* With the possible exception of the equator, everything begins somewhere. [CS Lewis]
Apart from pre-season form, we have very little to go on when trying to figure out what might happen in tonight’s Allianz League Division One opener between Dublin and Kerry. But we must begin somewhere.
Returning to the entrails of last September’s epic All-Ireland semi-final is pointless ahead of tonight’s match. Much more enlightening to cast our minds back two years to the opening round of NFL 2012 under lights in Croke Park.
Then, as now, Dublin were All-Ireland champions. Then, as now, both teams were shorn of a number of the key performers that thrilled the masses months earlier and then, as now, there is as much interest in those auditioning for starting places as there is in those already among the established cast.
It is perhaps just as well too because for the first time since end of the lean years in the Kingdom, there isn’t one player starting tonight with an All-Ireland medal won as a first team starter. The balance has shifted from the sated to the hungry, from the golden to the merely gilded. Only time will tell whether or not the newcomers have the ability to reproduce the appetite that was there in patches in the McGrath Cup.
In the corresponding fixture two years ago Shane Enright, Peter Crowley, Barry John Keane and James O’Donoghue excelled in the open spaces of Croke Park and, by matching themselves against the best, looked to have the capacity to get up to championship level within a year. Now two years have passed and only Crowley and O’Donoghue have delivered on that potential. Enright’s overeagerness has at times spoiled his game and compromised his ability to defend in a disciplined way. Keane’s career still awaits that consistent run of form that his talent has been threatening.
In the meantime, Paul Murphy, Mark Griffin, Jack Sherwood and Pa Kilkenny have arrived on the scene to contest Enright’s position and Stephen O’Brien, Conor Cox, Paul Geaney and others have genuine aspirations of challenging Keane over the next few league games.
Having players of Enright and Keane’s experience still trying to prove themselves is a healthy position for any management to be in.
Kerry, however, are not unique and, as with so many other counties, there is a danger for Eamon Fitzmaurice and his crew that they will end up with a lot of players of similar ability but not enough players capable of adding something different to the championship mix.
There are a number of members in the current squad in whom the management have shown an awful lot of faith, but you can only wait so long for a player to prove that he has grown from the experience of preparing consistently for big matches with the Kerry squad.
That investment in mentoring, in coaching and in grooming lads for big days in Croke Park has to yield dividend at some stage. The reality, after two or three years within any elite inter-county squad, is that if you’re not going forward, you’re either going backwards or stagnating.
This time last year, I would have been among those who doubted Fionn Fitzgerald’s credentials as a championship performer. One good summer does not a Kerry footballer make, but there is little doubt Fitzgerald grew into his role last season and is now a player of genuine substance. It would encourage the Kerry support to see one or two more emerge in a similar fashion between here and the end of spring.
Jonathan Lyne is one of those who looked likely to put his hand up after last year’s league campaign, but an unfortunate injury left him short at the business end of the year. There is an ongoing debate in Kerry about his best position. Those who watched him from underage will tell you that he would improve the defensive unit as a wing-back but perhaps the need is greater up front.
That may come as a surprise given the amount of forward talent Kerry should have available come championship time, but the more I see of this new Kerry team, the more I am convinced that having one Donnchadh Walsh is not enough.
In a forward line containing four artists (Cooper, O’Donoghue, and the two O’Sullivans) there is an obvious need for artisans who sacrifice their game to make those unglamorous runs to collect a quick free or a sideline ball and give an unfussy return pass. Add a sense of positioning under the breaking ball, a capacity to track back and a readiness to be available for an outlet pass again within 10 seconds and you have the sort of talent that has become indispensable in the modern game.
Walsh is the type of player that Lyne could become, provided that he can get an injury-free league campaign and enough aerobic training under his belt to allow him to replicate Walsh’s knack for combining a keen football sense with perpetual motion.
It’s not like Kerry don’t have enough eager youngsters in their squad tonight to test their hosts’ newly-acquired status as guardians of the beautiful game. There is, however, likely to be just as much urgency in Dublin’s game given that they will be missing almost their entire complement of current All Stars and their three most influential subs from 2013 — Eoghan O’Gara, Dean Rock and Denis Bastick.
If nothing else, tonight’s game will offer another opportunity to reminisce about that semi-final, which, as Donnchadh Walsh revealed this week, was replayed, complete with forensic analysis, for the Kerry squad recently. One of the many insights into Kerry’s understanding of that defeat came from Eamon Fitzmaurice himself who admitted that they “had a good few chances in the second half to keep the scoreboard moving, and kill the ball but we failed to do so”.
Bryan Sheehan’s absence tonight through injury is significant in this regard. In early rounds of the national league there tends to be a lot of free kicks given up on both sides and there’s nothing like a specialist free-taker to ‘keep the scoreboard moving’ in early February.
For Kerry tonight is about ensuring that they avoid the type of dispiriting start they made to last year’s league campaign. A victory and a couple of eye-catching performances from their rookies would be a bonus.
Is it in them? Well, they have to begin somewhere.
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