IF Mayo had a Gooch or a Declan O'Sullivan or an Aidan O'Mahony could they have beaten Donegal on Sunday?
Forgive us this flight of fantasy for a moment if you will, because Kerry in 2013 and Mayo 2012 look set to have at least one thing in common – physical trainer, Dr Cian O'Neill. If the UL lecturer could get a Mayo team that physically well prepared for a game against Donegal, what could he do with a more talented Kerry outfit?
Allow us to digress further. If Aidan O'Mahony had been stationed at full-back on the hulking presence of Michael Murphy, instead of the slight Kevin Keane, would MIchael Murphy had nabbed that early goal? There's a good chance he would have, Murphy is an exceptional talent, but the chances are the Kerry fullback would have stood a greater chance of halting his progress. If Colm Cooper or Declan O'Sullivan were playing in Green and Red last Sunday they surely would have made better use of the chances that came their way than Mayo's forwards did.
To give O'Neill all the credit for the shape Mayo were in for the All Ireland Final would be wrong – James Horan is obviously a talented manager, a passionate Mayo man and an inspirational figure – but from reading what people have had to say about the former Moorefield footballer in the build-up to the All Ireland it's clear he played a significant role. What we saw of Mayo on Sunday and, indeed, in the All Ireland semi-final against Dublin should give Kerry every hope that they can challenge Donegal and Dublin and Cork for Sam next year if O'Neill is on board.
Mayo were every bit as fit as Donegal. They weren't as strong, they lost out on a lot of fifty / fifty challenges and fumbled the ball more than you'd like to see, overall, however, they can be very happy with their afternoon's work – well as happy as you can be having lost an All Ireland Final. They horsed into Donegal, giving them as little time to think on the ball (once they settled down, an important proviso here) as Donegal gave them. They overstepped the line at times, there was a lot of body checking and tackles after the ball had gone.
One of two Donegal supporters mightn't have been best pleased. Mayo simply did what they had to do to stay competitive. Like we say, there were areas where Mayo came out second best. The tackle, crucially, wasn't one of them. They were quite impresive in how they wrenched the ball from Donegal players' hands. Nothing over the line about what they did, just hard and manly and straight up.
How much of that was down to O'Neill's physical preparation and how much of it was down to Horan's technique training we just don't know. One probably provided the platform for the other. So while Kerry football folk will be rightly excited by the prospect of O'Neill's arrival on the training fields of the Kingdom, it's by no means a panacea for what ails the Kingdom. The pressure is still on the man who identified him for the role – Kerry boss Eamonn Fitzmaurice – to deliver.
O'Neill will provide him with basis for success – a brilliantly prepared bunch of atheltes – it's up to Fitzmaurice to turn them into a football team capable of challenging the very best out there at the moment and make no mistake the pressure will be on him to deliver in his very first season. He doesn't necessarily have to deliver the Sam Maguire back to the Kingdom, but he does have to show definite signs of progress in that direction.
The good doctor was able to get Mayo in the right shape to challenge the single most physically impressive team in the history of the GAA – football or hurling – in the space of just twelve months, so there won't be much of an excuse for Kerry in the physical stakes next
summer. O'Neill joined Mayo after last year's All Ireland hurling final, when the Tipp team he trained to an All Ireland title in 2010 and to a losing All Ireland final appearance in 2009 lost out in the third installment of the Premier's epic trilogy of games with Brian Cody's Kilkenny.
He was credited with revolutionising Tipp's physical approach to the game. He was credited with revolutionising Mayo's. Can he strike it third time lucky with Kerry? There's no reason why he can't. It will, no doubt, be easier for the younger players on the panel to adapt to his methods than the older players – is it telling that Mayo's team was largely made up of young bucks this season? – but if they want success (it is the Raison d'être of a Kerry footballer) they will adapt.
It's a somewhat bold call by Fitzmaurice. Kerry have had people from outside the county involved at this level before – notably Pat Flanagan, the thing to remember about Flanagan is that he was based in the Kingdom at the time, a naturalised Kerry man almost.
So like we say a bold call, but more than likely a wise one.