I was delighted to see a much improved Kerry on Sunday in Killarney. I still think they are a level below Dublin but you can see that they're going the right way about closing the gap. They might not have faced much opposition in Cork but they still did plenty of things that would give Kerry people hope in the weeks ahead.
This is the funny thing about being a supporter. You know what to look for in your team, be it good or bad. You notice little things that people from outside the county probably wouldn’t – and the same goes vice-versa for when you’re looking at their team. It’s those little things that leave you coming away from a game with a better sense of where things stand. They’re the difference between being optimistic and having false hope.
So for instance, when I saw Brian Ó Beaglaoich heading up the field with the ball, I could see straight away what he had in his head. I’ve seen him set off on runs like that a good few times for our club, An Ghaeltacht.
The other thing I took good encouragement from was the fact that Kerry were noticeably fitter and stronger than Cork
The problem is, I’ve rarely seen him finish it. He has an awful habit of kicking a wide or dropping the ball into the goalie’s hands. He’s always full of serious intent, but doesn’t always bring the accuracy to make it count.
I think especially of a club game last year against Beaufort where he made this fantastic burst upfield, full of leadership and go and all the stuff you want. But then he kicked it into the keeper's hands and straight away, it turned a positive into a negative. It ruined his good work and if you were watching on, you would nearly rather he didn't make the burst at all if he wasn't going to finish it.
But on Sunday against Cork, he didn’t just finish it. He buried it. He carried the ball 60 metres and nailed his finish into the bottom corner of the net. That’s not an easy shot, either. He was kicking across the keeper into the far corner with one Cork defender chasing him down and another coming across to try and block him.
So that’s the kind of thing that I would be encouraged by. Not just that Ó Beaglaoich scored his goal but also that he did it when it was needed. If his goal was the fourth one with the game long won, that’s a different thing. But this was with the teams level, a couple of minutes before half-time.
And look, things like that aren’t always going to go your way. You’re not always going to come up against an opposition that will back off and back off to leave you run those 60 metres without anybody tackling you.
Jack Barry was able to open up a straight road to goal for Ó Beaglaoich with one simple sprint across his running line, bringing Ian Maguire with him. It was a decent enough decoy run but it was nothing too complicated. Against a better set-up, it won't get you the same bang for your buck.
The other thing I took good encouragement from was the fact that Kerry were noticeably fitter and stronger than Cork. Their athleticism and conditioning is a step above – and they didn’t even need to go doing army training on the beach in January to achieve it.
It was so obvious, particularly because of the heat of the day. I was sitting in Fitzgerald Stadium knowing how hot it can be down on the pitch on a hot summer's day and the fellas I was really keeping an eye on were the likes of David Moran and Stephen O'Brien, the older guys on the Kerry team.
There was a dead heat in the ground, the result wasn't in doubt from a long way out. If anyone had an excuse to go easy and try to conserve their energies for Croke Park, it was those older players. Especially when the majority of the Kerry team are still in their early 20s. But they were still setting off on lung-bursting runs, keeping the foot to the floor. They were going as strong at the end of it as they were at the start.
The final thing that Kerry supporters would take away is the form of Paudie Clifford. This isn't the first time he has caught the eye this season – he has been a really positive addition to the set-up all the way through the league and again last Sunday.
People talk about his physicality and the fact that he likes doing all the graft and dirty work but I wouldn’t overlook his basic skills with the ball either. There’s a lot of football there. What I like about him is that he nearly always makes the right choice in possession. Some fellas pass when they should shoot, others try and long kick when a middling punch pass would be better.
Paudie invariably does the right thing. He doesn’t over-complicate matters. I love that in a player. The game is not simple – don’t let anyone tell you it’s a straightforward thing to play intercounty championship. But if you have the skill of getting yourself in the right position at the right time to make a simple pass pay dividends, you will go far.
I thought the contrast between him and someone like Luke Connolly on Sunday was clear for all to see. Connolly is clearly a lovely striker of a ball and very talented. But he has a bad habit of trying to do too much at the wrong time in the wrong situation. He had a go at two diagonal balls – crossfield, eye-of-the-needle jobs when the game was in the melting pot. Neither of them came off.
My question to Connolly if I was doing the Cork autopsy wouldn’t so much be, ‘Why did you do that?’ It would be more, ‘Why were you in a situation that made you think such a complicated skill was the only way out?’ I’m all for talented players pulling off big spectacular plays if that’s what it takes. But on a big pitch with highly qualified team-mates all around, there’s usually a simpler way to be effective. That’s the key to Paudie Clifford’s game.
He isn’t alone in it in the Kerry forward line. Seán O’Shea is similar in the way he doesn’t overcomplicate things, although he’s more versatile with it. I look at O’Shea and you could play him anywhere from 5 to 15.
I think he would make a super midfielder but you could also have him as a leader of the team from centre back. He reminds me of Séamus Moynihan in that regard. But you combine that with his scoretaking – which sometimes reminds me of Maurice Fitzgerald – and you have a huge asset in the Kerry team.
Seánie must thank his lucky stars sometimes that David Clifford came along at the same time as him. Without Clifford, all the weight of being the next Kerry star forward would be on O'Shea's shoulders. He'd be the attack leader and the free-taker and all the attention would be on him in every game. Instead, it's on Clifford and it leaves Seánie to go about his business, doing as much damage as he can while everyone is concentrating on Clifford inside.
Interestingly enough, this was Clifford’s second poor game in a row against Cork. He had that nightmare in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in November and he was anonymous here. I wouldn’t get too bogged down in it – he’s too good to let it annoy him for long – but it’s something to take note of all the same.
What does it all add up to? Kerry are clearly becoming a serious proposition. They go out with the proper attitude in each game now – last year’s defeat to Cork will be useful on that score for a long time to come, hopefully. And they have reasonably good depth as well, which is going to matter when things get tight further down the line.
The reason I still have them below Dublin is fairly straightforward. Until they beat them in a tight game, they have no right to be favourites in my mind. As I said last week, Dublin might well have lost a fair bit through retirements and step-aways or whatever but they haven’t been beaten in a big game in seven years.
Kerry and Mayo have run them close but when it has come right down to it, when all the chips were in the middle of the table, it has still always been Dublin who have found a way to be the ones who play the best poker. That knowhow is priceless.
I played on teams who had it. I was able to look around dressingrooms and know that it was there. The All-Ireland quarter-final against Monaghan in 2007 was a perfect example. There was skin and hair flying on the pitch but it was nothing compared to what was going on in the dressingroom at half-time when everyone was roaring and shouting and trying to work out what we were doing wrong.
But even though I didn't know exactly how we were going to turn it around, I looked at the likes of Declan O'Sullivan and Colm Cooper and Tomás Ó Sé and Paul Galvin and I knew that when it came right down to it, we would have a huge advantage over Monaghan in the nuts and bolts of actually winning the game. Of keeping our heads when the temperature was through the roof and every decision was crucial.
The one time in recent years that situation was applicable to Dublin and Kerry was the closing stages of the 2019 drawn final. Kerry had the lead, they had the extra man, they had the ball. But they hadn’t the experience or the tools to kill the game.
Maybe that has all changed in the two years that have passed since then. But we don’t know if it has so we can’t say it. All we can be fairly sure of is that Kerry have closed some of the gap. And if there were 10 minutes to go in an All-Ireland final and the sides were level, I know what my heart would be saying.
But I also know that my head, if it was cool enough at that stage, would still presume that Dublin will come out on top.