Round One win leaves Kerry looking ahead instead of up
Paul Brennan was in Letterkenny to witness Kerry’s first opening weekend National League since 2012 and was impressed by what he saw
Not since Kerry beat Dublin by six points five years ago, almost to the day (February 4), had a team from the Kingdom won a National Football League match on the opening weekend of the competition. In the greater scheme of things it's not a statistic that affected Kerry much one way or the other later in those subsequent four years, but there was a quiet satisfaction among the green and gold camp that last Sunday's win over Donegal in Letterkenny last has Kerry on the front this time.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice didn't need to be told that he hadn't presided over a winning Kerry team on the League's opening weekend in his four seasons in charge, but there was no denying his satisfied demeanour under the main stand in O'Donnell Park as his troops filed past him after a largely impressive 1-17 to 2-17 win. Mayo (2013 and 2015) and Dublin (2014 and 2016) have inflicted those four round one defeats since Fitzmaurice took charge, and it remains most likely that Kerry will have to beat Mayo and then Dublin later in the year if they are to win back the All-Ireland title.
For now, though, beating Donegal in Letterkenny was as good as Kerry could have hoped for, and with Mayo due in Tralee on Saturday evening there's another opportunity for the home side to be closer to the top of the division than the bottom after two rounds, which hasn't been the case in some time. As pleasing as the victory and the points were for Fitzmaurice and the players, the nature of the performance (the last 10 minutes aside) will have given all concerned the most satisfaction.
Fitzmaurice is on record as saying the preparations are somewhat at a more advanced stage this year than possibly in any of the previous four seasons he's been at the helm, and that was fairly obvious last Sunday. Having Paul Geaney and James O'Donoghue injury free and on a pitch together this early in the year has certainly been a huge plus, while the fairly recent model of bringing in a few U-21 players considers to bear fruit.
Tom O'Sullivan was outstanding against Donegal, and whether it was on clear instruction from management or that he simply improvised, the Dingle man played totally on the front foot and looked to be in Kerry's attacking half of the pitch as much as he was in the defensive half. The only pity is that Saturday's fixture against Mayo will be the last opportunity for O'Sullivan, who returns to U-21 duty thereafter, to play in a senior team until, in all likelihood, the Munster Championship comes around. The same goes for Jason Foley who was quietly efficient at corner back.
Jack Barry should get opportunities beyond next weekend, and though the Na Gaeil man didn't start in Letterkenny he was introduced after four minutes owing to Shane Enright's game-ending concussion. With Tadhg Morley starting alongside David Moran at midfield, before the former dropped back to accommodate Barry in midfield, there are options for Kerry at no.8 and no.9 in the absence of Anthony Maher, Bryan Sheehan, Johnny Buckley and Kieran Donaghy.
Morley, as he showed after being thrust into senior action in last year's Munster Championship, not having played any League football, is a cool customer, a superb athlete and an intelligent footballer. A natural looking half back, he hasn't looked out of place at midfield so far this year, but it's Barry who could be the proper heir to a midfield jersey if things fall right for him during the League. With a view to taking on Mayo and especially Dublin later on in the year, Kerry need to find some more mobility in midfield, á la Brian Fenton, and Barry could just fulfil that need.
Now the senior man in a more youthful looking defence, Killian Young was the go to man to mark Patrick McBrearty after Enright's departure, and while the Donegal dynamo certainly carried the fight for home side last Sunday, Young handled McBrearty will typical tenacity. Enright will miss the game against Mayo so it remains to be seen if Morley drops back into defence or if Brian Ó Beaglaoich can force his way back in after missing the trip north last weekend.
After a difficult day in the McGrath Cup final, Jack Savage bounced back with a strong performance against Donegal, scoring two points from play, and working back and tackling hard as is expected at this level.
It would be remiss not to acknowledge that the Donegal was some way short of recent Championship teams from that county or, indeed, even the team that came to Tralee twelve months ago for that fiery contest that Kerry had to battl extremely hard to win. Devoid of several marquee players and All-Ireland winners due to retirement and other reasons, Rory Gallagher fielded a fairly new-look Donegal side with McBrearty, Michael Murphy, Paddy McGrath, Ryan McHugh and Darrach O'Connor the only players from the 2014 All-Ireland final losing team to feature last Sunday.
That said, Kerry still had to be properly prepared physically and mentally to take and beat on a team that never gives anything less that maximum effort. That was evident in how Donegal remained ultra competitive until the final kick, even when nine points adrift after 57 minutes. That late slump was something Fitzmaurice and David Moran referenced after the game, but even as Donegal ate into that deficit there was an assuredness to Kerry that suggested the win was safe.
With Dublin and Tyrone winning on Sunday also, Mayo's loss to Monaghan the previous evening was the only blip as far as the would be League title contenders were concerned. Early days still, of course, and by round 4 or 5 things could be considerably different as far as the Division One standings go. For now, though, Kerry find themselves in an unfamiliar but welcome - and deserved - space: looking ahead but not up.