Kerry a picture of calm as they stare down barrel
Fitzmaurice’s face relegation but there’s no panic after what transpired last season
Kerry captain Kieran Donaghy has been a central figure for the county so far this season. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Up the road they rumble, the All-Ireland champions and the team who have become a mystery again in the months since. Just where are Kerry at?
“Our championship starts early,” Eamonn Fitzmaurice declared after watching Monaghan post their first win on Kingdom soil in 27 years last week. Even allowing for the fact Monaghan are among the very few sides to have shown a consistent line of form this spring, the defeat leaves Kerry in what has become a customarily precarious league position under Fitzmaurice.
Tyrone and Kerry’s rivalry is close to becoming a museum piece: it defined the last decade of championship football but doesn’t seem so relevant now. Still, the All-Ireland champions landing in Healy Park to face a wounded animal for Division One survival: there is enough at stake to draw people away from the Easter Sunday dinner table. Yet it doesn’t change the fact that since exploding to All-Ireland triumph on the final bend of last year’s championship, Kerry have retreated into the sort of unreadable league form which saw them largely written off a year ago.
It was after the emphatic loss to Cork last year – a 2-18 to 1-11 exercise in pain — that most Kerry fans took a hard look at their team and came to the same conclusion: the kids are in trouble.
Fitzmaurice sounded the right notes and might genuinely have been troubled by how far off the pace his squad looked then. But you have to scroll back to his first league game in charge in 2013, when Kerry looked fairly woebegone against Mayo in Castlebar, to discover signs that the new manager wasn’t about to get too fussed about the league.
Never the most excitable figure in his playing days, Fitzmaurice was virtually relaxed that afternoon and didn’t seem remotely fazed as Kerry played five matches before securing a win. They have lived dangerously in Division One under Fitzmaurice and are continuing that trend this year.
“In a way it was one of the reasons I retired. I was thinking: how am I going to train for 10 weeks now? You train for eight weeks in November and December and January or whatever. You play a league and then you train for another 10 weeks. That is another pre-season. And I used to kind of lose interest a little bit in the summer. I might not have been as focused as I could have been and I might have got caught a little bit.”
Galvin’s reflection shows their season in a different slant: that they have to shake off a kind of torpor before they can perform. Kerry teams think about August as a certainty whereas other contending teams regard playing football in that month as their ambition.
Nobody leaving Tralee last April would have believed Kerry would not lose a match for the remainder of the season; that they were watching the future All-Ireland champions. But that is what happened.
Practiced as Kerry people are at absorbing All-Ireland wins of all kinds, there is a lingering sense of disbelief at the suddenness with which last year’s vintage presented themselves as the real thing.
The reversal of fortunes in Kieran Donaghy’s football life is without parallel: when Kerry met Galway in last year’s quarter-final, he was completely off the radar. In fact, when 14-man Mayo tore through Kerry in the second half of last year’s drawn game, Donaghy was still the forgotten man until Fitzmaurice pitched him in with five to go.
The current captain has become such a big part of Kerry’s attacking game that it seems hard to imagine life without him. It is a wonderful story but it carries questions with it. Can the same trick work twice? Can Donaghy have the same impact on this year’s championship as he did in the closing stages last year?
Other resurrections continue apace. Colm Cooper’s return to Kerry colours will signal that all is again right with the world: that Kerry won number 37 while the Killarney man was still in convalescence made it all the sweeter.
They have played the league without footballer of the year James O’Donoghue and the prospect of a forward line containing both O’Donoghue and Cooper offers Kerry an entirely new dimension.
The return of Tommy Walsh from life in the AFL along with Paul Galvin’s sudden flip of his retirement plans in February made it seem as if everything was falling into place for the Kingdom, with seasoned stars in to deepen a squad filled with young All-Ireland winners.
But Galvin’s action has been limited to game time with Finuge, his local club, while Cooper’s return to Kerry colours will now take place in the summer.
Kerry have had shining moments in this league. David Moran, who like Donaghy came in from the cold in that Galway quarter-final and finished with an All-Star, has continued to push the argument that he is now the dominant midfielder in the game.
Johnny Buckley, probably the least spoken of and most effective player in the game, is shaping up for a big year. But as a collective force, Kerry are almost as unreadable at the end of this league as they were a year ago.
Dead on our feetEamon Fitzmaurice
If Kerry end up slipping into Division Two tomorrow afternoon, Eamonn Fitzmaurice will hardly be pressing the panic button. They are facing a Tyrone team desperate for redemption in front of what will be an anxious support in Omagh.
The mere sight of Kerry colours reminds Tyrone football people of their years of pomp.
It will be a stand-alone game, as much about recent history as the league, and Tyrone can hardly be as poor as they were against Donegal a week ago. Relegation looms again for Kerry but the more likely outcome is another narrow escape and a retreat to Fitzgerald Stadium for the second pre-season of which Galvin spoke last December. When we next see Kerry, they will be different in mood and composition. Until then, all assessment of their wellbeing is just guess work.