Kerry trying hard to keep up in the generation game
Defeat to Cork in Tralee could consign Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s side to relegation
The scale of Kerry’s football problems in the short term is that they may be relegated from the top division of the Allianz Football League. Should the county lose to neighbouring rivals Cork tomorrow, they will take a tumble for the first time in 12 years.
Whether it’s schadenfreude or simply because such indignities are so unusual in the county’s history, Kerry’s plight has attracted widespread attention.
There are a few things at play. It has been an exceptional era for the county: five All-Ireland titles in the 2000s, three league and six provincial wins. The comedown after those highs was always going to be a problem, as key players retired.
Kerry are also under new management with Eamonn Fitzmaurice becoming the first player of his generation to take up the reins. It hasn’t been an easy campaign so far with a number of first-choice players unavailable and the current Division One comprising of the eight best teams in the game.
For anyone taking a look at what happened the last time a golden age ended, the precedent isn’t encouraging. Twenty years ago Kerry had reached the seven-year mark since the last All-Ireland of Mick O’Dwyer’s management. It was a significant landmark, as only once previously had the county endured a longer drought.
It was ruefully acknowledged that the success had in its way contributed to the failure. Former GAA president Seán Kelly was at the time chair of the county board.
“It’s been a cliché around here that we lost a generation of players because the old team was so good,” he said. “But it’s true. You could pick a team of outstanding players who weren’t picked for the county, lost their confidence and never came through.”
Back then the seven-year itch wasn’t scratched and it would be a further four seasons before the Sam Maguire cup was back in the south-west.
One man who knows a lot about both situations is Mickey Ned O’Sullivan. The first post-O’Dwyer manager, he was charged with a mammoth rebuilding task and these days he has been tasked with improving the county’s profile at minor level.
“The problem isn’t as profound,” he says when comparing the eras. “Then there was no effort made to bring in new players because of the success of the team. We haven’t been successful in the past three years and players are being brought in.
“The problem for Eamonn is that because of injuries and other commitments (Dr Crokes run to the club semi-finals) he hasn’t been able to try out younger players in a strong team, two or three at a time, which is the ideal way to introduce them.
“Instead he’s had to field a number of inexperienced players all at once and that’s a very difficult task against the Dublins, Tyrones and Corks. Every game is vital. But when all of the players are back they will be competitive.”
That desirably incremental introduction of younger players hasn’t worked out as smoothly as might have been wished.
For instance, the 2008 All-Ireland under-21 winners produced a number of senior players but two of the most prominent, David Moran and Tommy Walsh, have not been available – the former because of a succession of serious injuries that would have tested Job whereas the latter is on the books at AFL club, Sydney Swans.
Former manager Jack O’Connor, who delivered three All-Irelands, never appeared fully confident in what was coming through in defence and twice persuaded retired players to reconsider and both Mike McCarthy and Eoin Brosnan ended up relocating to centre back from full back and centrefield/half forwards respectively.
On the plus side, the team’s first-choice attack contains three multi-decorated players, Colm Cooper, Declan O’Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy, all of whom only hit 30 this year although they are in their 12th, 11th and eighth seasons respectively.
With Paul Galvin still playing, it will mean Kerry can pick three former Footballers of the Year in the forwards. None of them – unfortunately for Fitzmaurice and the younger players selected up front – have been fully available during the league.
Without a full-strength panel providing the necessary context it has been hard to evaluate the younger players but they haven’t been coming down a conveyor belt in bright wrapping. The 2008 under-21s apart, the county hasn’t exactly been amassing silverware at underage levels.
The success of the last decade was underwritten by one minor All-Ireland (the county’s last, in 1994) and three under-21s in four years, 1995-’96 and ’98. The view during the time of senior plenty was that the county didn’t need underage titles from its minors and 21s, just a couple of players who could play senior.
It’s a notion that Mickey Ned O’Sullivan queries.
“Underage football was neglected but the problem was addressed 18 months ago. I’m not saying that because I was appointed, I was appointed because of a review of football in the county. I think we’ve been under the impression that we can always bring through two or three young players each year.
“It’s not enough. You need about six to create the sort of competition and pressure for places necessary.
“Underage football is an apprenticeship for the senior panel. This is firstly about attitude and lifestyle and those have to be ingrained at 17 or 18. Good young players leave home to go to college. In their first year they’re not playing Sigerson Cup and the social life becomes attractive. We lose a lot of players. We have to ingrain the lifestyle.”
Is that not excessive pressure to exert on young people?
“It is but that’s the nature of elite sport now. Once the decision has been made to go down this line there are responsibilities.”
The county has made strides to catch up with best practice in the area of strength and conditioning. According to O’Sullivan, centres for such preparation have been established in five locations in the county in order to minimise travelling time for the minor football panellists.
He also believes the current talk of “crisis” has been exaggerating the problems.
“I wouldn’t be writing off the senior team once they’re at full strength with the ground hard and the summer coming.”
Tomorrow in Tralee, Kerry face Cork in a league fixture that in recent years has had plenty of edge with the teams so familiar with each other from being by far the most common championship pairing of the past 12 years – 22 matches.
It is a huge match for the team. Win it and there’s a chance of staying up and it would also lay down a marker for the summer.
“You need successes along the line,” says O’Sullivan. “Set small targets and everything’s a step in the right direction.”