Kerry back at base camp with summit in sight
Kingdom keen to lay down a marker for 2016
Published 30/01/2016 | 02:30
Before the 2014 championship began, the Kerry panel travelled to the Galtee Mountains for a one-day army training camp. The tasks were brutal. Nobody was spared. Indiscretions were ruthlessly punished.
At the end of a long day, they all hiked to the highest peak. At the top, Eamonn Fitzmaurice presented the same number jersey to two players vying for same position. "Now," said Fitzmaurice, "you decide."
Everyone got a chance. New players stepped up. Reputations counted for nothing. It set the template for 2014. Maybe it was because Kerry came from nowhere but their journey that season seemed pure, free, uncomplicated.
With more big names available in 2015, Kerry were expected to become a more efficient machine. Being All-Ireland champions increases expectation and pressure but the dynamic was also bound to be different last year.
Striking that right balance was always going to be a challenge. Cork should have won the drawn Munster final. In the All-Ireland semi-final, Tyrone opened up the Kerry defence, just as Cork did in Killarney.
Kerry were expected to be structurally different in defence in the All-Ireland final but in trying to balance the equation for Dublin, Kerry got the numbers wrong.
The weather was a huge factor but Kerry were still untypical Kerry. They almost spent too much time focusing on match-ups and Stephen Cluxton's kick-outs.
Players were doing jobs they normally don't. Anthony Maher's job appeared to be to drop deep. After scoring three points from play against Tyrone, Johnny Buckley looked to be covering midfield and picking up Denis Bastick.
At stages, Colm Cooper was somehow following Philly McMahon. The five plays Cooper made close to goal in the second half showed how destructive he could be but the Gooch still didn't have a single shot at the target. If Kerry were worried about picking up McMahon, it should have been the responsibility of someone like Buckley.
The conditions did make it hard for Kerry to hit their full-forward line. Cian O'Sullivan did an excellent job in blocking those channels but taking off James O'Donoghue still looked like a poor call.
O'Donoghue did struggle with his handling in the wet but he had still scored 0-3 from play, more than the other five starting forwards managed in total. Kerry will have studied all the minutiae of the defeat closely because most of the evidence asked some difficult questions.
Shutting Cluxton down was clearly a huge priority for Kerry. They did put him under pressure but Dublin still won 63pc of their own kick-outs. And pushing up so high on short kick-outs requires huge energy levels to sustain.
Kerry also finished the match with huge mileage on the clock, especially up front. Five of the forwards - Kieran Donaghy, Cooper, Paul Galvin, Darran O'Sullivan and Bryan Sheehan - had all played in the 2006 All-Ireland final.
Did such high mileage eventually tell against a team with Dublin's pace and intensity?
All of those factors gave Fitzmaurice plenty to think about over a long winter. So did having nine players undergo surgery.
Earlier this month Fitzmaurice said that Kerry have "to freshen up the squad" but he also stressed that management's focus won't entirely be on Jack O'Connor's U-21 team. Brian Ó Beaglaoich and Tom O'Sullivan will remain part of the senior set-up until after the opening two league rounds but any other U-21s will effectively be left alone during Kerry's U-21 campaign, which could extend into May.
With some big names likely to walk away at the end of this year, Fitzmaurice has already begun preparing for that transition.
Seven of this evening's panel have no league experience.
After winning successive All-Ireland minor titles, Fitzmaurice will look to integrate some of that quality talent into the panel this season but it will still probably be at least 2017 or 2018 before many of those young players are ready to make that step up.
Kerry always believe they can out-shoot the opposition. They still have huge firepower in the squad. They have some brilliant young forwards coming but improving their defence, and increasing their roster of defenders, will be a key priority for Fitzmaurice this spring.
With three championship wins in a row (the first Dublin team to achieve that feat against Kerry), Dublin would like to think they have an edge on their great rivals now.
Deep down, Kerry don't have a complex about this Dublin team but they have a huge motivation to take them at some point now. And this evening would be the ideal starting point.
When they met in last year's league, Kerry were keen to arrest a trend of losing to Dublin. They edged a real battle. Both sides finished with 14 men. Twelve cards were dished out, including four blacks.
Kerry targeted that match and made a statement. They'll be keen to make another one again now because they'll want to bring the fight and physical edge from last March that they didn't fully show in September.
The players will also want to harness the hurt that is always felt in the county when they lose an All-Ireland.
"In Kerry when we lose, we're probably a bit bitter," said Cooper a few years ago.
"It gets deep inside guys and it gets a reaction out of us. If you've had a few painful defeats, they don't leave you. They're still there and you just want to win, win, win, win."
Reaching the top of the mountain is all Kerry have ever known.