Sunday teatime, two weeks ago. David Clifford comes out of the Kerry dressingroom with his bag on his back and his team in the All-Ireland final.
He heads for the lift going up to where the Kerry players will be fed before they hit the road home. Not so fast. He gets waylaid by a shy young lad in a Dublin jersey whose dad is cattle-prodding him into his flight path.
“Could you, er . . .” the kid asks, holding out a marker.
“Of course, no hassle,” Clifford says and starts signing.
“He’s actually related to your neighbour,” says the dad.
“Oh? Which one?”
There follows a good 20 seconds of convoluted guessing and half-remembering from both lad and dad, throwing out names of second cousins and sort-of-relations, flailing for a connection.
It gradually becomes apparent to all three that they must have the wrong neighbour or the wrong townland or the wrong cousin or maybe even the wrong county altogether. One way or the other, the trail goes cold but Clifford handles it all with easy grace before going about his day.
It must be an odd life. There is a subtle dexterity required in extricating yourself from those situations without it being awkward for all concerned. Clifford does it like a man who gets plenty of practice. How many of those encounters does he have in a day? In a week? In a summer? How many in a Kerry summer with an All-Ireland bobbing out there on the waterline and everyone looking to him to be the one to swim them towards it?
Promoting a Kerry For Sam poster in the Kerry Eye newspaper this week, Darran O’Sullivan implored the public not to be hanging out of the team in the lead-up to tomorrow.
“If you see the boys, wish them well but leave it at that,” O’Sullivan said. “The boys will try to be polite as much as they can but it is quite draining as a player because you don’t want to talk about it.”
If the strain on The Boys is enough for a four-time All-Ireland winner to be asking that they be cut a little slack this week, imagine what it must be like for Clifford. Every generation of Kerry footballers has its megastar, the player who affirms – at least in their own eyes – that they produce a higher level of being down there.
By some strange kismet, they have tended to come along at precise intervals, as if summoned only when every last drop has been wrung from the last one.
Mick O’Connell played for 18 years, making his last appearance as a sub in the 1974 Munster final defeat to Cork. Alongside him was 19-year-old Mikey Sheehy, lining out for just his second championship match.
On the day Sheehy played his final game 13 years later, Kerry lost a Munster final replay to Cork. Their minors did likewise in the curtain-raiser, with Maurice Fitzgerald top-scoring on 1-4.
Roll it on 14 years and Maurice Fitz’s last day in a Kerry jersey was the 2001 annihilation by Meath in the All-Ireland Ireland semi-final. Earlier in the afternoon, as the Kerry minors lost a barn-burner to Dublin, Colm Cooper was the eye-catcher in green and gold.
And on the day the Gooch bowed out in the 2016 semi-final against the Dubs, Clifford had already scorched Kildare for eight points in the minor game a couple of hours earlier. A golden lineage, connecting back over 66 years of Kerry football.
This is big talk, of course. O’Connell, Mikey, Maurice Fitz, Gooch. You start dropping those names and it doesn’t take long to run out of room on Mount Rushmore. Is it really appropriate to be talking about Clifford in the same breath? Is it even fair on a player who is still only 23 and who hasn’t won an All-Ireland yet? Whose senior Croke Park record coming into this season read Played 9 Lost 5 Drew 3Won 1?
Well, yes. Patently, obviously, yes. You’ve seen him play, right? You saw that goal against Monaghan to claim the Super-8s draw in Clones in 2018, still his best finish in only his third championship game.
You saw the seven points against Mayo in Killarney in 2019, the eight he scored against Tyrone last year, some of them on one leg. You saw him burn Mayo in the league final and again last month – and again on one leg. You know he is exceptional, in the literal sense of that word. He does things that nobody except him can do.
Which is what makes this such a fascinating weekend for Clifford watchers. One of two things will happen from here on out. Either Clifford’s lack of an All-Ireland medal will never be mentioned again or it will become the dominant narrative surrounding his career. When you’re as good as he is and when you’re from where he’s from, there’s no in-between.
There’s a pleasing symmetry, then, to the fact that one of the jubilee teams being lined out tomorrow during the build-up is the 1997 Kerry side. Every player will get their welcome when it’s their turn to wave but the focus of the loudest cheer outside the game itself isn’t up for question.
“At corner forward, from St Mary’s Cahersiveen, Maurice Fitzgerald…”
The parallels don’t run exactly true but give a little bend here and there and they hove into view neatly enough. The ‘97 team ended an 11-year gap without an All-Ireland, famously the longest in Kerry’s history. This team is looking to end an eight-year run, quietly the third longest. If they don’t win tomorrow, they have to win next year to avoid going joint-second on the list.
Fitzgerald went into that ‘97 final as the only Kerry player in history to have two All Stars but no All-Ireland. Clifford goes into this one as the only Kerry player ever to win three All Stars but no Celtic Cross.
You might think that doesn’t amount to a cup of spit but James O’Donoghue has talked of his relief at winning in 2014 and not having to hear jibes over individual awards when Kerry couldn’t win the big one.
Above all else, Clifford is the face of Kerry football, with all the good and all the bad layered on to him whether he likes it or not. When there was all that kerfuffle during the week about the Kerry County Board promoting their All-Ireland After Party, it was notable that they used just one player’s picture to sell their €20 tickets on Twitter.
It wasn’t any of the four players who already have All-Ireland medals. And nor was it the guy who kicked the free to end all frees to win the semi-final. In all probability, none of them would even have been considered. That’s who David Clifford is in Kerry, a mantle shared by only a handful of those who went before him.
“Straight away, you’re drawn to Maurice Fitz,” says Dara Ó Cinnéide, full forward on the 1997 team. “It’s so easy to draw a straight line between him and Maurice. Being that guy in Kerry is difficult. I remember that time – Maurice probably wasn’t aware of it but we all were. It was a funny dynamic because we had won a lot at underage and Maurice had never won anything.
“So there was enormous pressure on him to go and win it. And all the conversation was like, ‘It would be an awful shame for a player like him to not have an All-Ireland medal’. I think even the most animated Kerry-haters across the country wouldn’t like to see David Clifford go without winning one. But in the end, the joke was that Maurice got sick of waiting for us to come through and win him an All-Ireland medal so he went and won it on his own.”
At the remove of a quarter of a century, it’s easy to forget just how curdled things had become in Kerry football at the time.
To this day, Ó Cinnéide and his compatriots feel for Ogie Moran and what he went through in some of the toxic years in the mid-90s. He remembers being in the dressingroom in 1995 after losing to Cork in the Munster final in Killarney. Ogie with his head in his hands, crying. Seven-year-old David comforting his father. The crowd baying outside.
Through it all, Fitzgerald was the pinprick of light, the promise of a way out. But he wasn’t immune, either.
So much of Kerry’s collective need to win All-Irelands again was wrapped up in him that the longer they went without one, the more he got saddled with their failures. Ó Cinnéide was suspended and sitting in the stand for a league game against Donegal in late 1996 and saw first-hand the abuse he was starting to take.
“I’ll never forget it. It was a November league game in Tralee and some Kerry supporter was abusing Maurice for having tanned legs. I was sitting there with Darragh Ó Sé's father and we just turned to this fella and said, ‘Will you ever shut the f**k up? Do you not see what we have here? This is the best player in a generation. Give him some bit of leeway’.
“There’s an old saying in Irish – Dá ghile an t-éadach is ea is fusa é a shailiú. The brighter the cloth, the easier it is to besmirch it. When you’re looking at Clifford or Maurice, you’re looking at high-level nitpicking really.
“Fitzy was like a man possessed in that league campaign. You could see him start to get the idea into his head that he could drive us to an All-Ireland. There’s a lot of similarities there with Clifford.”
Nobody in Kerry has turned on Clifford like that yet and they aren’t likely to, regardless of whether they win or lose this weekend.
But last winter showed that it doesn’t take a lot for the blood to get up in a Sam Maguire-less Kerry. Peter Keane’s ending was messy, the kind of messy that only happens when a county isn’t at peace with itself. All-Ireland titles have a way of spreading serenity around the place.
Maybe they beat Galway and everything is peachy and Clifford takes his rightful place in the pantheon, no awkward questions left floating in the air. Or maybe they don’t and he wins his fourth All Star without an All-Ireland to go along with them and every year from now until he walks up the steps of the Hogan Stand, he feels the temperature rise and rise.
It’s an odd life, yes. These are complex matters to be laying on a 23-year-old with more of his career ahead of him than behind. It’s his blessing and his curse that winning is the sure road to simplification.