Kerry U21 boss Jack O’Connor has warned that the county must start producing young players capable of surviving at senior level as “Aidan O’Mahony, Marc Ó Sé, Kieran Donaghy, and Colm Cooper can’t go on forever”.
The three-time All-Ireland-winning senior manager has described tomorrow’s Munster U21 final against Cork as a “very big game” for the development of players bidding to make the step up to the next level.
Since 2009, only three players who lined out for the county at minor level — Mark Griffin, Pa Kilkenny, and Jack Sherwood — have gone on to play senior championship in the green and gold.
“That is a fairly serious stat, there is no doubt about it,” responded O’Connor to the minuscule number churned out by the county’s production line in recent years.
“We’re well aware of the fact that Aidan O’Mahony, Marc Ó Sé, Kieran Donaghy, and Colm Cooper can’t go on forever. So new Kerry players need to come through and the best way to achieve that is to win at underage level, at minor, and at U21.
“That’s why I think this is a big match for the development of these players because winning breeds confidence. Confidence is everything in sport.
“It’s fine to be winning minor All-Irelands, but for fellas to come through to senior level you need an U21 team being successful.
“The players that came through from the Kerry U21 teams from 1995 to ’99 won five Munster U21s in a row and a lot of those players formed the nucleus of All-Ireland senior winning sides — the likes of Darragh Ó Sé, Dara Ó Cinnéide, and many more. So in order for Kerry football to continue to be competitive with the Dublins of this world, Kerry will have to start producing talent through the underage ranks.
“And that’s what we’re trying to do at the moment.”
Kerry have not had provincial success at this level since 2008 and have not beaten Cork in the grade since 2010.
O’Connor admits it’s a worrying trend though he was not prepared to lay blame at the door of previous managements.
“We’re well aware that this is a massive game for the development of these players because Cork have dominated this age group for the last — God only knows how many years — and have had the Indian sign over Kerry. Psychologically, this would be a big one for these players to get over Cork and it would do a lot for their confidence.”
He continued: “It’s not easy at this level and it’s not that everybody that came before us was doing everything wrong, because they were not. They were good men in charge of the U21 sides but it’s just a very difficult job.
“Take the logistics alone, Cork have nearly all their players under their hands up in the city. With so many lads going to college [in Cork], they can arrange a challenge game at the drop of a hat. We have players in Dublin, in Limerick, in Cork, and players here at home in Kerry, so logistically that is a very tough ask.
“We only started collective training midweek three weeks before we played Tipperary, which might explain why we were a little bit undercooked.”
A last-ditch tackle was required to prevent a Colm O’Shaughnessy goal deep in second-half stoppage time of that Tipperary fixture, while injury-time points from midfielder Barry O’Sullivan and sub Jordan Kiely staved off Limerick in the semi-final. The number of key players absent through injury was also a factor, but O’Connor was still largely unimpressed by both performances.
“Disappointment was my abiding feeling after the [Limerick] game. I felt that Limerick ran through us a bit too easy. It was the type of game that would make an old man out of you, standing on the sideline and looking at it. It was a game that took a lot out of us even mentally. Limerick could easily have won that game.
“We had home advantage the last two games and it didn’t make things any easier for us. Basically, what my message to the lads will be is that the crowd will only get excited and get behind you if you give them something to be excited about. We didn’t give them a lot to get excited about, particularly in the last game.”
O’Connor concluded: “A Kerry team in a Munster final in front of their home crowd always has a chance.
“We have faith in this group, we think that they’re a good group. We are well capable of winning the game with a big performance.”
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