IN the autumn of 1999, a letter from the Kerry County Board arrived for me to my home in Cromane.
On opening it I got the great news that I had been selected on the Kerry senior panel for the upcoming National League games against Cork, Tyrone and Dublin. This was back when the league schedule saw three games played before the Christmas break. To say I was surprised would be an understatement as I was still only 19 and had played just one year at U-21. However, Kerry were coming off the back of a disappointing year losing to Cork in that year's Munster Final and Páidí Ó Sé was looking to shake up his squad with some young blood.
As I was still a student and living at home, it was arranged for me to travel in the 'South Kerry' car, which would collect me in Killorglin. I arrived well before the arranged time for fear I'd miss my lift and as the car pulled up I noticed a familiar face in the passengers seat.
'It's not him, is it?' I thought as the gear bag was thrown into the boot.
I sat in the back and nervously said my hellos. A hand reached back to welcome me, the hand of none other than Maurice Fitzgerald. I froze like a deer in headlights.
So, here we are at the start of another National League campaign. Where did that winter go? I think the Kerry players will feel that it couldn't have gone fast enough. After narrowly losing the All-Ireland quarter-final in August, the players have had a good break, recharged the batteries and are hungry for action again. It didn't surprise me to see players like Marc and Tomas Ó Sé, Killian Young and Darran O'Sullivan playing in the McGrath Cup.
Players want to play. They started back training, of course, under a new management. A new era. Eamonn Fitzmaurice – similar to Páidí Ó Sé back in '99 – I'm sure will be using the National League, as he has the McGrath Cup, to have a look at some new and not so new faces. The run of games over the past month has given the likes of Fionn Fitzgerald and Jonathan Lyne in defence, Andrew Garnett in midfield and Brian Looney and Mike O'Donoghue up front, the chance to impress the new boss and they all performed well.
Getting the balance right will be the key. Eamonn and his management team will, of course, be aiming to win every game in the league and reach the league final in the spring. It is no fluke that from 2004 to 2009 that a good league campaign set us up nicely leading into the championship. The more games guys got the better and it allowed the management to have a look at the whole squad. Not forgetting that the reward for getting to a league final is a game in Croke Park and the more games you can play there the better.
They will be anxious to head into the Championship campaign having a strong squad so the competition for places will benefit the team in the long run. In the modern game, a team's replacements can prove the difference between winning and losing a game, which is why the younger players will need experience during the league.
It will also be interesting to see if the management use the League to change our style of play slightly. I know the Kerry public hate the words ' defensive football', but we have to realise the game has changed. This really hit me when I rejoined the panel for a short while at the start of last year. I remember at training one evening, we were doing a very intense tackling drill, which I was stuggling to get to grips with.
After the session ended, Jack O'Connor pulled me aside and hammered home the fact that the game has gone to another level since 2009 when I had initially left the squad. Other counties realise that football ability alone just won't do. Teams are putting huge emphasis on defensive set-ups and I'm sure Kerry will be doing the same, albeit still trying to play the 'Kerry way'.
I'm sure on his drive home on Saturday evening last, Eamonn Fitzmaurice had a feeling of job done. The McGrath Cup was probably not on the top of his agenda, but it served a purpose and has delivered his first piece of silverware as Kerry manager. Now the focus turns to Castlebar on Sunday. Never an easy place to go but it's a great test for this Kerry team, especially for the younger players. It's an ideal game for the guys who may be making their debuts or playing in their first big game for Kerry.
Jack O'Connor always made the point that sometimes playing away from home was easier as the pressure of playing in front of a big home crowd in Tralee or Killarney can affect a player, especially if it's your first time pulling on the green and gold.
Our record against Mayo in the Championship in recent years has been good, but I can recall us getting a battle in the League every time we went up there.
In saying that, Kerry have a good few weeks training in the tank and, of course, the four competitive games over the past four weekends. Kerry to win and get their league campaign off to a great start.