Minding and marking Kerry's teenage star David Clifford

One hundred and ten metres down the Páirc Ui Rinn pitch from where Cork minor Evan Murphy was blasting an opening goal after nine seconds of their knockout duel with Kerry on Wednesday night, David Clifford was shaking the shock out of his green and gold colleagues.

Pointing to his temple, pushing his hands in a downward motion to tell his fellow inside attackers, Brian Friel and Donnchadh O’Sullivan, to take a chill pill. Everything was going to be fine.

Two goals and eight points later, Clifford’s point was well made. There was an unusually large crowd there to witness his latest tour de force. The fine evening accounted for some of it. How many of them were there to check out this teenage phenom is a moot point, but no-one left the old ground pouring cold water on the hype. Kerry is old money in the ways of managing stellar talents, but they’ve got a job on their hands with this one. Clifford’s prodigious abilities are front and centre and the professional and beady eyes of the AFL lurk around every corner.

The new chairman of Kerry GAA, Tim Murphy, has been sleeves-rolled- up involved in the development of Kerry’s new Centre of Excellence in Currans since the beginning. He is a quantity surveyor by profession who understands the cost benefits of building correctly from the ground up and for the long term. The demoralising impact of losing another of the county’s teenage tyros to professional sport before Currans - an investment in the future of the GAA - even opens, is a concern that should be keeping more than him and his Kerry compadres awake at night. This is a Croke Park conundrum.

Kerry GAA executives have been tapping into their upper-echelon contacts in the business community to explore the possibilities of a Business Buddy system to keep the likes of David Clifford loving life locally. In an Examiner interview in January, chairman Murphy accepted that the one thing Kerry cannot offer their nascent talents is a professional life of sport. But they want to do the next best thing and make it as difficult as possible to leave Kerry – right down to a mentoring programme from many of the county’s former greats.

Clifford resembles one of those – Maurice Fitzgerald. He has the same tall frame that doesn’t compromise his beautiful balance, aerial and kicking ability. If you want to be super nit-picky, you’d argue he’s not blindingly fast over ten metres to the naked eye, but let’s not. Anyway, as one Kerry mentor said Wednesday, try keep up with him, even when he’s soloing. Of course he’s not a sure fire thing - no one is. His club manager in Fossa, John Evans, had Billy O’Sullivan on his hands with Laune Rangers at one stage. Billy nailed four goals in an All-Ireland U21 final but he never graduated to a Kerry senior. Evans admires Clifford’s low centre of gravity for a big lad, but he’s more impressed by his diligence and work ethic. They are good starting points.

The innocent in every GAA follower is that the 18-year-old doesn’t become a commodity or a mark for someone to make a name off, but undoubtedly, he will need protection from within and outside. Addressing his talents and future here hardly douses the flames either, but when you had Cork supporters oohing and aahing at his repertoire at Páirc Ui Rinn, with their own team floundering in his slipstream, it’s difficult to ignore. And difficult not be look forward to his next appearance.

Watching the Fossa lad distinguish himself again Wednesday was best observed from behind the goals on the sparsely populated terraces, where appreciation of his lateral movement, his directing of the forwards around him, is instructive in itself. The format of the Munster minor championship injected an extra pressure into Wednesday night. We will see no more of the Cork minors this season, and are left to wonder how a run through to August would have benefitted young talents like Mark Keane, Mark Cronin and Damien Gore. This was no bad Cork minor squad, but we’ve been here before in terms of what happens next.

For Kerry, the sores of their Under 21 All-Ireland semi-final implosion against Galway were still raw enough to be a consideration in an age grade Kerry has been peerless in since 2013.

Quietly going about his business in the stead of Jack O’Connor, minor head coach Peter Keane has delivered a seamless extension of Kerry’s minor dominance. If Keane and his sidekick Tommy Griffin have ambitions down the track, they are doing nothing but embellishing them at the moment. Not that loose talk and overconfidence are problems Keane won’t have to concern himself with. But in leaving Clifford on for every minute of the game in Cork on Wednesday, perhaps he was also sending out a message that no-one in this minor set-up gets special treatment. I would have expected him to be withdrawn with 10-15 minutes remaining, and the game well won.

“Why would we take him off,” Keane said afterwards. “Every fella wants to play. What do you do, wrap him up in cotton wool? There’s no point in buying a brand new Mercedes and only driving it on a Sunday, or leaving it in the garage. You buy it to drive it.”

But burnout..? “He’s not too bad now, there was a couple of weeks there after the Clare game in the first round, where there was a lot of football. That was a really difficult time for us, between minor County Leagues, senior club championships, some of the lads had an awful lot of football. But we got a bit of rest into them before Cork, which is the key.”

Keane was smiling. “Did you think he was stale there tonight?”

What is inevitable going forward now is what they euphemistically call ‘special treatment’.

He has already been subjected to nasty commentary at club level in Kerry from jealous foes, and while he has only played two senior games for Fossa thus far, opposition are already devising ways of limiting his impact. Hopefully that only extends to double-teaming, an approach Cork eschewed this week, leaving full back William Ronan hopelessly exposed in a one v one with Clifford. Surely, special cases like Clifford require something more?

“It’s a difficult one, especially at minor football,” mused Keane. “How do you prepare for a David Clifford? Do you withdraw somebody? Then we’ve an extra man outside. And we have good kickers from distance. That’s the ebb and flow of any game, the things you have to decide on. It’s up to Cork or anybody else to do what they want to do. We are happy with we’re doing.”

The counterpoint to Cork’s truncated campaign is that Kerry is again guaranteed championship football until August now, with a Munster final in the meantime against Clare.

If it is to be in the new Páirc Ui Chaoimh, what a stage to perform for a group of talents whose delivery into their talisman on Wednesday was something to behold.

Keane pondered Cork’s dilemma: “I don’t see an alternative to this (championship) format unfortunately. There are six counties in Munster, the intention is to give every county two games, divide it in three, allow the three first round losers play off. Otherwise, do you seed Kerry and Cork? Isn’t that back to the old argument about making it more difficult for the other counties.”

Anyway, between controlling hype, expectation, opposition, a demanding Kerry public and potential burnout, Peter Keane has enough of his own concerns to be fretting over.


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