Kerry's need for new blood
DON'T WRITE us off yet. That was Jack O'Connor's sharp warning after Kerry were beaten by Cork at Pairc Ui Chaoimh last Sunday.
If the Kingdom weren't held in such esteem, the stampede to do just that could have been regarded as schadenfreude. Yet, there seemed little maliciousness about it -- just a sense of regret from those who believe this great team may finally have run out of road.
But recent history shows that you would want to be very brave or very foolish to call time on them.
Kerry have won six of the last 10 Munster finals, including the last two, and look what happened on the two occasions that they failed to reach the provincial decider in the last decade.
In 2002 they took out Wicklow, Fermanagh and Kildare in the qualifiers, conceding eight points or less in each game. Galway and the old Rebel enemy were then emphatically swatted in the All-Ireland series before Armagh pipped them in the final.
Their back-door odyssey in 2009 was a lot hairier, but the end result proved even better.
Longford gave their scalp a right tug and Antrim also provided them with a right dogfight, but the natural order was restored once they reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
O'Connor's charges conceded just 1-7 to both Dublin and Meath (while scoring 1-24 against the Dubs) and Cork were held to 10 scores (1-9) in the final as 'Sam' returned to the home of football for a record 36th time.
The culmination of last year's All-Ireland final loss to Dublin and defeat now by Cork means that Kerry's capacity to take the scenic route to glory again has been questioned.
For the second year in a row, their management is getting it in the neck for operating a largely defensive game-plan that is anathema to those who adore Kerry's traditional freewheeling style.
The age profile of some of their stars and how they'll deal with the prospect of another wearisome back-door campaign has been highlighted by those who believe they are in terminal decline.
O'Connor blooded quite a few new players during the Allianz League and selected four of them -- Peter Crowley, Shane Enright, Daniel Bohan and Patrick Curtin -- for their Munster opener against Tipperary.
But when it came to picking the team to play Cork, only one of those players survived -- wing-back Crowley. -- with Bohan (Man of the Match against Tipp) losing out apparently on the basis of form shown in a training match.
James O'Donoghue's impressive run off the bench last Sunday has increased the clamour for O'Connor to give some youngsters another chance now.
But there is a mistaken presumption that you can just pick brilliant footballers off the Kingdom's pretty hedgerows. The genesis of their success of the past decade came from two U-21 teams in the '90s.
Their All-Ireland-winning U-21s of 1995 and '96 provided players like Darragh O Se, Eamonn Fitzmaurice, Diarmuid Murphy, Dara O Cinneide and Mike Frank Russell.
Two years later Kerry won another All-Ireland U-21 title with future stars like Tomas O Se, Tom O'Sullivan, Mike McCarthy and Tommy Griffin among their ranks.
During the '90s, Kerry contested seven All-Ireland U-21 finals, winning four of them, and teams like Dublin and Tyrone have shown recently that U-21 success still remains the best barometer (though no guarantee) of future senior success.
Since the '90s, Kerry have contested and won only one All-Ireland U-21 final -- in 2008. They last won the Munster U-21 championship five years ago, losing the 2010 final to Tipperary and the last two to Cork.
At minor level, their last All-Ireland victory was in '94, and they have contested only three finals since ('96, '04 and '06).
A week ago, Marc O Se stressed that he hadn't had much underage success himself (one Munster minor title), so that's not necessarily the only measure of potential.
But in the past 12 months, the Kerry County Board have taken affirmative action to get their underage programmes back on track.
Mickey Ned O'Sullivan and John O'Keeffe were not only put in charge of the county minors (who have reached this year's Munster final), they have also drawn up a new underage system that will provide continuity of training and coaching for all county development squads.
Two inspirational figures of more recent vintage -- Darragh O Se and Eamonn Fitzmaurice -- were put in charge of the county's U-21s team.
Former Kerry senior and ex-Limerick and Laois manager Liam Kearns believes the benefits have already been seen.
"I was at this year's Munster U-21 final and while Cork were a better team, Kerry made the best of their players and did well to take them to extra-time," he said.
"Mickey Ned believes that Kerry's physical conditioning at underage is way behind counties like Cork, Tyrone and Dublin, and that is being addressed now, too."
Kearns firmly believes there are several more good seasons left in Kerry's current senior line-up, but does have worries about the defence.
"We have that golden triumvirate in attack -- (Colm) Cooper, (Kieran) Donaghy and Declan O'Sullivan -- and I believe they all have another three of four years in them," he said.
"I would have started James O'Donoghue against Cork because he's lightning quick and he did very well when he came on. "Players like himself, Kieran O'Leary, Paddy Curtin and Barry John Keane have shown there's plenty of young forwards coming through capable of becoming inter-county seniors."
Kearns accepts that Kerry badly need to find cover for their midfield as soon as possible -- Bryan Sheehan's absence was a major blow last Sunday, while David Moran's cruciate injury has proven costly.
Tommy Walsh's move to Australia has also had a big impact, but it is Kerry's defence that worries Kearns.
"Four of the defenders are over 30 and you would fear that the likes of Aidan O'Mahony (31), Tomas O Se (about to turn 34) and Eoin Brosnan (31) could all go in the next year.
"We've got to find people worthy of stepping into their shoes, but I don't subscribe to the notion that this team is gone. In fairness to the current management, they are bringing in a few new players every year.
"You can see they are working at it and, had any of those three goal chances gone in last Sunday, things could have been very different."