Darragh Ó Sé: It's time for Kerry’s young guns to step up to the plate
Eamonn Fitzmaurice has no choice but to go with youth but it's far from an ideal situation
Kerry’s David Clifford is tackled by Dublin’s Jonny Cooper. There is a lot of expectation in Kerry su-rrounding Clifford and his young team-mates. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
The last time Kerry played Clare in Killarney was two years ago – the crowd was about 11,000 or so that day. Not the worst there’s ever been but nothing to get too excited about either.
I have a feeling this time around it will be bigger because, going into the championship, the team is still a bit of a mystery. Nobody knows what it’s going to be yet but everyone expects a good number of young lads to be given a chance. And Kerry people are a curious bunch.
At a guess, I’d say there could be maybe half a dozen lads making their championship debut. I’d expect to see Shane Murphy in goal, Jason Foley and possibly Ronan Shanahan in the backs, and maybe Micheál Burns, Seán O’Shea and David Clifford in the forwards. There’ll be a few others in the mix too who are still only in their first or second year in the panel.
One way or the other, this is going to be a new departure. Eamonn Fitzmaurice used a lot of young players throughout the league and now is the time to translate all that work to championship. Are they good enough? Are they ready? We’ll soon find out.
The one thing we can say for certain is Kerry are bringing all these lads through together because they have to, not because they want to. Fitzmaurice is like a poker player who hasn’t seen a decent hand all night. Now that the cards look good, he has to get his chips in and everybody knows it.
In Kerry, we have lots of great scenery, we have beautiful places to go, we have the best of seafood and the worst of characters and all the rest of it. The one thing we don’t have is patience.
There’s no point pretending -that this is the ideal way to introduce players to inter-county football, no matter how good they are. The perfect template for bringing in a good young player is to do what the Dubs have done with Con O’Callaghan or what Kerry were able to do with Colm Cooper back in 2002. You couldn’t buy better conditions than those.
You want them to come into a team that already has experience, that already has leaders, that already has a few fellas to do the belting and the bullying. Above all, you want them to be an addition to what’s already there.
When Gooch arrived into us straight out of minor, he was in the same forward line as Liam Hassett, Dara Ó Cinnéide, Mike Frank Russell and Johnny Crowley. He had fellas like Séamus Moynihan, Tomás Ó Sé, Mike McCarthy and Eamonn Fitzmaurice supporting from behind. You could see he was something special but nobody was sending him out to be a match-winner on day one. Go do your thing, Gooch. We’ll do the other stuff.
Same with O’Callaghan for Dublin last year. Look at the forward line he came into. Ciarán Kilkenny is there to do all the running and knit the whole thing together, Paul Mannion draws a couple of defenders every time he gets on the ball, Paddy Andrews is underrated for some reason even though he hardly ever misses a shot at goal.
Coming from behind then he has Brian Fenton and Michael Dara Macauley ruling the roost in midfield and my favourite player, James McCarthy calling the shots from the half-back line. They cleared the path; O’Callaghan ran in two of the best goals you’ll ever see from a young guy against Tyrone and Mayo.
My worry with Kerry going into the championship is that lads like Clifford and O’Shea are going to be expected to carry the load right from the start. You’re asking them to do things in their first year that the likes of Paul Galvin wasn’t asked to do until his fourth. They’re going to be given the keys to the car rather than just a spot in the back seat.
If the thing is going badly and Kerry need something coming down the stretch of a game this summer, people are going to be looking to them to provide it. It’s not going to be a case of them chipping in with a few points when the game opens up. They’re going to have to turn games, to make the vital plays that people talk about in the pub afterwards. That’s an awful lot to be saddling these guys with in their first year.
I’ve heard some people draw parallels to when a load of us came through at the same time in the mid-1990s but I actually think it’s a lot harder for guys these days. There’s an upside to coming through together in that you know each other’s game and personality and there’s a ready-made sort of camaraderie there. And yes, you can say that all of that still applies here.
The big difference though is that the game has changed in the past 20 years. When we came through together, there was no major difference between the way the Kerry minors played to the way the Kerry U-21s played to the way the seniors played. If you were an inside forward, you were an inside forward – get out in front of your man, take your scores. If you were a wing-forward, you didn’t need to know a whole pile about tracking your runner. If you were a corner-back, you didn’t need to be worrying
But when it comes right down to it, senior inter-county football today is about systems and roles within those systems. The Kerry teams that have won all these minor All-Irelands were playing a certain way, the certain way you still can at minor. But that won’t wash at this level and it’s going to be a culture shock to them. Will they all adapt to it right away like Kerry need them to? All of them? They’ll be serious operators if they do.
Look again at the Kerry team these lads are coming into. David Moran is an obvious leader – a big man, strong, well able to score, well able to control his area of the pitch. Paul Geaney is a match-winner inside. Peter Crowley doesn’t shirk a challenge from anyone.
After them? Paul Murphy is an exceptional player too and often when the chips are down, he’s the one who will step up. But there’s only room for so many Paul Murphys in any team. Football is a physical game and you can’t coach him to be half a foot taller or a stone and a half heavier.
My point is, Kerry are going to need more out of Clifford and O’Shea and Foley and these guys than to just get in and mind their patch and not make any mistakes. They’re playing in crucial positions, places where they are going to have to set the tone and make big decisions.
It’s a huge thing to put on fellas. I sometimes look at young lads now who come into the big county set-ups and wonder would I handle it if it was my time to come through now. Not just in Kerry – any county where there is major expectation. Would I want that level of scrutiny? Would I be okay with handing over my whole life to it? At 19 years of age? I’m not sure I would, in all honesty.
I had a career that I could only have dreamed of when I started out. I was lucky enough to be on a team that came together at the right time and got to play with and be friends with some of the greatest players of their generation. But when I look on it now, with the benefit of perspective, I genuinely don’t know if I’d put myself through it today.
I certainly wouldn’t fancy coming in with all the advance notice that these lads have. When I was coming onto the Kerry senior team, the most anyone knew about me was that I played midfield, I had the odd good day at U-21 and I’d be in with a chance in a few years when I filled out a bit. Nobody was expecting me to be a man straight away.
You can't go for a pint to get away from it all
So I was allowed to make my mistakes. I was allowed to learn the ropes. I was allowed to develop physically. The strength and conditioning wasn’t what it is now, where you are expected to be fully formed at 19 – or at least able to hold your own.
There’s no leeway now. There’s no wiggle room. If you have a bad day, you’re a pariah. Social media will give you a roasting. And you can’t avoid it because it’s on your phone and there isn’t a 19-year-old in the country who can go five minutes without their phone. The onslaught is there, buzzing away in your pocket, daring you to put in your pin code to see what everyone is saying about you.
You can’t go for a pint to get away from it all. If you do, some lad will take a selfie and you’ll get grief over it. Or you’ll tell him that you can’t be seen taking selfies in the pub and he’ll give you grief himself. The word will go around that you think you’re a big shot even though you played like a dog the last day. All this and you’re only 19, trying to get through the day. I wouldn’t envy them, I know that.
So when you throw all this into the mix, it’s going to be a mad summer for these Kerry young lads. They’re about to have a big responsibility put on them and the margin for error will be fairly slim. Fitzmaurice has worked wonders to keep winning trophies through the lean years and to keep the motor running while waiting for these underage stars to come through. But they’re here now and the clock is ticking straight away on them.
It’s very unfair but that’s just how it is.