Eight minutes into Kerry’s game against Monaghan three weeks back, they were in danger of losing sight of their opposition just as surely as we were in danger of losing sight of them through the Inniskeen gloom.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s young side were already 0-4 to 0-0 down and looking like they didn’t know which end of them was up. If their league campaign so far has had a trend, it’s been just exactly this – digging themselves a hole and hopping down into it without knowing whether they’ll be able to drag themselves back out.
Stephen O'Brien was wrestled to the floor around midfield for a free, a perfectly-executed tactical foul to buy the Monaghan defence a few seconds to sort itself. Darren Hughes had already dropped back to play sweeper, one of 10 Monaghan players between O'Brien and the goal. O'Brien stood over the free, shaped and paused and shaped again, before arcing a ball into the Monaghan 45 to find the run of Seán O'Shea.
O'Shea skated out past Drew Wylie on a loop, shrugged off a tackle like a man brushing past a chugger on the street, drew Karl O'Connell towards him and flipped a piggy-in-the-middle handpass over his head to Micheál Burns. The Dr Crokes wing-forward promptly sent up a gorgeous point from out on the right, curling it inside the left-hand post from the wrong side to get Kerry on the move.
Though they ultimately came up short that day – and again the following week against Galway after again giving themselves too much road to make up – it has been in adversity that the likes of O'Shea, Burns, David Clifford, Jason Foley and the rest have shown what they're made of. Fitzmaurice has hung Kerry's league campaign on the shoulders of his youngest panel members and, for better or worse, he is finding out who and what they have.
“The first two games, they made an excellent start,” says Billy O’Shea, Radio Kerry pundit and 1997 All-Ireland winner.
“You watched those first two games and what you had to say about them was that there was something very positive about these young guys. They got off to a good start. I know the last two games have been disappointing. The Monaghan one was especially disappointing.
“But the one thing that I do like about this side is that for young players, they’re fierce courageous. They don’t give up. They’re willing to go after a game even though it looks like they’re gone too far behind for there to be anything in it for them.”
This, of course, is Kerry’s brightest new dawn in a while. Four All-Ireland minor titles in a row has put Fitzmaurice in a position that looks enviable from one angle and rather-you-than-me from another. Kerry are 10 months pregnant with talent and he has been given a three-year extension in which to deliver it. Nothing about that process is inevitable.
On a grey Wednesday in early May 2013, Fitzmaurice stirred his tea and talked to The Irish Times about the task that faced him heading into his first championship summer. The chat went a dozen different ways but one of the things we came back to a couple of times was the perception of the day, namely that he was going to have to make do with what he had for the time being because there was very little coming up behind that was going to be of use to him any time soon.
“I was in the last Kerry minor team that won an All-Ireland,” he said at one stage.
“That’ll tell you how long ago that is. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what is behind it. But definitely the fact that there was success at senior level camouflaged a lot of the shortcomings at underage. Kerry were in six All-Ireland finals in a row and every year there was a new player coming through, which is all you really need to maintain the success and keep it fresh. So we maybe ignored or didn’t look to see was there bigger problems.
“In time, it’s something that I would hope to look at and get involved in but definitely not this year. Maybe if after a couple of years if we were successful, I could maybe start to look at something like that but right now I can’t. I suppose I mainly have the interest in it because I know so many of the young lads through the schools. And it is a thing that would be close to my heart. But I have one focus, that’s it.”
Understand, this wasn’t cute Kerryism at work. The county minors had already been beaten in that year’s championship, going down after a replay to Cork. They hadn’t won a Munster title at that level since 2009 nor at under-21 since 2008. Kerry schools had one Hogan Cup to their name in 18 years. For Fitzmaurice, this was a genuine issue. Or it certainly felt that way sitting in the Carlton Hotel in Tralee five years ago.
Whether he knew it or not, the first pebbles in the avalanche that would lead to his current squad had already started to tumble. Though that minor team had lost to Cork, the second-chance structure of the Munster championship allowed them to claw their way back and eventually win out the province.
From that side, Burns, Jack Savage, Killian Spillane, Matthew Flaherty and Éanna Ó Conchúir have all seen game time in this league campaign. The Dingle pair of Tom and Barry O'Sullivan were on that panel too, underage again the following year. It was the first of five Munster titles on the bounce and they might have picked up an All-Ireland to go with it only for they coughed up a late equaliser to Tyrone in the quarter-final and lost by two in extra-time.
Cormac Coffey, Andrew Barry and Briain Ó Beaglaoich arrived the following year, ending Kerry's All-Ireland minor title wait alongside Burns, Spillane, Flaherty and the two O'Sullivans. O'Shea and Foley arrived in the 2015 batch along with Foley's Ballydonoghue clubmate Brian Ó Séanacháin. A year later, Clifford arrived, apparently fully formed.
Fitzmaurice actually started slipping them into senior football in ones and twos in last year's league. Foley, Savage, the two O'Sullivans and Adrian Spillane all had made league starts before St Patrick's Day 2017. Jack Barry came of age in the Dublin fixture in Tralee. Ronan Shanahan was a few years older and not a part of those minor teams but he got his chance too, making his debut against Mayo.
Come the summer, however, Fitzmaurice generally reverted to his tried and tested. Kieran McCarthy, Barry and Savage were the only members of the new breed to play any significant part, with Tom O’Sullivan parachuted in for the replay against Mayo as Kerry made an ill-fated attempt at a sweeper system.
All of which makes this year’s league and the reliance on so many newcomers all the more interesting. Fitzmaurice has handed out 10 senior debuts in the first four games of the spring.
Of the 25 players he has used so far, 16 haven’t a minute of championship experience to their name. And though it looks at first glance as though he is experimenting wildly, he has actually been naming a reasonably settled side. In total, 13 players have started either three or four games.
“They’re coming up together en masse,” says Billy O’Shea.
“The old way of it down here was there was this conveyor belt whereby one player would be added every year, maybe two players some years. But this crowd have all come together. And the fact that they’ve played together underage and against each other underage means it’s not as if they’re coming into an unknown environment.
"When I started playing in 1991, I was coming into a set-up that had Jack O'Shea, Tom Spillane, Ambrose O'Donovan – guys who were 10 years older than me. This bunch are a bit like 1975, when a new crop came all together at once. There's a few older guys there alright but that's what this has a feel of. And it has probably made that transition a bit easier for them, rather than coming in bit by bit."
Of the eye-catchers so far, Seán O’Shea stands out a mile. Fitzmaurice resisted calls to field him last year – and drew a bit of crossfire when pulling him from a county under-21 final in late July only to leave him on the bench against Galway and not use him against Mayo. Strong, square-shouldered and always willing, he has been the focal point of Kerry’s attack playing at centre-forward. Comparisons with Declan O’Sullivan aren’t a million miles off the mark.
O'Shea has clearly profited from the spotlight under which Clifford has begun his senior career. In any other year, a kid steering the Kerry attack with this level of maturity and skill would be the headline act but that's not viable when you also have the most hotly-anticipated graduate from the minor ranks since Colm Cooper in your side. Clifford has done nothing wrong so far and nothing spectacular either. Everything that has been asked of him, in other words.
Of the others, Burns may find himself the odd man out in attack when Donnchadh Walsh and Johnny Buckley return but he looks nailed on for a summer role. David Moran will clearly take back a midfield spot but Jack Barry and Barry O'Sullivan have serious claims to make.
It’s in defence that the greatest shake-up may happen – or may need to happen. Foley could be a major addition at full-back and is reputedly the quickest player in the panel to boot.
Other than Peter Crowley in the half-back line somewhere and Paul Murphy wearing a low number but covering every blade, you wouldn't bet your house on any of the other positions in the back six.
Shane Enright, Tom O'Sullivan, Ó Beaglaoich, Shanahan and Gavin Crowley are all in the mix, with the likes of Fionn Fitzgerald, Tadhg Morley, Mark Griffin and Killian Young all looking to force their way back in.
So far, Kerry have conceded seven goals in four games and have coughed up countless chances for more. Finding a structural fix while at the same time trying to work out his best personnel leaves a lot of plates spinning at once for Fitzmaurice.
All this talent has to find a home, making it the archetypal nice problem to have. Which is all very well, assuming you eventually solve said problem. In a world where Dublin are going for four All-Irelands in a row, nobody is in any doubt what that solution looks like.
Or what the view of Fitzmaurice will be if they fall short.