Stephen O’Brien ensuring he’s no longer Kerry's odd man out

The mathematics of championship selection is pretty elementary. Eight into six doesn’t go. Nor does nine. So which of the Kerry forwards is dodging awkward conversation with Éamonn Fitzmaurice before the Munster football final on July 3?

James O’Donoghue and Johnny Buckley will be looking for starts though the provincial decider might come a little early for the latter. Kieran Donaghy might be auditioning for a gig in the front line too with All-Star midfielder Anthony Maher back to fitness and David Moran stewing after being dropped for Sunday’s 2-23 to 0-17 semi-final victory over Clare.

Fitzmaurice likes the security of Paul Murphy as a defensive wing forward. Paul Geaney does what forwards should do: Score. Darran O’Sullivan has what he needs: Consistent game time. So you’re going to leave out the security of Donnchadh Walsh or the sorcery of Colm Cooper?

That leaves Sunday’s man of the match in Killarney, Stephen O’Brien, with a 1-5 haul that said plenty.

Like Don’t Dare Drop Me.

Fitzmaurice’s modus operandi has conditioned players to anticipate some bench time, though not to accept it. And O’Brien has already seen some friends dropped off the panel in recent week to realise it’s not a headspace he needs to get busy with.

So incentive for a Munster final against Tipperary? Plenty, in fact.

“It’s a Munster final, there’s a medal on the line, a cup up for grabs. It’s very easy to get up for it,” he said yesterday. “You are playing for Kerry in Championship. If you need motivation, you are in the wrong place really.”

The week after Kerry’s league final loss to Dublin was a down week from training, but a down week too for friends excluded.

“It was sombre enough,” O’Brien conceded when asked how he felt when the Kerry squad was trimmed. “It happened a week we were off anyway, so we wouldn’t have been seeing anyone for a while. But then you heard the news and, I don’t know, it’s a personal thing, they are our friends. Kieran (O’Leary) was captain two years ago, Jack Sherwood and Pa Kilkenny were in Cork with me, travelling down together with Tommy Walsh. You miss that. There is a friendship there but I haven’t seen any of them since (they left the panel), which is disappointing.

“But this is the flip side of elite sport, it’s a moving beast. New lads come in and come the next training session, there’s no one feeling sorry for themselves.”

It’s part of that unique professionally amateur experience. “You’re in a bubble. Week-on-week, it’s the same. You have a work bubble, and a Kerry bubble, you see the lads at training, you’re not going out on the town at weekends, so there’s a little less spontaneity in your life. But it’s not a bad bubble to be in. It’s not like nose to the grindstone all the time. I’ve better craic the evenings we are training than the ones I stay at home.”

Form helps, and the Kenmare man has plenty. Defenders stand him up but are regularly caught out by his remarkable pace from a standing start. The low centre of gravity. Clare played honest on Sunday, and six-v-six defending suits the ex-UCC man just fine.

“We got on a good bit of ball and won nearly all our kick-outs in the first half. Clare got a bit of a shock with the first goal but they played man-on-man at the back, fair play to them for that. They scored 17 points, so it was a good traditional game of football.”

That won’t last, and well he knows it. Liam Kearns and Tipperary won’t come to Killarney for the show.

“People have been saying for years that Tipperary are going to catch a Cork or Kerry at some stage. A lot of our younger lads have experienced heartache against Tipperary. My first year out of minor, the Kerry’s Under 21s were fancied for the All-Ireland, they had a serious team with a lot of players that are in the senior set up now, and Tipp turned them over in Tralee.

“I’ve played with Peter Acheson and Conor Sweeney in college, they are class. Acheson is a warrior, Sweeney is deadly up front. You don’t win a soft All-Ireland at minor level (in 2011), so they clearly have some class coming through to senior. They are the right age now.”

O’Brien’s next two weeks will be all about ensuring he’s facing Tipp’s tyros from the first whistle. He gets his inspiration watching O’Donoghue and Cooper, and he may have to hand off one of them to start the provincial decider.

“They take it to the next level. It’s not just about getting on the team, it’s moving it on a gear. That’s what we all aspire to.”

Here's a little extra sport. BallTalk TV look at Ireland's 1-1 draw with Sweden and discuss the Belgium game.


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