 2019 generally as probably his best year with Kerry but that misfire, when a goal would have meant so much, still gnaws at him. “Yeah, I’d like to have scored it, it’s definitely a regret, yeah,” said O’Brien.
He recalls the three seconds it took to skip free of Ciaran Kilkenny and blast the ball at Cluxton in frame-by-frame detail. “I got the ball, beat one or two players, and then I remember it was a very similar chance to the goal we scored against Mayo (in the Super 8s) where I passed to Paul Geaney on the back post. But I remember looking across to him and Jonny Cooper was on the line, he did a very good job.
“I was coming from a tight angle on the left and I was hoping he’d come towards me and I’d just pop it over his head.
“But I think, and it’s something we work on as well, where the goalkeeper says, ‘no, if he’s coming at a tight angle, then stay at the back post’. Because that’s a certain goal otherwise so I just didn’t think the pass was on, the loopy pass to Paul, on the back post. Possibly a bit of a drilled pass was on but I know Mick Fitzsimons was running back, I saw him as well. So Paul wouldn’t have had time to catch it.
“At the same time I was very close to goal, tried to put it over Cluxton’s right hand shoulder and I just didn’t catch it, went straight at him, a poor finish really. I should have kept it low, if I could go back again...”
There’s another part of O’Brien that also thinks he should have passed, conflicting him further.
“I think maybe if I’d played a bullet pass to Paul he might have been able to palm it in,” he said. “I still don’t think he would have had time to catch it, so that pass probably was on but it’s split-second, especially after riding a challenge or two. I didn’t do it obviously.”
Those are the ifs, buts, and maybes that torment a player after an All-Ireland defeat, though O’Brien has done his best to park it and move on.
There’s so much to be positive about for 2020 with a young Kerry team and so many All-Ireland minor winners apparently coming of age.
Surely it’s only a matter of time before they beat Dublin and win the All-Ireland the county craves?
“That’s the talk, and for a lot of those guys there is a long future ahead of them, but that’s not the way you can look at sport, there are no guarantees,” said O’Brien. “You have to be the best team in that year to win it. Hopefully the experience gained for those lads who made their debut in an All-Ireland final means Kerry can only get stronger.
“At the same time, we lost Killian Young, Michael Geaney, so you’re losing fellas and it’s not like Dublin and Mayo don’t have fellas coming through themselves too. It’s not simply ‘a matter of time’.
“I’m probably in the prime of my career too and I want to maximise every year. Overall it was a positive year, we won more games than we lost and a lot of lads put their hands up as Kerry players.
“It’s disappointing that we lost two national finals but it’s a good sign we were able to get there. There is pressure to win with Kerry and it’s a long time since we last won the All-Ireland.”
It’s not, in reality, because apart from Dublin, Kerry are the most recent All-Ireland winners from 2014 yet it feels like an age for such a successful county.
A new Dublin manager in the shape of Dessie Farrell could yet provide a window of opportunity for Kerry, while the introduction of the advanced mark rule should play to the aerial strengths of man mountain Tommy Walsh.
“It’s a thing that might suit us but then again it might not suit us as well because a lot of the time with the quality of the forwards we have inside, if you get a kick-pass into them they are going to score anyway,” said O’Brien.
“But on the other side now, maybe the other teams’ forwards could be (helped). We’ll have to work on it defensively as well to avoid easy scores being given away.”