Saturday 29 April 2017

Colm Keys: Young guns ready to spark renewed Kerry challenge

Midfielder Jack Barry showed flashes of real ability. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Midfielder Jack Barry showed flashes of real ability. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

A small but interesting anomaly as pre-season begins to melt and the sight of real football competition comes more sharply into focus.

When Kerry lost to Roscommon in Killarney in their second-round Division 1 match last year it was the seventh successive year that they had failed to win a home League match in the month of February, suggesting a disengaged Kerry in the early part of the season.

That doesn't amount to much in an overall context as they have reached All-Ireland quarter-finals in each one of the seven seasons in this decade and on three occasions have got to All-Ireland finals, winning one.

But given how enthusiastic, how sharp and how committed they were in disposing of Cork in their McGrath Cup fixture in Mallow on Sunday, that little February kink looks sure to be ironed out next month when Mayo and Monaghan arrive after a visit to Donegal.

Kerry look like they mean business early and often this year. Even injury-wise they are in a far better position than they were 12 months ago, with only Anthony Maher held up until the end of the month.

The natural lag that has franked successive Kerry teams in the early part of recent years - they have lost their opening two League games in three of Fitzmaurice's four years in charge - has been based on a compression of resources, but the manager didn't recoil in any way from a suggestion after Sunday's win that in terms of playing personnel he might never have had it so good.

From a squad point of view he certainty hasn't.

Back in Kerry on Sunday morning, while the senior squad were heading east to Cork, Jack O'Connor was putting his U-21 squad through their paces, many of whom had been involved in the previous week's win over Tipperary.

There are the club-tied players from Dr Crokes, Kenmare and Glenbeigh-Glencar while Maher, David Moran, Paul Murphy and Shane Enright have yet to make their seasonal bows.

So much of the focus has been on the trio of minor teams that have delivered All-Ireland success over the last three years.

But there's a core of players outside that nucleus who are really placing some selections conundrums at the new management's door.

Jack Savage showed the class that first manifested as a minor in 2013 and was evident during O'Connor's first season in charge of the U-21s last year by kicking six points against Cork.

Midfielder Jack Barry, older brother of Andrew, one of the best minors to emerge over the last three years, showed flashes of real ability while Tadhg Morley's athleticism was well suited to a midfield role. Adrian Spillane got limited game-time but he too has made progress.

Fitzmaurice has been somewhat cautious in his approach with younger players since taking over, using an U-21 in a senior championship match for the first time last summer when defender Brian Ó Beaglaoich made his debut.

Strongest

But there's a growing sense in Kerry that more are ready to step up and that Ó Beaglaoich, Jason Foley and Tom O'Sullivan, who all started on Sunday, can make some of the strongest advances this year.

Andrew Barry, midfielder Barry O'Sullivan, Brian Ó Seanacháin and even last year's minor centre-forward Sean O'Shea are other possible springers in a potentially transformative season for Kerry.

One of the most interesting decisions facing the Kerry management this year will be their choice of goalkeeper.

Fitzmaurice has alternated between Brendan Kealy and Brian Kelly for each Championship campaign, Kelly displacing Kealy after last year's League final.

But Kelly and Kealy might find themselves coming under much more sustained pressure this season with Dr Crokes' Shane Murphy and Rathmore Shane Ryan, the current U-21 keeper, making strong cases for themselves.

To shake the stigma of the last four losses to Dublin off their backs Kerry inevitably have to change, not just in approach but in personnel.

It makes for exciting times, already evident in their early-season approach.

And some of the cuts may be deep.

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