'The fear I have is that we have lost players who could operate right up the middle'
Aidan O'Mahony's departure means the trickle of players out of the Kerry squad has now become a flood. Damian Lawlor wonders how they will cope
L AST Tuesday night, a short statement appeared on the Kerry GAA website confirming that yet another senior footballer had departed the scene. This time it was Aidan O'Mahony and the explanation was brief. "Aidan O'Mahony has taken time out from the Kerry senior football panel for personal reasons."
The statement, which raised more questions than answers, confirmed rumours that the player was unhappy and wanted out. O'Mahony missed the squad's recent training trip to Portugal, but after talks with manager Jack O'Connor it was hoped he would remain on the panel. Those hopes were dashed last Tuesday night, although O'Connor says the door remains open to the 27-year-old.
O'Mahony was playing below his own high standards for some time and faced a struggle to command a championship place with the return of Michael McCarthy, but his absence will hit the panel. A two-time All Star and four-time All-Ireland winner, he was one of the best defenders in the game during the last decade. There were days when he looked unstoppable, putting in a series of man of the match displays, the highlight being his 2006 demolition of Mayo's Ciarán McDonald in the All-Ireland final.
But a lot of pressure was placed on his shoulders last year when he became the first GAA player to fail a drugs test after using an inhaler. Although cleared of any wrongdoing, he struggled to cope with the excessive publicity which surrounded the controversy.
O'Mahony, though, had started to show flashes of his old self this season, but that momentum was shattered by a red card against Tyrone. And although his withdrawal from the panel is now official, the view in the Kingdom is that O'Mahony will return to the fold at some point in the future.
"I don't know if we've seen the last of Aidan in a Kerry jersey," says Eoin Liston. "I know that man and his passion for football and while he hasn't been himself on the field in recent times, I definitely don't think his career is over. He's probably trying too hard. Something just doesn't add up; I was really surprised but if you're not enjoying it anymore these things can happen."
O'Mahony joins a lengthy list of absent friends. While his departure grabbed all the headlines, Barry John Walsh's recent omission from the current squad garnered much less publicity; Walsh was surprisingly released back to his club last weekend and was outstanding in a local fixture against Rathmore, O'Mahony's club.
The exodus began when Tadhg Kennelly moved back to Australia and former Young Footballer of the Year, Tommy Walsh, joined St Kilda. Long-serving goalkeeper Diarmuid Murphy announced his departure after years of distinguished service. His understudy Ger Reidy must have been salivating at the prospect of taking over between the posts but Brendan Kealy got in and took the spot instead. After only weeks of league action, Reidy walked away.
It was only when Darragh ó Sé ended his 16-year involvement with the team, however, that Kerry fans truly began to tremble. The departure of such a talisman and leader would rip the heart out of any side, even one with such strength in depth as the Kingdom.
Understandably, there wasn't anywhere near as much publicity surrounding 29-year-old Seán O'Sullivan's departure but he is another tried and tested forward all the same, with four All-Ireland medals and 34 championship appearances that yielded 1-34.
So, within just a few months, that's over a third of O'Connor's All-Ireland-winning squad gone. And what a strain it places on Kerry's reserves -- between them those players contributed 3-27 in last year's championship. During a campaign where five out of seven games were too close for comfort that tally will be hard to replace with new faces this time around.
No other reigning All-Ireland champions have had to cope with such a list of defections and while Kerry have coped well in the past when the time came for the likes of Seamus Moynihan, Johnny Crowley, Dara ó Cinnéide and Mike Frank Russell to move on, they've never encountered a collective exodus like this.
Not surprisingly, their former players were quick to rally the troops last week. Darragh ó Sé actually tipped Kerry to beat Cork should they meet in the Munster championship, while his uncle Páidí, in these pages, still sees Kerry as the team to beat. Seamus Moynihan was also confident his former team-mates would cope with their losses. And Liston feels Kerry's depleted squad is still capable of landing another All-Ireland title.
"They'll have to be lucky with injuries first of all and they'll have to produce their best form each day they go out, but I still have belief in them," Liston says. "The full and half-back lines will pick themselves so that will mean only a change in goalkeeper from last season. No one should underestimate the role that Diarmuid Murphy played but Brendan Kealy has had a great league and is a brilliant shot-stopper. It's just a pity that Ger Reidy couldn't wait a bit longer for his chance after waiting in the wings for years. We all endure disappointments and I don't know what his reasons for leaving were, but it's a pity."
Replacing Murphy in the heat of the championship could be the hardest task. His penalty stop against Sligo saved the team's season and while Kealy has impressed so far, it's still a huge challenge for the dependable Kilcummin youngster.
Further out the field, Liston argues that not many teams will fancy facing Micheál Quirke, David Moran, Seamus Scanlon or Anthony Maher in the midfield exchanges. He maintains, too, that not many counties could boast a full-forward line of Colm Cooper, Declan O'Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy.
"I'm not being arrogant or cocky but there's no reason why this team won't come good yet," he says. "Sure, Cork are the favourites right now but I wonder are they peaking too soon? Our lads want to win more, I know that, and there might be speculation out there but it's a good camp. There were a few problems last year, but the team met and spilled their guts. The only fear I have is that we have lost players who could operate right up the middle for us. Diarmuid, Aidan, Darragh, Tadhg and Tommy. That's the spine of any team.
"But these are the challenges. You build strength in depth over the years to cope with this and we have Barry John Keane, David Callaghan and David Moran ready to come in. We'll be okay yet."
Despite the upheaval, Kerry avoided relegation to Division 2 and how many times have they been written off only to confound the critics? One wonders, though, just how many leaks a ship can take. The likes of Maher, Moran, Kealy and Keane all have serious potential but lack the big-game experience that Kerry have relied upon so often in recent All-Ireland finals.
As each player leaves, the options from the bench decrease and the odds on them retaining the Sam Maguire Cup lengthen. But they've been here before. If anyone can handle a crisis, they can.