Kerry studying for football's hardest exam
Published 01/07/2016 | 02:30
In the mind's eye, Kerry-Dublin All-Ireland finals have always been steeped in history and bound up with the iconography of the giants of the 1970s and '80s. Those games painted a thousand pictures and told another thousand stories of a rivalry that captured the imagination of a nation.
Yet probably the most iconic image from that relationship was Kevin Coleman's photograph of Seán Walsh soaring above Brian Mullins for possession in the 1979 All-Ireland final.
Seven players appear in the picture but Walsh and Mullins tower above everyone else. Walsh's feet are almost five foot off the ground, his left knee still bent in mid-air from the leap.
Mullins' frame is elongated from a more static take-off, his toes pointing towards the ground, his outstretched palms and fingers reaching toward the sky. The grimace across his face is exaggerated from his missing front teeth but Mullins realises at that exact moment that Walsh is about to wrap his hands around the ball.
In the years before and after, when Kerry and Dublin met in big games, some of their biggest names played out some of the biggest battles in midfield: Walsh, Mullins, Jack O'Shea, Darragh Ó Sé, Ciaran Whelan. Old warriors from a lineage of midfield giants which extend all the way back through Mick O'Connell, Des Foley, Paddy Kennedy, Seán Brosnan and Pat 'Aeroplane' O'Shea.
Kerry have continued to produce quality midfielders. David Moran and Anthony Maher are perhaps the strongest pairing in the country but Kieran Donaghy and Bryan Sheehan formed the midfield partnership in the Munster semi-final against Clare.
Not other county has more options and yet a Dublin rookie, Brian Fenton, has dominated the Kerry midfield in their last two big games.
"In previous years, Kerry would be able to crack (Stephen) Cluxton or at least break even on the Dublin kickout," says Dara Ó Cinnéide. "Yet that has changed now with Brian Fenton.
"None of the players Kerry have around the middle have blinding pace. Fenton is extremely athletic and fast. He would beat David Moran by half a yard in a 20-yard sprint, which means he will always catch the ball if Cluxton is accurate. Fenton has messed up Kerry's thinking a lot in the last year - he has forced them to think differently."
Fenton encapsulates the difference between Dublin and Kerry in the last 12 months. Dublin have as many good footballers now as Kerry, and they have more athletic and more explosive players than their great rivals. And in Croke Park, Kerry have been exposed.
In their long history, Kerry have always found a way of winning, especially after All-Ireland final defeats, but the challenge now is different to what they often faced before.
Kerry innovated and evolved as the modern demands forced them to but this Dublin team are not governed by certain systems of play or pioneering departures like Down and Tyrone were in the past. This Dublin side are a different standard because they have so much class and pace and athleticism.
"Everybody knows Dublin have moved on," says Ó Cinnéide. "They certainly have since the All-Ireland final. The fear is that Kerry have regressed a small bit. The words that kept coming up around the county after the League final were legs and energy."
Kerry still have brilliant forwards so most of the question marks have focused on their defence. After shipping 2-18 in the League final, they conceded 0-17 against Clare.
Debutants Brian Begley and Tadgh Morley added some of the pace and energy that they were lacking against Dublin but Kerry's defence is likely to receive more makeovers yet before they settle on the right blend.
"Some of their main players in defence have a lot of mileage on the clock," reflects Jack O'Shea. "Kerry still haven't got a settled full-back or centre-back but they're also lacking that penetration from defence which they were always famous for.
"They have some great footballers but they lack that physique and presence of some of the other top teams. They are lacking that bit of power. The players Kerry have lost in recent years had that edge that this team has been lacking.
"I also feel that lads have been put in with a lot of weight on their shoulders for young players. Playing David Moran at centre-back might be a move worth trying. Even looking at Marc (Ó Sé) in that position would be an option. He is good at reading the game and going forward. He wouldn't get sucked out of the centre too easy. "
Questions are everywhere.
"Individually, they are all excellent footballers," asserts Ó Cinnéide. "But if you're playing in the Kerry defence now, you're hearing that some of ye are too old, ye don't have the legs, ye aren't compact enough, Jeez, that's huge motivation. How much longer are you going to put up with that for?"
In the past year, Kerry have been dependent on their top players performing all the time. If those players have been below par, the ship has taken on water.
In Kerry, players always step up. The county's success has been defined by their ability to adapt and evolve. They built their empire on overcoming challenges like the one Dublin have now presented them with.
Kerry will always produce quality footballers but new players grow quickly from being hot-housed from a training environment dominated by some of the game's best footballers. Kerry still have some brilliant veterans. Quality young talent is coming but Kerry still need to look for solutions elsewhere if they are to return to the summit.
"The young players are good lads but they are not going to win you a Championship game," observes Ó Cinnéide. "Don't expect the guys over 30 who have four and five All-Irelands to do it either. It's going to come down to the cohort between 25-30. They need to drive this on now; Moran, Maher, Paul Geaney, Peter Crowley, Jonathon Lyne, Killian Young, Shane Enright, Johnny Buckley. There are about 15 of them there.
"If they get to a stage in five or six years' time and have only won one All-Ireland, how will they feel? Players won't admit it but they do think of their legacy. They won't be thinking of it now in the middle of the Championship but you do think about that stuff. In the back of Dublin's minds, they want to be considered the greatest Dublin team ever.
"The only goal for Kerry now is to beat Tipperary but the bigger target has to be more than just one All-Ireland. Up to now, Kerry have answered every question bar Dublin but they're the questions they need to be asking themselves. Are they hurting enough from those defeats? As a Kerry footballer, do you want Dublin to keep beating you?"
Dublin is an irrelevance for now, with Tipperary setting up in the other corner on Sunday. That's another battle to be fought but Kerry need to keep providing all the right answers before the hardest question on the exam paper potentially arises.