WICKLOW, very nearly, did Kerry a favour on Sunday afternoon.
They were expected to lose to Laois and, yes, they did lose. What we didn't expect was that they would come as close as they did to the table toppers. Nor did we expect that were it not for the heroics of Laois goalkeeper Eoin Reilly, the Garden County could have taken something from the game in O'Moore Park. A result for Wicklow, a win or a draw, would have seen the Kingdom into the league final.
That's why it was so important Kerry win this game. You really can never say never. We didn't expect Kerry to qualify for the league final and they didn't, but they could have done. Therein lies the rub. When Derry went clear with just a few minutes remaining on the clock Kerry could have been forgiven for thinking it didn't really matter whether they won or lost and if it didn't really matter whether they won or lost why bother affecting a fight back?
They had enough excuses: the injuries to key players before throw-in, the loss of Tommy Barrett to a second yellow card, the wind blowing against their faces. This isn't a team that does excuses. This isn't a team that meekly accepts its fate. Even when they have absolutely nothing left to play for – such as the final minutes of the Laois game – they keep on battling to the last. With the slim chance of a place in the league final on the line, with a morale boosting victory ahead of the Christy Ring Cup there for the taking, they were always going to fight.
Shane Nolan, who picked up a knock in the first half, battled until the last. He drew a free form Conor Quinn, he provided the assist for Aidan Boyle's last gasp equaliser. He really did deserve a crack at the league final. All these players did. Patrick O'Keeffe who started the counter-attack that led to Boyle's winner deserved a crack at the league final.
"It's a bit of an anti-clixmax for the team," team boss Tom Howard admitted.
"You're delighted for the players, you're delighted for the people who came out and supported us, small numbers but the same people come out again and again and again. It is a bit of an anti-climax, you're delighted with the win, a real cliff-hanger of the game and you come in and you're still alive, still alive and you hear that Laois are after winning by four points so it is a bit of a disappointment, but we'll take the positives out of it.
"Tonight we'll chill out, I'm going to stay around and we'll have a beer and enjoy the night with the boys and look forward to the Christy Ring."
That it is a disappointment that Kerry have missed out on a place in the league final says all you need to know about the progress Kerry have made ever since Tom Howard assumed the reins. Down nearly two thirds of the team which John Meyler built, the Clarecastle man was handed a difficult assignment. Yet in three short months he's developed a team with real character, a team with youth and vim and vigour and the potential to grow.
Every single box has been ticked by the management and the players during this campaign. A place in the league final would have been the cherry on top. No more than that. The development of the players, of the team, is what really matters. A couple months ago who would have thought (apart from the manager) that Tommy Barrett would have stepped up to the mark at senior level so impressively? Or Daniel Collins? Or Brendan O'Leary?
"We've an awful lot of young lads," Howard said.
"I think we have nine under 22s playing in the first fifteen and this is all new to them and, even for the fellas who have played a bit they're still only 23 years of age, they have been a major lift to us. The likes of Brendan O'Leary, he's just been a giant all through the league. A fella who at the start of the year you'd be saying: "will he make it?", but he's probably been our most consistent hurler. When the dirty ball needs to be won he steps forward takes the hit, wins the ball carries it on, gets pucked, gets belted and gets up for more."
The development of these young players makes one wonder as to the wisdom of drafting in outside players as Howard has now done – bringing former Galway Under 21 player Stephen Page into the panel ahead of the Christy Ring Cup. It might help Kerry to win a couple of games in the Christy Ring Cup by having an additional fusion of quality, by the same token beyond the short term what is the long term benefit to Kerry hurling?
Better surely giving a Tommy Barrett or a Daniel Collins the game time instead of a player from outside the county. This, by the way, is not to question the bona fides of those players coming in from the outside – Bernard Rochford has been a great servant to Kerry hurling this past three or four years and without Willie O'Dwyer Kerry wouldn't have beaten Wicklow – or to question the manager's judgement in bringing these guys on board.
Howard has made it clear where his loyalties lie – with those who have brought Kerry this far. That's the way it should be. Howard is clearly a good manager. A good motivator. We'd fully expect the players to remain motivated for the Christy Ring Cup campaign and who's to say that a little bit of extra competition in the panel isn't exactly what's needed at this moment in time?
"We started that process last week," Howard said of the preparations.
"We brought in a few new players and had a bit of a game amongst what we have in the panel plus a few more and we'll do that a few more times over the next couple of weeks. We need to look under every stone and see where we can get another player or two. We'll have, from what started today, five more players coming back from injury and we'll try find one or two more."
Howard will hope to have Michael Conway back from his long term injury by the time the Down game rolls around on May 4. He'll also hope to have Ally O'Connor back in the fold by then, as well as the players who missed out on Sunday through injury – Tom Murnane, Brendan Brosnan and Willie O'Dwyer. A panel we feared was short of numbers at certain times during the league seems to be getting stronger.
Colm Harty started against Derry and had a quietly effective first half, Sean Maunsell nabbed a goal in his first start of the season and both Pat Joe Connolly and Padraig Boyle are pushing hard for a place in the first fifteen – Boyle, more willing to go for scores, would seem to be shading the battle between the two young Ballyduff stars for the moment at least. And like we said last week the return of Liam Boyle (who came back fit as a fiddle having missed a few months training with the Kingdom) is a huge boost.
Kerry are the top ranked team going into the Christy Ring. They're favourites to win it. How this young, seemingly fearless, team copes will be interesting.
Roll on May 4.