Kerry face harsh vision of the future
Published 05/02/2013 | 04:00
Some time after what little dust was risen in the first place had settled back down on MacHale Park on Sunday, the former Kerry midfielder Ambrose O'Donovan was delivering his critique back to the listeners of Radio Kerry from the top of the stand in Castlebar.
With Dublin in Killarney seven days later, Ambrose had a chilling message from the trenches for those who had not been there to witness it themselves.
Play like that again, he warned, and they'd lose by "a point a man".
Kerry lose to Dublin by a point a man? In Killarney?
With none of the established veterans due to report back for duty by Sunday – one of their better performers Johnny Buckley returns to Dr Crokes for preparations for their All-Ireland club semi-final the following weekend – Kerry's young players must dig themselves out of the hole they find themselves in after returning their lowest score since the nine points posted against Tyrone in the drawn 2007 league match in Tralee.
Much and all as Eamonn Fitzmaurice and his management might like to add the names of Cooper, O'Sullivan, O'Sullivan, Brosnan and Donaghy to their team sheet next Sunday, maybe it's best that this is the way for now.
Eventually, Kerry football is going to have to stay standing without the crutch of some of Gaelic football's stellar names over the last decade propping them up.
When the cavalry does arrive after club championship business is wrapped up, honeymoons are over and wear and tear eases off, Kerry will be fine. Panic over for this year anyway.
But beyond that? Maybe last Sunday was a vision of what the future might be like. Failing to score in an entire half of football, albeit against a strong wind, was something the most seasoned of Kerry observers couldn't recall before.
The striking thing was that Mayo didn't have to be even close to their best to establish a six-point cushion. They were at their ease, always looking like they had a bit in hand.
"I wasn't concerned about the result, it was much more the performance," said O'Donovan yesterday. "And I would be concerned about the future beyond those quality players missing on Sunday.
"Maybe too many of them were tried at the same time. But in fairness to Eamonn, he didn't have a lot of other options."
They have always found a way to recover from these type of defeats. But perhaps the old certainty that Kerry may not always produce great teams at underage level but will always produce great players may be just beginning to wear a little thin now.
During his second term in charge Jack O'Connor felt compelled to coax a number of players out of retirement. With Mike McCarthy and Eoin Brosnan it worked, with Sean O'Sullivan it didn't. That Jack felt compelled to think that way in the first place suggested a quality deficit as much as it signalled his great instinct that there was more in those who came back.
Kerry's underage record in Munster over the last decade doesn't make for overly-encouraging reading. One Munster U-21 title, translated into All-Ireland success in 2008, stands alone in that grade but at minor level there have been provincial titles in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009.
The subsequent contribution from the pillars of that U-21 team has been somewhat limited. Tommy Walsh has been in Australia since winning his 2009 All-Ireland medal, David Moran has been two years battling cruciate ligament injuries and, despite a return to training, a competitive comeback is still some time away yet.
Maybe underage honours don't really matter in the greater scheme of things. The progression of great young teams is not a linear business.
But it can provide a rough guide as to what's ahead and for Kerry it doesn't paint an optimistic picture in the medium term.
The cliff that lurks beyond the current raft of thirtysomethings who continue to hold it together may be steeper than anyone previously thought.
Not since the landmark All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone in 2003 have they failed to score more than six points in a match.
Only James O'Donoghue's well-taken goal elevated them above that tally against Mayo, his burst through two defenders a rare spark of class from a Kerry player.
O'Donoghue will continue to establish a foothold in the months ahead while Buckley can also measure up as decent cover for either Bryan Sheehan or Anthony Maher. Peter Crowley still looks capable of picking up one of the three positions in defence that are up for grabs.
The dearth of real quality on their bench was never more apparent last August when Sheehan and Brosnan were forced off with injuries and momentum was lost.
There is always a temptation to over-play a Kerry defeat of this nature, rare as they are, because of the high standards they set for themselves. When O'Connor lost his first game in charge to Longford in 2004 he recalled hoping how the ground would swallow him up before they got back to Kerry.
It's just as well then that Fitzmaurice is an unflappable sort of character. His post-match assessment of one of Kerry's most disappointing league days in a long time was delivered with good grace, honesty and composure.
Kerry will need a lot of those qualities this week as the visit of Dublin takes on added significance.