Tony Leen: Kerry ‘leaders’ would do well to lighten David Clifford’s load

Why is the David Clifford Kerry captaincy an issue at all?, asks Tony Leen.

Tony Leen: Kerry ‘leaders’ would do well to lighten David Clifford’s load

Why is the David Clifford Kerry captaincy an issue at all?

Two reasons. Any assessment of Kerry’s All-Ireland chances in 2020 is reasonably tied to Clifford’s wellbeing and form. That’s a hefty load for any 21-year-old to be lugging after him (happy birthday, David, by the way), but evidence thus far would indicate he is fine with it.

So long as the ‘other stuff’ that comes with inter-county senior captaincy doesn’t start impinging on what this thoroughbred does best – raise flags and the thrill threshold. And that’s the nagging concern for those who delight in watching Clifford do what he does.

Name the last footballer who adds thousands to the attendance, as Clifford did in November’s county final in Tralee. People in the covered stand at Austin Stack Park were poised with their phone cameras expecting him to do something special that afternoon.

Almost inevitably, he obliged.

There are five stages of Kerry footballer. One, to which the majority belong, are the club toilers. Second, those who’ve ‘played Kerry minor’ or some such. Third are those unfortunates who represented the Kingdom at senior championship level with little to show but a box of memories and what might have beens (A large number of this constituency were in the 1987-1996 famine years).

Fourth are the group with less than a handful of Celtic Crosses, for theirs is a purgatory of being shushed in Harty’s Bar in Tralee by men with double their medal count. Shur what would you know? (PS: Not sure that anyone dared pat Maurice Fitzgerald or Seamus Moynihan on the head).

Fifth are the special ones, the elite, the legends. Those with an All-Ireland ring for every finger and, in some cases, a couple left over for the second hand. The Kerry Supporters Club had a night last Saturday at the Ballygarry House Hotel honouring The Men With Eight.

David Clifford may be Stage Six, compartmentalised in a special area for Those Who Will Become.

On the infrequent occasion folk speak of him as a ‘natural leader’, they are likely referring to what he does with a ball, on the pitch. This fella is a generational talent. Kerry GAA even conjured a career pathway to keep him at home from Australia when the AFL came calling.

After his minor exploits, when then-manager Peter Keane likened him at Páirc Uí Rinn one evening to a Mercedes, they were taking bets on how long the seniors could resist fast-tracking him. Éamonn Fitzmaurice toyed in his own head with the idea for the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Mayo that year, when Kerry came up short. By 2018, the bubble-wrap was off. Last year the sense of excitement was palpable as he established himself as a franchise star. Two All-Stars and a black turtleneck.

2020? There’s presumption at large now. And the chances are, ironically, he will emerge a better man and a more rounded player from his year as captain but stirring anything foreign into Clifford’s ecosystem (when it’s unnecessary) must represent a risk of sorts. Why stir more load into the mix?

The case of Michael Murphy (21 when named Donegal captain) or Brian O’Driscoll (24 when named Ireland captain) have been promoted for comparison, like either is remotely relevant to David Clifford. For starters, both were chosen by management. This is not a homogenised process.

It’s not even like Clifford, personality-wise, is an obvious captain at this early stage - in the dressing room or in other off-field situations: The honour/responsibility has been thrust upon him by an out of date model in Kerry for selecting captains. If Peter Keane, the manager, had the choice, would Clifford be among his first five options for captaincy? I doubt it.

Keane has David Moran at his disposal, the most mature, natural leader in the group. He also has Paul Murphy, Tadhg Morley, and Killorglin’s Peter Crowley coming back from injury. Up front there’s Tommy Walsh, Paul Geaney, and Stephen O’Brien, who has made strong progress in this regard over the last 18 months.

In fact, if the Kerry manager was partial to any of the younger group for captain, the obvious candidate is Sean O’Shea, whom a few Kerry players already reckon is the most natural leader they’ve played with. When it came to the matter of sitting across a table from Keane and Board chairman Tim Murphy over the cost and location of their end-of-season team holiday to Thailand, it was Paul Murphy and Sean O’Shea who represented the players’ interests.

However, none of these choices are Keane’s for 2020. And that’s the second reason. There wouldn’t be this intriguing Clifford captaincy debate were it not for the continued determination of County Board delegates to retain the Kerry captaincy for county champions. This was an honour for club and parish, but it belonged to a time when the captain’s role was largely ceremonial. Managers managed and players pulled up their collars and played. On Monday next, a motion from the Beaufort club will seek to change that and present the captaincy to team management, in conjunction with the Board chairman of the day. Requiring a two-thirds majority to change, it will be a close run vote.

A former Kerry All-Ireland winner reckoned today ‘it shouldn’t matter a f*ck’ who is captain as long as the group is sprinkled with leaders. Is he right? The demands of the modern prototype stretch well beyond the field of play; indeed, beyond the dressing room on occasions. He might be called to mediate in player tension, eradicate cliques, address training or tactical concerns with the manager, bring gripes to the County Board liaison. In ideal circumstances, he would be performing ambassadorial roles for the team and the brand. And let’s be clear, Kerry football is a global brand these days, one they are happy to parlay for gain across the United States.

The tradition of county champions nominating the captain (surely there’s a better reason for preservation?) has looked threadbare over the past couple of decades. It made victims out of proper players like Eoin Brosnan in 2001 as if he was the cause of Kerry’s All-Ireland semi-final capitulation to Meath.

Brosnan’s Dr Crokes club has been central to much of the debate in Kerry only because they’ve won so many county championships (seven) in the last decade alone. When Colm Cooper was nominated for captaincy in 2011, he was the ideal candidate, the right age (27), and suitably revered and respected in the dressing room. None of the subsequent Dr Crokes captains with Kerry had either the experience or the gravitas (they weren’t guaranteed starters) for captaincy but the fault was hardly theirs – it was a system’s shortcomings.

The system, exclusive now to only Kerry and Kilkenny, has stumbled upon good captains, of course. Kieran Donaghy was a fine skipper for Kerry in 2015. But nobody can dispute there’s been more misses than hits and while attaching All-Ireland-winning significance to it is debatable, every inch, every per cent counts. Or so we hear.

Whatever way Monday’s Board vote goes, Clifford will lead Kerry this year. He is guaranteed to start when fit, so that’s a plus. He is respected for being his own man in the dressing room already, so that won’t change. And those who know best say he will ‘wear the burden lightly’, so all is good. He also had the ambition and the awareness of its significance to take the Kerry captaincy when it came calling via the East Kerry Board. Few could blame him for that.

In reality, though, his freshman captaincy should be determined, and managed, by those around him. Much will depend on the leadership cohort in the Kerry squad. And what management expects of him. Peter Keane has a tight relationship with Clifford and his family going back. I’d be surprised if Keane hasn’t already told him to do absolutely nothing extra if he doesn’t feel comfortable with it.

You don’t want to be a dressing room voice, David? No biggie, there’s plenty of leaders there, you do your talking on the pitch. You don’t fancy doing media? Don’t sweat it, we’ve a few lads good at that and I’d talk for Ireland meself.

Ultimately to make Clifford’s captaincy mutually beneficial, the half a dozen lads driving the dressing room must influence their captain’s load whenever they can, cognisant how counter-productive and injurious to their prospects it will be to interfere with the Fossa man’s equilibrium.

The crowd in the other dressing room will have enough murderous intent for Clifford to be fretting over training gear for the extended Kerry squad.

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