Playing for Kerry is a form of roulette. In the pulsating aftermath of the one-sided Munster final, Kerry manager Peter Keane stood in Fitzgerald stadium – sun dappled, majestic and all that – dealing with various questions as a distracted parent might answer the bouncing queries of an inquisitive child.
Then someone asked about James O’Donoghue who had recently quit the panel. It corralled all thoughts. The lightning fast crowd pleaser and 2014 Footballer of the Year had battled through a ferocious spell of injuries but now couldn’t get a look in against Kerry’s glittering young forward line. Kerry football is nostalgic, but not remotely sentimental. They move on quickly. Keane sighed when asked if the Kerry door remained open to him. “The door is always open.”
Perhaps. But it's like a magic door. You have to know where to find it. In an interview with Ian O'Riordan six years ago on these pages, David Moran referenced O'Donoghue when reflecting on the Kerry mindset. "You also had to have massive belief, like you see with James O'Donoghue. Players are thinking, 'if James is so confident then why am I not'? And it does drive you on."
As it happened, Moran was the player elected by Kerry to come out and give his thoughts after the Munster final win last month. He’s a kind of easy going media performer who occasionally brightens his standard remarks with an off-hand wit. And as he stood there in the evening sun, the Kerry players who had not started completed their warm down and headed off in fine fettle. Moran has become the figurehead of the Kerry squad. In the years that he has thrived, then Kerry has thrived. The evidence was never as stark as in Kerry’s most recent All-Ireland final appearance, the pulsating draw and (less pulsating) replay against Dublin in 2019. Moran was man of the match in the semi-final win over Tyrone and colossal in the drawn All-Ireland final against Dublin which Kerry should have won. Ironically, the strip on Moran, in the 74th minute when Kerry led by one point, was the origins of Dean Rock’s equalising score was his one conspicuous mistake. But he had a superb year and one which Kerry have been itching to build on since they were caught by Cork in the winter All-Ireland of 2020.
“It was definitely something on our mind,” he said in Killarney that evening of the “lost” championship of last year.
“But I don’t think you are going to win a Munster championship like that. I’d say they had their own disappointment after the Tipperary game. It was something we might have drawn on. But you will draw on anything you think will give you an edge. I think it played a factor. But I think if we had beaten them last year and played here, Cork-Kerry in a Munster final in Killarney we would have been just as tuned in.”
Now, he was considering the three-week wait before they would play their semi-final. The conversation took place before the coronavirus outbreak in the Tyrone camp forced a fortnight’s postponement but it offered a prophetic glimpse of how the senior player would feel about the long lay-off.
“I dunno. If I had a choice I would prefer two weeks. Two weeks is ideal. Four weeks is the worst in the world. You are putting in half a week recovering and then you are back for three or four sessions and you are absolutely flying and it is perfect timing. Three weeks you have that little bit longer. If I had a choice I would pick two weeks: we had two weeks for the last few games and it suited us. It may be old school thinking that the more time you have the better but as a player it’s a disaster.”
He should know: he has experienced enough seasons. Moran is one of the great survivors of Kerry football. It hardly seems credible that he has been around long enough to have tasted the spiciest hours of Tyrone and Kerry's modern rivalry, coming late into the 2008 All-Ireland final when Kerry needed a goal to prevent a third successive major championship loss. He was introduced again as a substitute in the 2009 All-Ireland final when Kerry saw off their Cork with no great fuss, winning his first All-Ireland medal. There were few signs, that winter of the turbulence that lay ahead. Moran had travelled with his friend Tommy Walsh to St Kilda for Australian Rules trials. A fortnight later, he was back home on the plane alone.
Walsh, however, was lost to Kerry football in his absolute prime. In 2010, Moran scored a goal as Kerry crashed out against Down in the All-Ireland quarter final. In April 2011, he tore a cruciate ligament in a league game against Monaghan. In March 2012, he was given the all-clear for return and decided to get in an extra training sessions with Kerins and promptly injured the left knee again, with another cruciate diagnosis. He had just returned from that when he injured his retina, unsure for a while to what extent his eyesight would recover. “You’ll have to win the Lotto or something at some stage,” manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice told him when informed about the latest setback. “This is going to turn.”
The strange thing is that it was in the period of Moran's enforced absence that the public came to understand that he was indispensible to Kerry. By 2014, he had six seasons behind him but was seldom seen. The Dublin team was cheerfully sending Gaelic football sensibilities into a tailspin: out of the blue they emerged as addicted and businesslike in the winning of All-Irelands. The big names that cannon-balled through Moran's first seasons in the Kerry dressing room had bowed out. In 2014, Kerry were supposed to win nothing after Colm Cooper did his cruciate in the All-Ireland club final that March. The county team's trajectory corresponded with Moran's form. He was dropped after an underwhelming win against Clare, came in as a substitute in what was a strangely open quarter-final win over Galway and then he tapped into his best form for the era-defining draw and replay victory over Mayo. He finished the year with a second All-Ireland medal and a first All-Star award, at midfield alongside Neil Gallagher.
But it’s interesting to pause right there and wonder what would have happened if he had grown disenchanted during that three-year lay-off. He has said that he assumed his football career was finished after the second cruciate. He was studying for a Masters in Finance then and wondered about the options of New York or London. Something compelled him to stay. Maybe coming from the household he did – son of one of Kerry’s figures from the lionised 1970s, one of the very GAA stars with eight All-Irelands, encouraged him to persevere. Then, Moran has always worn that family tag lightly.
"In our club you had the Walshs, the Morans and Eoin Liston, " he said a few years back.
“ So whether you were Seanie’s son, Bomber’s son or Dad’s son, it made no difference. There was no isolated thing. We didn’t know any difference and the three families felt the same. He would never force it on you. When we did want advice we went to him easily. He was always fair.”
But in Kerry, emerging from the paternal shadow is no easy thing. It has been Moran’s fate to play in an era when Gaelic football has been shaded by a team as all conquering as his father’s Kerry teams were. He is 33 now, with two All-Stars and two All-Irelands to his name. Maybe he has lost a little speed over the past couple of seasons but he remains prominent among the most influential midfielders of the last half decade. It is possible to argue that without Moran, there would have been no All-Ireland in 2014: that Kerry’s last triumph would date back to 2009. Against the odds, he has persevered to remain an immense figure in Kerry plans after so many other players from 2014, including the luminous O’Donoghue, have departed.
“ Look, the spirit in the squad . . . I am not sure I have been part of a team with such a squad ethos,” he said of the current squad.
“Some fellas come in, some fellas start. I was taken off in plenty of games this year and I wasn’t giving out. Do you know. Jack [Barry] came off today; he could have stayed on. I think the team is bigger than that at the moment but personally I am delighted to get that time.”
In Kerry, the feeling should be mutual. The size of the hole will only become apparent when he is no longer there to fill it.