The clocks have yet to spring forward but around the streets of Tralee this week, the question of beating Cork is unseasonably vexed.
“We’ve no choice in the matter only to stare them down and beat them here on Sunday,” shrugged Kieran Donaghy. “Otherwise we’ll probably be playing Division Two football next season. It’s do-or-die stuff and realistically every game is a Championship game now for us for the rest of the year.”
Relegation to the second tier of the National Football League is hardly fatal for Kerry’s ambitions this season but in terms of their preparations for the 2014 Championship, it would be decidedly unhelpful.
The weekend victory over Down, coupled with Mayo’s loss to Kildare, has given Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s regeneration project a visible route to salvation, but they need at least two more Division One points to have any chance — at home to Cork or away to nemesis Tyrone after they return from an Algarve training camp.
Take your pick.
Down travel to Dublin next Saturday night and Mayo entertain Donegal on Sunday in Castlebar. Two points for Kerry at home to Cork couldcatapult the Kingdom out of the dead zone in one bounding leap if results go with form.
Fitzmaurice agrees that playing Cork, even for a pitch opening, has relevance, but there could be a more timely juncture to be facing Conor Counihan’s side which has developed an encouraging habit of winning important games on reduced throttle.
“We’re both at different stages of the year,” reckoned Donaghy. “Cork have most of their players back in harness now, while we’re getting bits and pieces back. But there should be a really good atmosphere in Tralee Sunday. It’s always a good time to play Cork.”
Donaghy’s naturally chatty disposition makes him an easy target for banter and badgering around Tralee and while he’s taken it all in his giant stride, explaining four successive defeats was testing him.
“It’s been tough,” he admits. “We’ve been training hard, but not bringing performances onto the pitch. To lose four League games in a row for Kerry is frustrating; you put your life on hold for this and you have to listen to it all week, people are asking ‘what’s wrong with ye?’.
“It’s tough for an amateur player to keep his head about him in such situations but we’re getting players back here and there, and the squad is getting stronger week by week, that’s the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Such has been the state of flux with players being blooded, then getting injured, and more experienced stalwarts coming and going, that Kerry training has been likened to a bus terminal. Aidan O’Mahony is likely to miss Sunday’s joust with his neighbours from the county bounds, but Fitzmaurice remains focused on the bigger picture — and not even the prospect of Cork next weekend will distract him from that.
Donaghy said: “These young fellas are getting games and there’s no harm in that. They are better than what they are showing on the pitch, but the likes of Fionn Fitzgerald, Brian Maguire and even Mark Griffin when he came on Saturday night are showing what they can do.”
Kerry still have Colm Cooper to return — though hardly this Sunday — Bryan Sheehan, Paul Geaney, Jack Sherwood and David Moran too. The intensive training at Amendoeira Golf Resort in Portugal will be especially important for that quintet and give the management a first real panoramic picture of what they’ll have available for the Championship.
Though attacking options have appeared flimsy in the League, any sextet from Paul Galvin, Declan O’Sullivan, Darran O’Sullivan, Donnchadh Walsh, Kieran O’Leary, James O’Donoghue, Kieran Donaghy, Bryan Sheehan, Colm Cooper, Paul Geaney and Paddy Curtin should have the requisite firepower. The role of Donaghy will dictate a lot in attacking terms. He’s floated between midfield, wing forward and full forward in the League, and Kerry will hardly pigeonhole him for the summer either. David Moran and Bryan Sheehan provide similar flexibility. “At this time of the year I like playing out the field and getting my legs under me,” said the Tralee man who missed three weeks as he celebrated his marriage and honeymoon with Hilary Stephenson.
“We’re hopefully going to be playing a lot of the Division One teams again in the Championship, so giving them a look at me this early at full forward isn’t the best idea,” he said.
“I remember playing in Tralee early last year in the League against Armagh and balls were being torpedoed in on top of me with five or six Armagh defenders around me, That’s a demoralising place to be.
“I wanted to play around midfield (in the League) but I’m probably more of a full forward because I think I can do more damage in there. However, I wasn’t one of these fellas that was automatically christened a Kerry footballer so the jersey, whatever number it is, is still very important to me.”
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