House that Jack built in danger of collapse
Published 07/08/2012 | 17:00
Dominance in Gaelic football has largely centred on a circle of power involving three teams for the best part of the last 15 years.
From the mid-1990s to the start of the noughties, that circle included Kerry, Galway and Meath, who carved up six All-Ireland titles between them from 1996 to 2001.
When Galway and Meath both lost their way after the 2001 All-Ireland final, it was Armagh and Tyrone who stepped up to replace them and from 2002 to 2006, Mayo were the only other county to contest an All-Ireland final outside the trio of Kerry, Tyrone and Armagh.
From the middle to the end of the 2000s, Armagh lost altitude as Cork emerged to take their place alongside Kerry and Tyrone.
Over the last couple of years, the deck chairs have shifted again, with Tyrone crashing out in successive All-Ireland quarter-finals to Dublin, who joined Cork and Kerry in that nominal 'top three'.
Now, for the first time in a decade and a half, Kerry are out of that circle. It may seem hasty to make such a judgement at this stage, but the nature of their two championship defeats this season have determined it. Would they occupy one of the front three places on next year's starting grid?
They owe nothing of course and some of their players rank as some of the greatest to have played the game.
The record of consistency in reaching every All-Ireland quarter-final since the concept of a last eight was developed in 2001 keeps them very close to the top.
But their All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Donegal may well be the most seismic result in the county since the 1987 Munster final replay defeat to Cork. There have been worse defeats for different reasons -- last year's All-Ireland final for heartbreak against the Dubs, the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final to Tyrone when they came off worse in a clash of two styles, and the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final loss to Meath for the scale of it.
But all of these dark clouds contained silver linings. In 2003, Colm Cooper and Declan O'Sullivan were young men, just 20 years of age, and Darragh O Se was in his prime.
Even last September there was the feeling that the hurt felt by the loss to Dublin, and especially the nature of it, would drive them back to the same place 12 months later.
But it couldn't and it didn't and now a stark choice has presented itself. To twist or to stick?
That is the burning question facing players, management and Kerry football at large in the coming days and weeks as they ponder a probable future where they are no longer the pre-eminent force in Gaelic football.
That much was evident for long spells of Sunday's defeat to Donegal.
The depth of their squad has been reflected in the quality of substitutions all summer and the fact that when it came to championship selection, Jack O'Connor reverted to the tried and trusted, rather than the new recruits that drove Kerry to the top of the Division 1 standings before the semi-final defeat to Mayo in April.
That shallow depth will more than likely have O'Connor, or any prospective new manager, leaning on many, if not all, of the 30-somethings to hang in over the next few months and keep their options open.
The unshakable belief that Kerry will always produce footballers no matter what will be tested more than ever in the coming years. Even now, two of the three players that did most to inspire the last significant underage success the county enjoyed, when they won the 2008 All-Ireland U-21 final, are out of the picture.
David Moran has been desperately unlucky to sustain a recurrence of a cruciate ligament injury which has kept him out for a second season, while Tommy Walsh is in his third season as an AFL professional with no indication of a change in his circumstances that would lure him back.
In different circumstances, both could be in the prime of their Gaelic football careers now, providing the hope that was once sourced from the likes of Cooper and O'Sullivan.
Fundamentally, Kerry football is also undergoing change that may require a different type of footballer to develop in the future.
More than once in the last of the weekend's All-Ireland football quarter-finals a Donegal player with possession in the middle third of the field looked up to see a wall of blue shirts in front of him.
It was a sight that we have got used over the last couple of seasons.
But there was no real order to how Kerry set themselves up defensively. The security was in the numbers they flooded their own path with, not what those numbers did when they stationed themselves there.
Sometimes there were 10, more often than not 11, defending their territory in front of Brendan Kealy. But they didn't always look comfortable or have the belief in what they were doing that has underpinned Donegal's challenge. From a management point of view, O'Connor may feel he has given all he can give.
The feeling in Kerry yesterday was that he will not see out the last 12 months of the three-year term he took in the wake of the All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Down two years ago.
A meeting with county board officials is expected to take place later this week to determine his future. They are keen for him to see out that commitment, but Jack is believed to be prepared to allow a new man to redraw the parameters.
For Kerry football, the pathway back to the top has always been shorter than it has been for every other county. But this time there might not be a quick fix.