SO following last Saturday's McGrath Cup success the shadow boxing is well and truly over and it's now down to the real business of the league against Mayo next Sunday.
The league always excites because during this competition you are presented with the opportunity to really discover if the up and coming young players have got what it takes to make the grade in the forthcoming championship. The old adage as expounded to me on one occasion by the late great former winning Kerry captain (1955) John Dowling, "leagues are for playing in and championships are for winning", probably sums up best of all what lies before us in the upcoming matches.
However, it must also be said that not alone will the younger, inexperienced players be on trial, but the older, long serving men will also have to prove that they too still have the desire, that will-to-win and more importantly the legs to stay with their opponents from the various counties the Kingdom will face in the coming months. And make no mistake about it: this is one year in which those long serving warriors on the panel will be tested to the limit as they strive might and main, while putting their lives on hold for one last almighty push for All Ireland glory.
And they will be judged by this new Kerry back room team on how they perform not alone in the league, but also in training.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice, true to his word has really experimented in the McGrath Cup. He has used over thirty players. This competition has proved a very useful exercise to Eamonn and his new trainer / selector Cian O'Neill and, while the opposition has been a long way from top class, the younger players have been given a great opportunity to establish themselves, experience the excitement and pressures of pulling on the Kerry jersey while attempting to impress the selectors as IT Tralee, UCC, Limerick and Tipperary have been easily defeated.
So coming into league action the age profile of the panel is nicely mixed. A lot of young guns chomping at the bit to nail down a place on the starting fifteen or indeed even on the panel for the coming year. They may not have reached that standard of a Kerry star, but have certainly played to the very best of their potential in the McGrath Cup.
Indeed, on this very point the one thing I greatly admired about Eamonn Fitzmaurice while in charge of the county under twenty ones was his ability to get the very best out of each and every single young Kerry footballer on the day of the big game. This in itself is a distinctive gift and one not every manager / trainer possesses, that of getting the new younger players to play to their maximum abilities when the time arrives to wear the green and gold in a competitive match. Man management and communication skills are a massive part of being in charge of people.
And so to the next step on the road to a Kerry recovery, Castlebar next Sunday, and Mayo await. James Horan, the Mayo manager, has used his three FBD Connacht League games in efforts to unearth some new blood. A draw, a defeat and a win is the result of his labours. Based on Horan's selections so far, Michael Walsh, Keith Rodgers and Tom Cunniffe are favourites for defensive positions, while Cathal Carolan and Conor O'Shea have been given a chance up front.
Mayo had just returned from an America holiday so their FBD results are irreverent really. But let's not forget they contested the two major finals last year, league and championship and Horan has demanded and succeeded in bringing much needed strength to his side. As he said himself recently: "my philosophy boils down to two words, hard work."
There will be an added spice to this clash as Kerry's Donie Buckley will be on the Mayo sideline and Cian O'Neill, who was influential in a very big way in Mayo's march to those two national finals, will be on the Kerry sideline. The two O'Shea brothers at midfield will prove a handful for any Kerry man and Mayo will hope that Cillian O'Connor, Alan Dillon and Evan Regan will have recovered from injuries for next Sunday. They missed all three of FBD League games.
And so the first big test for the new Kerry management is at hand. The Dr Crokes lads will, of course, be absent and we will probably see a nice mix of young and old. Naming the first fifteen now would only be pure speculation on my part but the age profile of the panel is looking much healthier as the road to redemption gets under way. David Culhane and Jack Sherwood (21), Jonathan Lyne, James O'Donoghue, Barry John Keane (22), while Patrick Curtin (23) and the Geaneys have all been excellent in the McGrath Cup victory.
I was hugely impressed with Kieran Donaghy's return to his high fielding abilities in his two games. Anthony Maher continues to blossom and his North Kerry winning exploits with Duagh will give him added confidence and self assurance. Johnny Buckley and, of course, the exceptional Bryan Sheehan will all share the midfield duties during this coming league crusade.
It's going to be an intriguing league campaign as the Kerry sideline generals attempt to mix the young with the older players. The highly knowledgeable and well informed Kerry supporters will watch with huge interest every team selection, every substitution, and every individual display as the league unfolds. Some players will need more time to get fitter; some will motor far better during the long summer days while others may find the lack of big match experience or a body plagued by injury due to years of constant training and playing just too much.
Kerry has completed the League and Championship double on ten occasions. In 1928-29, 1930-31, 1931-32, 1958-59, 1968-69, 1996-97, 1983-84 the league stradled two calendar years.
It then reverted to being played during the one calendar year with Kerry winning it in 2004, 2006 and 2009. All were League and Champiolnship double winning years. Will this coming League campaign have any bearing on the Championship?
Judge for yourself. I believe it will.