Midfield the key to Galway hopes
In no other county should Darragh O Se's announcement that he was to retire have been greeted with more relief than Galway.
For most of the last decade, Kevin Walsh's residence in Galway's midfield excepted, O Se did as he pleased in the company of maroon shirts. Days in Tuam, Killarney, Salthill, Croke Park and the Gaelic Grounds were a stroll for him -- it was one fixture that he could invariably depend on for an armchair ride.
No matter what permutation successive Galway managers put together in the post-Walsh era, O Se was never troubled.
Two years ago Kerry went to Pearse Stadium for a final-round league game with a place in the final within touching distance. Galway had to win by three points to book their place; Kerry under O Se's command won by five.
It was little different last year in Tralee when Galway travelled needing the win to keep their prospects of another league final berth alive. Kerry's impressive record in six previous games (they won five in a row and drew with Dublin) had already guaranteed Jack O'Connor a third league final in four attempts.
That afternoon provided the most tangible evidence of Galway frailties. Kerry won a game they didn't need to win with their opponents always at arm's length.
Few can remember when it has been any different in recent times between them.
Galway's abysmal record in Croke Park has its parallel in games with Kerry.
Since the 2000 All-Ireland final replay, the sides have met seven times competitively, five times in the league, including two finals, and twice in the championship (2002 and 2008 All-Ireland quarter-finals).
Galway have won just once, a final-round league match in Tuam on Easter Sunday in 2001 that relegated Kerry from Division 1A. But since then it has rarely even been close. Kerry have flexed their muscle impressively and it hasn't so much been the results but the manner of the defeats that has disturbed Galway.
The average defeat in the six games since Tuam 2001 has been just under six points. Even the one-point league reversal in the 2004 league final involved a comeback from Galway that didn't reflect Kerry's dominance on the day.
For Galway, the rot started in the 2002 All-Ireland quarter-final when they were reigning champions and met a Kerry side with a head of steam after their Munster championship semi-final defeat to Cork earlier in the season.
Kerry brushed them aside, 2-17 to 1-12, preserving a championship record that dated back to the mid 1960s.
That Croke Park league final two years later was as close as Galway came but since then the margin has never been less than five.
Even on that memorable, rain-soaked day in August 2008 in another All-Ireland quarter-final, when Jones' Road flooded outside, the lights came on inside and Michael Meehan scored 10 points on a surface that scarcely blemished, Kerry finished comfortably with O Se again influencing matters at the heart of the action.
At every twist, at every turn, it has been an era when these Kerry players have just known they have Galway's measure, whatever is thrown at them. They have better players, but also a huge psychological edge over the Tribesmen at this stage.
It provides Joe Kernan with food for thought ahead of their latest encounter this weekend. A gradient that has already sloped viciously against him in recent weeks is just about to get steeper.
It was Kernan's Armagh that made the first northern incisions into Kerry's armoury in the 2002 All-Ireland final after years of suffering, so he knows what he's dealing with here.
Still, it came as a surprise to him yesterday that the run of defeats stretches back six games for Galway. "It's not something I was aware of but it's something that will help focus the minds ahead of Sunday," he admitted.
Just like Tipperary and Kilkenny last Sunday, Galway's need for a victory over a particular opposition is at tipping point and Kernan accepts that.
"It's a run we'd obviously like to stop but we have the issue of league safety to deal with as well. Beating Kerry is not something we'd get hung up on, though. The points are most important at this stage."
Still, it would be 'lift-off' for Kernan if Galway were to break the habit of their recent lifetime. The evidence of recent performances, though, suggest it's unlikely.
"We were disappointed we didn't get more out of the Cork game but the pleasing thing was that we stuck at it and worked hard. We know ourselves, however, that we are better than that," he admitted.
The importance Kernan and Galway are placing on the fixture can be seen from their demand to have Paul Conroy available to them despite the county's Connacht U-21 championship fixture against Sligo in Tuam three days later.
If the U-21 management were hoping to have Conroy rested they'll be disappointed it seems.
"It's something we'll have to discuss but I'll be expecting Paul Conroy to be available, that's for sure," Kernan said.
The hopes of a more settled midfield are being pinned on Conroy and, in O Se's absence, they might at last get an opportunity to prosper.
"I'd still be happy with a lot of what we're doing.
"We're trying to change a few small things and obviously to get a settled team is the ultimate priority."
The return of Gareth Bradshaw, who missed last Saturday night's match in Cork with a calf injury, will offset the loss of Sean Armstrong for the rest of the league.