Every great team has a row, but they close ranks when it's all over
Kerry's 'dead men walking' can still turn their season around, says Colm O'Rourke
T he much-documented travails of the Kerry footballers continue. Buffeted on all fronts by varying degrees of criticism for poor performances, with most of the sharpest barbs coming from their own supporters, the long march to freedom continues today against Antrim, a team who can't feel too good about themselves after getting a right trimming last week by Tyrone. Their season could implode in a week while Kerry struggle on.
Most of the attention today will focus on Kerry. If all their gifted players produced their best together, they would still be a serious force, even without Kieran Donaghy. At the moment, though, they are giving the distinct impression of dead men walking; a team finding football at the highest level more of a chore than the pure enjoyment it should be.
I can fully understand why it might be a bit of a drag. Six tough summers in a row followed by six long winters has been their fate and the careers of some of their greatest players have been defined as much by failure to Tyrone as by the days of triumph. Sometimes it can be nice to step off the treadmill for a summer.
I can recall having six similar years with Meath before getting beaten early in the 1992 championship by Laois. The immediate feeling of acute disappointment was replaced within a few days by a certain amount of relief. There was now a chance to do other things with the family, an opportunity to give something back to the club and a holiday could even be planned. Defeat has some advantages.
Kerry players won't want a similar scenario to unfold today but I am sure there are some who would like the freedom to go out at night without a thousand people wondering whether it was water or vodka in their glass.
Football life in Kerry can be like living in a goldfish bowl. Maybe that's what happened last weekend. There are times when players can blow a head gasket in this type of environment, and often it is no harm either. Meath had a couple of good blow-outs in my time. Seán Boylan did not encourage it, but he did not object either. When players are savaging each other in training, there is a need to take the foot off the pedal. A few drinks is the safety valve. The story has often been told of our trip to Scotland before the third replay with Dublin in 1991 which freshened us up and played a big part in our win.
If the mood of the camp is bad, then it needs to be sorted out. When the good and generous Noel Keating was alive and sponsoring the Meath team, he always felt there were times when there was a need for brutal honesty and management were not spared either. He said that you could leave blood on the walls at a meeting where everyone had a chance to say whatever they wanted but when it was over then it was back to work with no more back-biting.
Keating was a man apart, he could sense the mood of the team a mile away. We could do with men like him now in the midst of recession because there was only ever optimism in his mind. He would plot the way forward and bring thousands with him. Unfortunately, he has moved upstairs and is now God's chief adviser on the beef trade.
Rumours of Kerry disarray may be slightly exaggerated. This is an opportunity, not a crisis, and even if all is not entirely smooth in the Kingdom, there are still not many who could bring down the ageing gunfighter. Certainly not Antrim on the evidence of last week. They got an early lesson from Tyrone on what life is like at the sharp end. There was no shame in that. Antrim have travelled a long road this year in both league and championship and to take on Tyrone at the moment you would need to be up early in the morning.
The medicine now is to jump from the hottest fire back to the frying pan. To avoid a right burning today, they need a lot of players who did not perform last week to step up to a level which they have not achieved before and are probably not capable of, at least for the moment. The Chinese proverb says that the longest journey starts with the smallest step; the Antrim journey this year has had many big steps but they will have to wait until next spring to continue their progress.
Last week must have been a serious confidence hit to the Antrim players and the sight of a Kerry jersey is not what they need. It is asking too much to bounce back so quickly. A lot can be done in seven days. God created the world in a week, but he was not coming off a hiding against Tyrone.
Now Kerry are at a crossroads. The players are either fully committed or they are better off out. When you join the army, you wear the boots. In the last few games many of the players have given the impression of not enjoying this too much. Only Paul Galvin against Sligo seemed willing to fight his corner -- if that is not an inappropriate expression to use with Galvin. Yet without that fire in his belly he would not be half the player and would not be of any use to Kerry. If Gooch, Tommy Walsh, Aidan O'Mahony and about ten others followed his lead they could easily turn their season around.
It would only be fair too if Galvin was given the benefit of the doubt by referees occasionally. Just because a dog has a bad name does not mean he chases sheep every night. Anyway, this championship is becoming a test of the moral courage of the Kerry team. Whatever differences exist should be put behind them until the dead of winter. For now, there is a need for a few brave men to spark them out of self-destruct mode.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man -- who that is I don't know, but one thing for sure is that management have very hard decisions to make. One of these concerns is Darragh ó Sé -- he might not like being a second-half sub but it could be to the best advantage of the team.
If the stories are to be believed, the Gooch will be on the bench at the start of today's game. For me, his body language this year has hinted at a man unhappy in his work. He needs to become a leader who works for everyone; at the moment he has become too easy to mark and he is the one player above anyone who could light the torch.
An interesting week for Jack O'Connor and a big test of his leadership. Yet a Kerry win nonetheless. Every great team has a good row occasionally -- but they are only great if they pull harder together afterwards.