KERRY football has been down this road before - and not too long ago either - but this time it feels different. This time there is a very real sense that an era has ended. One national commentator suggested that the Munster semi-final defeat to Cork last June was "the day the music died" for the Kerry team as it has been since 2004. That prophecy might have been a little premature then but last Sunday's defeat to Donegal in the All- Ireland quarter-final had a lot of signs of being the swansong for what has been a brilliant team.
There was always a fear that this team's hard years at the forefront of Championship football for close on a decade might catch up with them on a big Championship day against a younger, more ferocious and, crucially, a more driven team, and that's exactly what came to pass last weekend.
Under Jim McGuinness, Donegal have re-invented themselves as a football team. They have devised a formula and a way of playing that they hope will deliver the county's second ever All-Ireland title - 20 years after their first. They have shown utter faith in their manager's vision, they have made huge sacrifices as players and as people, and they are being bloody-minded in their pursuit of their AllIreland dream. It sounds a bit like Kerry and Jack O'Connor in 2004, doesn't it?
It might not be pretty, it might not be traditional football as we know it and want it in Kerry, but Gaelic football has always been a results business. Always has, always will be. Donegal, if they are to bring the Sam Maguire to the North West next month, will do so on their terms. Should they go on and win the title they will be forever more known as All- Ireland champions for 2012, and they won't give a damn about how their tactics or style is perceived by anyone. Nor should they.
Kerry, too, have changed their style down through the ages; maybe not instigating the changes but certainly reacting to others. And it has served Kerry football well. Eight years ago Jack O'Connor took charge of a Kerry team that had been handed a beating by a Tyrone team determined to change the face of modern football to suit themselves. Kerry, under O'Connor, reacted to it, and in some respects mimicked it. 'Work-rate' became the mantra, and holding possession was king. For the most part it served Kerry well. Tyrone - twice - remained insurmountable but this new-styled Kerry team still went to six consecutive All-Ireland finals immediately after that watershed summer of 2003, winning four All-Ireland titles between 2004 and 2009.
But, naturally, everything organic has a shelf life and slowly and reluctantly, but inevitably, the wheels have been coming off the chariot since then. 2010 brought retirements and an All-Ireland quarter-final exit at the hands of Down. 2011 ended with an agonising All- Ireland final defeat to Dublin - a game the old Kerry would certainly have won - which was another tell-tale sign of the dying of the light.
Last Sunday was just another re-affirmation that another of Kerry's golden ages is all but over.
That's not to suggest that the All- Ireland title might not be Kerry's next year or the year after - they should remain one of the top three or four teams - but as far as the core of the great 2004 to 2009 team is concerned, the weekend's defeat to Donegal - albeit only by a whisker in the end, and with several mitigating factors - would suggest the end of an era.
Appetite for success doesn't guarantee success, but Donegal were every bit as driven as the Kerry team that emerged in 2004 after harrowing defeats (for different reasons) to Meath, Armagh and Tyrone in 2001, 2002 and 2003 respectively.
It was thought - hoped perhaps - that Kerry's combination of hungry youth and more sated, but hugely experienced old guard would be able to handle a hungrier but less experienced Donegal side. A team still, it seemed, trying to perfect a very deliberate system of a packed defence, combined with lightning fast counterattacking all wrapped up in a voracious work ethic. In the end, Donegal's way worked, but only just.
The key to Donegal's gameplan is to get an early lead - or not concede an early deficit - and preserve it from there as if their lives depended on it. Colm McFadden's goal - a combination of good fortune on Donegal's part and a woeful mix-up between Brendan Kealy and Aidan O'Mahony in the Kerry defence - was exactly the platform McGuinness's team needed. It was a small lead, briefly stretched to four points after seven minutes, but it was enough for the Ulster champions to switch to ultra-defensive mode and start to strangle the life out of Kerry. Like Tyrone in 2003, Kerry had no answer to it, although unlike in 2003 Kerry should and would have been expecting it last Sunday.
In the rarefied oxygen of Croke Park, Kerry tried to probe and prod, circumvent and go over the top, but Donegal stood firm. By half time Kerry had scored five points - four from play - but Donegal had mined 1-4 from the chaos, and were exactly where they