Kerry hoping new generation good enough to keep the flag flying

Kerry manager could do with a few of the new faces standing up and being counted

Kerry’s James O’Donoghue scores his side’s opening goal despite Dublin’s Kevin O’Brien and Michael Darragh MacAuley in the last year’s All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Kerry’s James O’Donoghue scores his side’s opening goal despite Dublin’s Kevin O’Brien and Michael Darragh MacAuley in the last year’s All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

On a cloudless April evening in Páirc Uí Rinn three years ago, Kerry football strode out for a look over the cliff’s edge and got struck by a sudden and profound dose of vertigo. Their under-21 side went to Cork for the Munster final as favourites – marginally so, but enough for them to feel that the natural ebullience of a Kerry team about to stage a seek-and-destroy in rebel country had been well earned.

Six of them had been given game time by Jack O’Connor in the league already that spring, eight of them had been in the previous year’s under-21 side that skinned Cork alive in Tralee. Despite United and Chelsea meeting in a Champions League quarter-final on TV, traffic on the Boreenmanna Road that night was choked up enough for people to still be arriving in 20 minutes after throw-in. When they did, they saw a scoreboard they had to assume was having them on.

Kerry were getting atomised. If it wasn’t Aidan Walsh and Ciarán Sheehan bullying them around the middle of the pitch, it was Barry O’Driscoll and Dónal Óg Hodnett picking every last stitch loose in front of goal. Cork were 2-3 to 0-1 up after 10 minutes, out the gap and away to the tune of 2-13 to 0-3 by half-time. Even with Walsh, Sheehan and O’Driscoll taken off before the hour was up, it ended 2-24 to 0-8. A torching for the ages.

The sort of torching, indeed, that Kerry teams more commonly inflict – if for no other reason than pour décourager les autres. The deal with underage teams in Kerry has always been simple enough. While there’s no great necessity to be farming All-Irelands, it is and has always been important to trim back the hedges of the neighbours before they get any notions.

Good Cork teams – and increasingly, of course, good Tipperary teams – will flare up from time to time. The trick in Kerry has always been to apply the fire blanket before the blaze gets out of hand, thereby sending the best players in those counties scurrying off to be hurlers. If a minor or under-21 All- Ireland came at the end of it, well and good. Above all, a couple or three players sourced for the senior panel was a job well done. Thus was the Kingdom forged, thus was the Kingdom maintained.

So a 22-point hiding couldn’t be allowed to stand. Within a fortnight, John Kennedy was gone as manager. A fortnight after that, Eamonn Fitzmaurice was handed the reins. After a couple of years as a senior selector under O’Connor, Fitzmaurice was generally held to be a Kerry manager in the making yet he was still only 35. That they pressed him into service so quickly said a lot about how seriously they took their beating.

“I wouldn’t say there was panic,” says Mickey Ned O’Sullivan, who would take over the Kerry minors three months later after an equally ignominious campaign. “But there was certainly a few questions as to how come we were so mentally unprepared for the game. That was the issue, mental preparation on the night. It was looked at, people took stock and they rectified it.”

The dominos that rocked and toppled that night in Páirc Uí Rinn are tumbling yet. Fitzmaurice patched a new team together for the following year, one that against all predictions very nearly beat Cork in the final – a Cork side that contained nine of the 15 who had put the hurt on them 12 months before. They took the game to extra time and only lost by a point in the end.

Fool’s errand
To many, it looked like the county board had sent Fitzmaurice on a fool’s errand yet he very nearly came back with the prize. Given the feeling in Kerry that there was precious little about to roll off the line to replace the generation that had won five All-Irelands in a decade, it fairly sung off the CV when time came to replace O’Connor at the end of 2012. Without that 22-point defeat, it is unlikely that Fitzmaurice would be in charge of Kerry at Croke Park tonight.

Meanwhile, just as interesting to follow has been the fate of the players who lined out for Kerry that night. In different times, it’s not hard to imagine that a beating of such magnitude would have carried a stigma. After all, when O’Connor was over the seniors, he was still hearing about a league defeat to Longford long after he’d won his first All-Ireland. This was a Munster final against Cork. Ordinarily, that’s a stain that doesn’t wash off.

Yet run your finger down the team Fitzmaurice has named for tonight’s league opener against Dublin. Mark Griffin, Peter Crowley, Jack Sherwood, Jonathan Lyne, Barry John Keane, James O’Donoghue and Stephen O’Brien are all still standing – some taller than others, of course, yet Kerry seniors all. Another six who played some part that night are on the bench. Come the last rounds of the league, they’ll be joined by Daithí Casey, currently club-tied with Dr Crokes.

That’s 14 of the 20 players who played against Cork potentially seeing gametime during this league. It’s an extraordinary harvest from one underage team. By comparison, the Cork panel for the 2014 league contains eight of the players who contributed to Kerry’s demise that night. Of course, they would have another if Sheehan was still in the country. But then, Kerry might well say the same about Barry John Walsh. “I spoke to his mother the other day,” trumps Mickey Ned. “She says he’s in Argentina.”

Seán Geaney managed Kerry to their last Under-21 All-Ireland back in 2008. A team with another gone-too-soon émigré in Tommy Walsh as the point of the spear, Geaney’s side would also deliver the likes of Shane Enright, Killian Young, Johnny Buckley, David Moran and Kieran O’Leary to the senior cause in time. He looks at Fitzmaurice’s team for tonight and sees the right experiment at the right time.

“There’s some players there who wouldn’t have been out and out stars at underage level but who have kept at it and worked hard and they’re getting their chance now. It might be a bit daunting for some of them. Fellas like Paul Murphy, Stephen O’Brien, Mikey Geaney – it must fantastic for them to be given a chance.

“These are lads who are 22, 23 now – this is the age to do it. I don’t like seeing lads being thrown in at 19 and 20 because in most cases they’re not ready. They’re not up to it physically and it can be too much too soon for them. But at the age these guys are, you’ve been doing weights for three or four years and bodywise you’ve become what you’re supposed to be. Whether you’re good enough now is another question. There’s only one way to find out. Sink or swim.”

Some of them have had their head pretty well dunked already and are still floating. O’Donoghue won an All Star last year, Crowley looked to the manor born in the half-back line. Griffin came in when Young broke his ankle before the All-Ireland semi-final. Lyne has been a regular throughout the last three leagues and has been earmarked for the Paul Galvin role for the foreseeable future.

Of them all, Keane is the one who’s been given the most airtime over the past few years and yet he’s never been able to make his tune stick in people’s heads. He’s played in 13 championship games for Kerry but has yet to start one. An obviously talented forward, his option-taking has never been certain enough to convince management that he’s worth a go long-term. The Kerry forward line has never been an easy place to earn a spot, yet they ache for someone like Keane to make himself undroppable.

In truth, Fitzmaurice really could do with a few of them planting a flag in this league. Last year’s campaign stuttered and coughed from the start and it needed the late arrival of Declan and Darran O’Sullivan and Colm Cooper to keep them in Division One. Fitzmaurice has already said he expects to be without all three until the end of the league so he’s got to go with what he’s got to go with.

This is the generation that will have to carry Kerry through the next five years, through the end of the last Ó Sé, the O’Sullivans, Galvin and Gooch. It’s been a rocky road for some of them – in the past five years, Kerry have lost six times to Cork at minor and under-21 level and four times to Tipperary. In fact, they have one underage win against Cork in their last eight championship matches going back to 2008. That’s a bad habit to be getting into at a young age.

Latest crop
The consensus in Kerry is that the latest crop of 16-to-18-year-olds coming up are pretty handy and in the right hands could be the makings of a serious team down the road. O’Connor’s willingness to get involved at minor level would certainly suggest as much.

A manager with three senior All-Irelands against his name going back to take a minor team is virtually unheard of and given the flak O’Connor has endured over the years, you’d imagine he wouldn’t be subjecting himself to it all again without a sense of the future being bright. But again, that’s a fair distance away yet. For here and for now, Fitzmaurice has chosen his troops and is pushing them across the board.

“This is who Kerry have,” says Mickey Ned. “This is it. They have trawled the county and this is the cream of what’s there. There’s no club player playing away and grumbling about not getting his chance. These lads are at the age where it’s time to come good. They’re all between 21 and 24 and this is the time for them to see if they’re going to be Kerry players. This is a crucial age for footballers because this is the time when they can devote themselves to being as good as they can be.”

Plenty of them would have thought this chance had disappeared into the Cork city night in April, 2011. Fitzmaurice’s greatest trick might just have been convincing them otherwise.

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