DESPITE reports to the contrary on Tuesday, Colm Cooper is not set to return for this weekend's crucial national league game against Down. Kerry selector Mikey Sheehy has dismissed the suggestion that Cooper could make an earlier than expected return to the Kerry jersey, saying that Cooper will not feature against Down this Saturday, or against Cork the following weekend. Sheehy added that he would be "very surprised if Gooch plays any national league football this year, but he will not play against Down or Cork, that's guaranteed", which might leave the door open for a return in Kerry's final league game away to Tyrone, although Kerry's fate could well be decided before that trip to Omagh on April 7.
With the game against Down now a 'must win' one for Kerry as they try to stave off the growing spectre of relegation there is good news and bad news in equal measure for Kerry in advance of the match. On the downside Kerry will certainly be without Tomas Ó Sé who serves a one match suspension for his red card sending off against Donegal. Sheehy said he didn't see the incident in Ballybofey, but after speaking to the player, Sheehy felt the incident was "handbags stuff" and that there was "very little in it" but Ó Sé will not appeal the red card and suspension.
Marc Ó Sé also left the field early against Donegal following a first half injury, and with the diagnosis down as heavy bruising on his hip bone, Sheehy says Marc has to be "rated extremely doubtful" to play against Down. Kieran Donaghy also suffered an injury that forced him off against Donegal, but Sheehy is more confident that Donaghy's sore ankle will heal sufficiently for him to be available on Saturday evening. Both players will be assessed when the senior panel train tonight (Wednesday).
Bryan Sheehan will not be available as he continues to work on his fitness, while Paul Geaney remains troubled by a hamstring injury and is unlikely to be ready for action this weekend.
On the positive front Anthony Maher is very close to making it back into the panel as he recovers from the calf injury that prevented him from travelling to Ballybofey last weekend. Also, Declan O'Sullivan and Paul Galvin have also been back in training for the last couple of weeks and according to Mikey Sheehy the management are hopeful that both players will be available to take their places on the substitutes bench against Down, at the very least.
Real participation from O'Sullivan, Galvin and Maher might be very much essential against Down if Kerry are to be at least competitive, whatever about getting a winning result. The small step forward taken in the narrow defeat was completely undone against Donegal at the weekend and it's becoming harder and harder to see where the next accomplished performance is going to come from. Once more the lack of incision in the forward unit and the almost complete lack of ability to even create scoring chances continues to be a huge cause for concern. One point from the established forwards in the starting team was Kerry's lot last Sunday, that a second half score from Darran O'Sullivan. The other scores came from a defender (Tomas Ó Sé), a defender / midfielder (Eoin Brosnan) and a midfielder nominally named in the half forwards (Johnny Buckley).
Against Donegal, James O'Donoghue, Donnchadh Walsh, Michael Geaney and Jonathan Lyne – who is a natural half back – barely managed a meaningful shot at the target between them. Declan O'Sullivan would certainly bring a significant scoring threat to the forward unit, while Paul Galvin – though not a prolific scorer – could certainly be the provider that is sorely lacking at the moment. Maher's presence would also give Kerry some badly needed experience and agility around the middle, allowing Kieran Donaghy – presuming he is passed fit – to start in the more conventional full forward role, a position in which he caused Donegal plenty of trouble in the final quarter in Ballybofey.
In Tomas Ó Sé's definite absence the easy solution would be to drop Jonathan Lyne back to the half back line, or drop Brosnan back there in the event that Maher can come into midfield. The other options are to hand a start to either Jack Sherwood or Brian McGuire, both of who were brought in against Donegal. In the event that Marc Ó Sé cannot recover in time then there is the option of bring Fionn Fitzgerald into the full back line as a direct replacement, while Mark Griffin has yet to see senior action and his involvement could be an option.
There is no secret about Down's unbeaten record over Kerry in the five meetings between the counties in the Championship, but that record counts for nothing in the League; and certainly not at this present time. Kerry went to Newry this time last year and beat Down, and at the start of this campaign Down were the favourites to be relegated .Now, however, Kerry are favourites for the drop so the goalposts have shifted significantly.
Down lost their first game at home to Tyrone by three points, and then suffered a five-point loss in Ballybofey. This was followed by a one-point loss to Cork in Newry in a game they really ought to have won comfortably, and they come into Saturday's game on the back of a two-point home win over Mayo. All in all, it's a set of results and scorelines that suggests James McCartan's team is in a better place right now than Eamonn Fitzmaurice's.
Down are not without their missing players either, with Dan Gordon, Ambrose Rodgers and Danny Hughes on the absent list, but it's the players they are currently fielding that should worry Kerry. Their forward division against Mayo at the weekend comprised Conor Laverty, Mark Poland, Paul McComiskey, Donal O'Hare, Connaire Harrison and Benny Coulter, all of whom are very accomplished players. O'Hare won't be familiar to Kerry people from the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2010, but he is an immense talent and could cause a weakened Kerry full-back line untold trouble. Throw in defenders of the quality of Dan McCartan, Aidan Carr, Rayn Mallon and Brendan McArdle, and this could be another uncomfortable and difficult evening for Kerry.