THERE has been plenty of comment since Kerry’s last outing in Killarney against Dublin. Many of the observations have come from outside the county with former players, particularly from Ulster, offering their opinions on where things are going wrong and on how long the period of transition is going to take.
If Donegal’s success last year taught us anything it is that what happens on the training ground is what matters more than anything else in the modern game. While Donegal undoubtedly were the best team in the country last year, coaching and tactics had as much to do with their win as anything else.
Donegal folk get quite cross if it was to be suggested to them that natural talent was subservient to those very tactics, but that’s not the point.
The point is this: in order for the naturally talented players on any team to flourish they are going to have to graft and grovel just as much as lesser talented individuals on the team.
To take an example; Mark McHugh, Frank McGlynn and Anthony Thompson are just three foot soldiers in Jim McGuinness’ army but the amount of work they do to ensure that another three, Karl Lacey, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden, shine is astonishing.
There has been much hand-wringing within Kerry these past three weeks about the fact that it is now nearly 20 years (1994) since they won a minor title and have only one title (2008) in 15 years at U21 level.
Such a return would be considered poor in a county with Kerry’s pedigree but surely Donegal’s win last year gives grounds for sober hope to all counties. Mark McHugh, Frank McGlynn and Anthony Thompson didn’t set the world on fire at underage level.
The two front runners for last year’s Player of the Year, Lacey and McFadden, likewise has relatively undistinguished careers up until recently and even Murphy, who was an underage phenomenon, had very few medals to show until last year.
By increasing the dosage of physical training, increasing the attention to improving individual players and by increasing the emphasis on the collective, Jim McGuinness increased Donegal’s chances of being successful.
It is unclear whether Kerry can follow a similar course. Many players are at the stage where ramping up the ante in the physical stakes might not enhance their fitness. And Kerry don’t have many forwards like Murphy and McFadden who can win hard ball.
That is why perhaps we see so many intricate patterns of play aimed at favouring players with other qualities like pace and skill. Based on the evidence of spilled ball in the first two league matches, getting quick ball into the Kerry full-forward line is proving problematic.
At the moment Kerry are a bit like one of those great bands that struggle on despite several major alterations to their original line up.
They keep us fascinated because there is always the possibility that they might recreate the old magic, even though the new bass player wasn’t even born when they were enjoying their greatest hits.
In early 2009 when Darragh Ó Sé was deciding if another year on the road was worth it, he looked around the dressing room and wondered if there was enough young men there to create another little bit of magic.
He decided there was.
Would his brother Tomás be able to say the same in the early days of 2013? Had Tomás cast a cold eye around the dressing room after last month’s toothless performances against Dublin and Mayo, it’s doubtful he would have identified many young men with the single-mindedness and talent to win him another All Ireland.
And we’re not talking here about some of the callow youths who struggled to stay afloat when thrown in at the deep end in Castlebar and Killarney, but about potential leaders like Darran O’ Sullivan, Anthony Maher, Bryan Sheehan and Killian Young.
These are men well into their twenties who should by now be guiding the next generation of Kerry footballers rather than relying themselves for leadership on veterans like Tomás Ó Sé and Aidan O’ Mahony.
The fact that Ó Sé and O’Mahony have probably been the two most consistent performers over the last year must be a deep source of worry for the Kerry management.
When Kerry last met Kildare in the spring of 2008 in Tralee, they were top of the heap, All Ireland champions beginning a bid for a remarkable three-in-a-row that would take them as far as their sixth All Ireland final appearance in as many years.
Back then Kieran McGeeney was starting out in life as a manager with a reputation from his playing days as a fearsome competitor devoted to modern methodologies. Indeed, those who arrived early in Austin Stack Park that evening were treated to their first glimpse of a third-man-tackle training drill.
Since then, Kildare have earned a reputation as backdoor specialists to which they added a gloss of respectability in 2010 by reaching the All-Ireland semi-final and winning last year’s league Division 2.
The dispiriting collapse that followed against Cork in Croke Park, however, undermined the notion that Kildare are among the teams capable of challenging an ailing Kerry for a place in the top four.
The auguries have been better so far this year and they have at times looked like a serious counter-attacking side. Certainly, the opening exchanges of the league have been much more encouraging for McGeeney, Jason Ryan, Damien Hendy and co than they have for their Kerry counterparts.
While Kerry’s youngsters have looked out of their depth at times, Kildare’s newcomers, Niall Kelly, Daniel Flynn and Paddy Brophy, have given the Lilywhites fresh hope and impetus.
When he carried out his survey of his team-mates in 2009, Darragh Ó Sé also knew that he would have to reinvent his own game in order to help Kerry back to the main stage.
During that successful summer, he dropped deeper to play more of a sweeper’s role and rationed the dramatic interventions which had established him as the dominant midfielder of his era. Seamus Scanlon, his less illustrious partner in the middle and one of the men whose measure he took that Spring day in the dressing room, went on to win an All Star.
Kerry’s older players are gifted and savvy enough to reinvent themselves this year, but it remains to be seen how many of the supporting cast are ready and able to step into the spotlight as Scanlon did four years ago.
Kerry desperately need two points tomorrow to steady the ship but, more importantly, they need a performance that reflects that desperation.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice was surely disappointed with the indifferent manner in which several of his charges accepted their fate against Dublin last month, just a day after Fitzmaurice himself suffered the heartbreak of losing an All-Ireland final with his club.
Kildare will see the vulnerability of the Kingdom as an opportunity to prove they are back on a rising curve.
Perhaps it’s time the visitors demonstrated that they’re not yet ready to accept that they’re going in the opposite direction.
But I still take Kildare to win.
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