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Darragh Ó Sé: I don’t buy this idea that Kerry have nothing to lose

Peter Keane has a young team but that doesn’t mean they get a pass for losing the final

Over the next 10 days, everyone will have their say about the football final.

The only thing more talked about than an All-Ireland final is a Dublin-Kerry All-Ireland final and, since this one comes with the possibility of a five-in-a-row attached, it’s going to be the biggest thing in the country next week. When there’s that much noise, it can be all blend into one after a while.

The one thing that doesn’t ring true so far is this idea that because Kerry have a young team and because it’s Peter Keane’s first year, they nearly have a free swing at it on Sunday week. I even heard someone say the other day that Kerry are in bonus territory. I half expected a bolt of lightning to come down and take care of the poor lad who said it.

Bonus territory is the All Stars after you win the All-Ireland. It’s the team holiday later in the winter. It’s the barman waiting till the gardaí have done their rounds and driven away before he calls you out of the cellar for a last few before home time. Playing in an All-Ireland final isn’t bonus territory. That isn’t how it works.

Losing is never okay down here, not in an ordinary game and definitely not in an All-Ireland final

An All-Ireland final is a day to be attacked. That has to be the attitude. I remember Diarmuid Connolly saying in an interview on the pitch after one of the Dublin final wins that they hadn't set out to defend the All-Ireland, they had set out to attack it.

That’s exactly the way you have to be. You can’t be drinking in talk about bonus territory or it being a good year whatever happens. That kind of stuff is poison in the water in the run up to a final.

Everybody knows what they know about the Dubs. They’re the best Dublin team ever, the best team from any county in the past 30 years, they’re an awesome outfit to be planning for a final against. But if anyone thinks Kerry people will just shrug and tell the lads to go on away up to the city there and see what happens, they haven’t really been around Kerry football very much.

The last thing Kerry people will give the team over the next 10 days is an excuse to lose. Losing is never okay down here, not in an ordinary game and definitely not in an All-Ireland final.

I saw Jim Gavin saying during the Dublin press day something along the lines of Kerry's time being now, not in a couple of years. And yes, of course he has to say that. No more than Peter Keane, everything he says in the build-up to the final is just window dressing. But that doesn't make it untrue.

It doesn’t matter a damn that the Kerry team is young and full of potential. They’re not being picked because of what they might do in the future. They’re being picked for what they can offer now. Their potential is all fine and dandy but it doesn’t exist past Sunday week.

Kerry aren’t going with youth out of necessity or because they have no choice in the matter. Keane has plenty of options. There is no shortage of footballers in the county. Somebody sent me a clip the other day of Barry John Keane scoring the winning goal in the Boston championship last Sunday. If there was a sniff of a call for a final, someone like Barry John would swim home to get in on it.

Huge opportunity

But he's playing in Boston because Kerry have David Clifford and Seán O'Shea and Killian Spillane and a few others who Keane thinks are better than him. Not younger than him – that's irrelevant. It's a bit of a bonus alright, in that they have time to improve over the coming years. But it means nothing in relation to the final.

This is a huge opportunity for Kerry. The vast majority of footballers never get to play in an All-Ireland final. You never know when you’re going to be back. We don’t know what the starting team will be for Kerry against the Dubs yet but you’d imagine either nine or 10 of them will be playing in their first final. You can be fairly sure that not all of them will get back to play in a second one.

Some lads will get injured, some will lose form, some will get bypassed by someone else on the panel. Kerry won’t always win their semi-final or, like last year, they won’t always get out of their Super 8s group. It’s all very well saying Kerry have these great underage teams feeding into the senior set-up and that they’re bound to be sorted for the next decade. But getting to a final isn’t a given in any year.

And even for those who do get back, who's to say they'll have a better chance to win one than this? Andy Moran played in his first All-Ireland final in 2004, Keith Higgins played in his first one in 2006. Here we are, a decade and a half later, and both of them have played in half a dozen without getting one over the line.

The big difference between the Mayo teams of this decade as opposed to the ones they started out playing in is that it’s a long time since anyone talked about Mayo having a great year because they got to a final. There’s no such thing as bonus territory for them in finals. You either win it out or the whole thing is another scar to carry around with you.

I don't buy this idea that Kerry have nothing to lose. They have an All-Ireland final to lose. Trust me, that's plenty

The same will go for Kerry if they are beaten on Sunday week. Losing an All-Ireland final stays with you forever. I don’t care if you’re 20 or 35, the world is a colder place for you in the days and weeks and months after you’ve been beaten in one. There is no sense of, ‘Ah sure look, we’ve plenty more chances’. All you get is a winter of people either not talking to you about it or, worse, earnestly telling you their theory on how it all went wrong.

Go to any GAA pub or clubhouse in the country and there’ll be pictures of famous county teams from the past up on the walls. In some counties, those pictures might be from winning league titles or provincial titles or maybe even getting to All-Ireland finals. Not in Kerry. When the season is over, nobody in Kerry will be getting the screwdrivers out to hang a photo of the 2019 Munster champions. Or the All-Ireland runners-up.

When I started playing senior intercounty away back in medieval times, I came through with a heap of other young players from teams that won back-to-back All-Ireland under-21 titles. We all broke onto the scene at more or less the same time and big things were expected. Nobody was going, ‘Ah look, they’re only young.’ It was more, ‘They could be good, let’s see them go and do it’.

Only thing

You don’t get leeway for being young. It took me three years of championship football before I was on a winning team against Cork – and I heard all about it. Nobody in Kerry was interested in our age. They were only interested in the fact that we didn’t seem to be any great shakes.

We made it to our first All-Ireland final in 1997 and it was against Mayo, who had beaten us well the previous year in the semi-final. Everyone thought they were subsequently robbed out of the All-Ireland with the drawn final against Meath and the big row in the replay. They were back again the following year and everyone had them down as favourites. We were only young lads and we were coming up against giants such as Liam McHale, James Nallen, Pat Holmes and the boys.

P Sé was our manager and I remember him having this thing all through the year, breaking it down in terms of time. After we beat Clare in the Munster final he said, “Lads, we’re an hour and 10 minutes of good football away from an All-Ireland final. And we’re quarehawks in finals”.

And so we were.

Now, you can roll your eyes at that kind of stuff if you want. But Kerry football has been built on generations of teams finding a way to win All-Irelands. Some of them as favourites, some of them not. It’s the only thing that counts.

A few years ago, after he won Footballer of the Year in 2014, James O’Donoghue said something about nearly being embarrassed before the final because he already had an All Star but he had no All-Ireland. Because he’d been in such good form through the summer, he was nearly guaranteed another All Star no matter what happened in the final and the thought of having two of them but no All-Ireland medal to go along with them was picking at him. As if he’d nearly feel wrong about walking around Killarney like that.

An All-Ireland final is never a stepping stone or a building block. Maybe when you’re years down the line you can look back on it like that but the Kerry camp has to be ruthless in clearing out any whisper of that between now and the final.

Yes, the Dubs are great now but go back to Gavin's first year and they had a lot of young players back then too. The likes of Jack McCaffrey and Ciarán Kilkenny and Paul Mannion weren't treating 2013 like it was a free swing. And they were younger then than Clifford and O'Shea and the Spillanes are now.

That’s why I don’t buy this idea that Kerry have nothing to lose. They have an All-Ireland final to lose. Trust me, that’s plenty.

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