FROM EARLY AFTERNOON on July 22nd last, there was a feverish sense of anticipation building up around Killarney. The sun was out, the crowds were big and the town’s prized arena, Fitzgerald Stadium, was about to host a Gaelic Football match of major significance.
The day unfolded in splendid fashion for the locals. They finally claimed a senior championship victory over Tyrone after three harrowing losses in recent times, their unbeaten championship record at the venue since 1995 was reinforced and the Kerry fans went home happily awaiting the rest of the campaign.
It appeared at the time that they had turned a corner but it has not taken long for them to slam into a roadblock again. Within the space of just over a fortnight, their season has ground to a halt and having at last felled one Northern foe, another one has materialized with Donegal bringing them down in Croke Park on Sunday by two points.
Kerry were not that far off victory. Little things went against them. Colm McFadden’s early goal was fortuitous and gave Donegal a cushion they could rely on throughout. Patrick Curtin’s snatched shot late on almost tied the game. Eoin Brosnan’s first-half withdrawal through injury was wounding, Bryan Sheehan’s second-half withdrawal even more so.
Kerry could have had a free awarded for a foul on Donnchadh Walsh approaching the finish but the absence of Sheehan would have been brought into sharp focus if they had been given that kick. Would they have been able to capitalize on that opportunity? An earlier chance had been spurned when it was left to James O’Donoghue to line up a ’45.
It was notable earlier in the summer how the influence that Sheehan now exerts on this team was magnified when they lost to Cork in the Munster semi-final as Kerry were forced to bring Brendan Kealy upfield to kick long-range frees. On Sunday their campaign concluded with Sheehan again sidelined and his team again desperately needing his input. It was in sharp contrast to the luxury Cork had in the curtain-raiser when they finished with a team that possessed four – two right-footed and two left-footed – competent kickers of dead balls from the ground.
But aside from those small factors, there were wider issues that emerged which Kerry will need to address. The victories Cork and Donegal produced on Sunday illustrated the importance of physicality in breaking apart defences and the intense tackling required to frustrate attacks. When Kerry met Cork in the Munster semi-final in June, they had no answer when their opponents kicked for home in the finale. On Sunday they did finish strongly but it was a burst that was too late as they had yielded too much of an advantage in the midway period of the second-half.
To rehabilitate and return as a dominant force, they will need to take cognizance of the direction that the game is heading in. They have absorbed lessons in the past and come back stronger. But do they have the wherewithal to do that again? The landscape of their squad has changed vastly and even if there is not a spate of retirements over the winter, the task will be difficult for some of their landmark players to be towering influences in games again.
Will their manager be back at the helm? In the wake of their 2010 defeat to Down, Jack O’Connor was given a three-year term in the thinking that he would need that time frame to rebuild. Last year almost brought All-Ireland glory but they are now further away from attaining that goal and it would be a huge achievement to get back to that stage next September.
O’Connor has travelled a long road with these players during his two tenures. It is understood that he is seriously considering his position and if he does go, locating a successor would be tough. Eamonn Fitzmaurice may be pitched as a candidate but while he is certainly suitable, there is a suspicion that he may feel it is too soon and prefer to keep developing as a coach next year with the Kerry U21′s and the Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne colleges football teams. After that there is a dearth of candidates.
Mention of the U21 side brings up the thorny subject of the county’s underage record of late. It has been shoddy but the problem has not been attaining silverware, more the lack of prolonged campaigns. Young players do not necessarily need to be lifting trophies to develop but they do need to be featuring in big games. In that light there was some consolation that a Kerry minor team, who have benefitted from the vagaries of the system that has seen them lose two games in Munster this year yet still stay in contention, toughed it out against a wasteful Roscommon side to win Sunday’s All-Ireland minor quarter-final.
As regards senior level, Kerry have departed at the last eight stage for the second time in three years. It’s a measure of the greatness they have attained that such a statistic is viewed as grounds for concern about the future of Kerry football. Their consistency since the inception of the All-Ireland qualifiers in 2001 has been absolutely remarkable. It is foolish to suggest they will now regress terminally because the county still has the flair, pedigree and competitive instincts to remain in contention. But there is enough uncertainty at the moment over the future of the Kerry players and management to suggest anxious times lie ahead.
Mayo’s Andy Moran leaves the field injured on Saturday. Pic: INPHO/James Crombie
Just A Thought…
Andy Moran has always come across as an immensely likable character, the type of brilliant and committed footballer who the majority of neutral supporters around the country would like to see win an All-Ireland title. He has undergone crushing setbacks on big days like the All-Ireland final losses of 2004 and 2006, and low key days like the qualifier defeat to Longford in 2010, but has kept persisting for the Mayo cause. Under James Horan’s management he has flourished, winning his first Allstar award last year and excelling again this season.
His display in last Saturday’s quarter-final against Down encapsulated the package of honesty, determination and graft he brings to the table in being the fulcrum of the Mayo attack. On an afternoon when the Connacht side showed streaks of brilliance, it was a measure of Moran’s stature that the sight of him being wheeled off the pitch in distress midway through the second-half has been the major area of discussion since that game.
2012 has not been as shocking as 2011 in the amount of cruciate injuries but Moran’s incident was reminder of how a season can be killed in a second. His loss is a major blow to the aspirations of a developing Mayo team.