What’s delayed Mark Griffin? The extinction of a species, for one thing.
As far back as 2009, when Coláiste na Sceilge won the Hogan Cup with him marking off a no-go area in front of their goal, factions in Kerry have foreseen the day he’d be thrown the keys to the Kerry square.
After decades of pretty impressive improvisation at No. 3, Kingdom traditionalists had their prototype full-back. Someone to chip and mould into a pillar of strength. Velvet hands and iron elbows. A man to joust and pluck and bullock and surge.
Air traffic control and security guard in one gig.
When the mastermind of that Hogan Cup win, his neighbour Jack O’Connor, brought Griffin onto the Kerry senior panel in 2012, it was to groom the bullock for the big show.
But after cameos and setbacks and fits and starts — clouds lined, albeit, with the silver of medals and honours — last year Griffin didn’t make a Kerry matchday panel during the All-Ireland series.
Finally, this spring, he seems to be fully trusted.
“I had a good league, in fairness. Happy the way it went. Happy to push on. I wouldn’t say I’ve established myself in the team just yet, I still have a long way to go in the championship. But overall, I’m happy enough.
“I feel a bit more in command in that full-back berth. A lot of responsibility comes with that jersey. And this year it has just come more naturally, I suppose.”
A man’s first task is to know himself and Griffin made his own acquaintance early. “I was always a full-back. Even underage, for my club, my school, and underage with the county. And in college. I have played centre-back quite an amount for my club, I can play out there, but predominantly I would be a full-back.”
But. These days, riot police are called to duty more often than control towers. The No. 3 who can only stand up and fight will often find himself sitting.
“The way the game has moved on now, if you’re playing full-back, you actually have to be able to do quite a number of things.
“You may have to mark a big full- forward. You have to be physically able to mark a Michael Murphy or a Sean Cavanagh.
“But, at the same time, they’ll drift out the field and you have to be able to be useful out the field. You have to be able to get on ball and play as a half-back. Or, alternatively, you could be on a corner-forward if they only play a two-man full-forward line, so you’ll be inside there.
“So it’s quite a difficult position these days to nail down.
“If all you’re capable of doing is being inside there to mark a big man, there’s a good chance you won’t be on the team a lot of the days.”
He makes the practical point too that spare full-backs aren’t the first thing a manager tucks in his tactical toolkit.
“One thing, being a full-back, if you’re not starting a game, it can be quite difficult to include you in the matchday squad, because you’re taking a chance on a squad position you could be giving to a more dynamic player, that’s going to come on more regularly. That’s just the way it is.
“My form wasn’t where it needed to be (last year). When you think of it, we do have Aidan O’Mahony around as well and he was playing exceptional football. So it was very hard to displace him, with the experience he has.”
Griffin’s career is in wind farms, in shaking reliance on traditional energies. He’s had to do a little of that himself.
“Before, I probably would have been a bit conservative in my play. But over the last couple of years, while training with Kerry, your football will develop and you’ll learn things off players around you.
“That’s something I identified last year. I had to be more flexible and had to be able to perform well in all positions in the backline.
“Against Cork this year (in the league win), I ended up at wing-back. I haven’t trained there or played there before, but it was something I had to fall into and I thought it went pretty well for me.”
He even surged right into nosebleed territory.
“It was my first point for Kerry. I enjoyed the freedom that came with playing out there. It was definitely an experience and one I hope I’d get more chances of.”
A positive league experience was soured in final defeat to Dublin, who once more set the kind of problems traditional full-backs didn’t find on their curriculum.
“Their intensity is very high. Their forwards make very hard runs. And they make a lot of hard runs. It’s not just a case of covering one or two runs. They’ll make multiple runs and it could be the third of fourth time that they’ll get on the ball.
“They wear you down until they can get on the ball and then they’ll have runners coming through. And it can be very hard to live with them in that sense.”
After a week’s training camp in Surrey, Griffin isn’t taking anything for granted ahead of Sunday’s Munster semi against Clare in Killarney.
“Eamonn (Fitzmaurice) is very fair. You’re based on your form. You have to consistently perform, because the team that’s playing the best in training… you see it our teams change quite an amount from game to game.
“If you’re playing well, you will be on the team. You will be on the squad.”
One tradition maintained.
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