Kerry's next generation
Colm Keys on Kingdom's battle to replace the old guard
Published 03/02/2010 | 05:00
It's a comparison of convenience, nothing else. Last Saturday, the All-Ireland football champions claimed their first McGrath Cup for 14 years. Some 24 hours later, the All-Ireland hurling champions lost a Walsh Cup fixture to Offaly.
A statement of intent as opposed to a sign of malaise? Of course not. Losing a Walsh Cup game to Offaly won't unnerve Kilkenny in any way, even though the defeat is at odds with the 'win every game' policy that served them so well in 2009.
For Kerry, winning the McGrath Cup wasn't so much a statement of intent as a measure of the depth of talent many thought they didn't have.
The dominance at under-age level in Munster has been more red and white than green and gold in recent years, but Kerry have been doing more than enough to keep their head above water and provide optimism for the long-term future.
The immediate future is more about discovery. Jack O'Connor stated it clearly last month and Declan O'Sullivan re-iterated it on Monday: the Kingdom have to find three or four players to fill the gaps that have appeared and may continue to appear. Winning the league, then, has been virtually written off.
Tommy Walsh and Tadhg Kennelly have gone to Australia, goalkeeper Diarmuid Murphy has retired and the possibility of more players ruling themselves out in the coming weeks cannot be discounted.
Darragh O Se may choose to just drift away from the scene quietly, quoting his old friend Maurice Fitzgerald's assertion that he never actually retired and was still available for selection some years later.
Even if he does hold his hand up for service, O Se must be deemed an unlikely starter in the earlier part of the championship, bringing the gaps to fill to at least four.
No other management of reigning All-Ireland champions in recent memory has had to deal with such an exodus.
So, the league has become a mission of survival and discovery for Kerry. O'Connor tallied the number of the 2009 All-Ireland-winning squad unavailable at 17 and rising last weekend as they collected the unlikely prize of the McGrath Cup.
The trawl has begun in earnest and will start with the players who were peripheral in 2009.
From David Moran to Aidan O'Mahony, Paul O'Connor to Micheal Quirke and even Barry John Walsh, there is sense of urgency about the fringe men.
Further down the food-chain, Kerry have more to be content about than they thought.
Spa's leap to the All-Ireland intermediate final has thrown up Niall O'Mahony as a prospect, in tandem with Mike O'Donoghue.
Aidan 'Shine' O'Sullivan from O'Connor's own Dromid club has prospects, while James O'Donoghue's eye-catching performance against UCC last weekend has vaulted him into a strong position.
Johnny Buckley, a midfielder for Dr Crokes in last year's county final, is another under the microscope.
The battle to replace 'keeper Murphy will be intense, with three candidates playing off each other.
Ger Reidy was last year's replacement goalkeeper and is the man in pole position .
Two others, though, are pressing him hard -- Brendan Kealy from Kilcummin and An Ghaeltacht's Tomas Mac an tSaoir, Kerry's All-Ireland U-21 winning keeper in 2008.
So there's much for the Kerry management to ponder ahead of a league campaign that has taken on a much different complexion from O'Connor's four previous campaigns, three of which ended up with ultimate success.
Five who need to kick on
Now that Australia is out of his system for the time being, Moran can concentrate on nailing down the permanent place that has eluded him for the past two seasons. His form hasn't been great, but opportunities will abound for the talented Kerins O'Rahillys man at either midfield or half-forward. Tadhg Kennelly's place on the half-forward line is within reach, but he has to improve.
O'Mahony has too much pedigree, too much to offer, to continue the freefall he has found himself in since late 2008. He lost his place after the Munster final replay defeat to Cork last summer and never subsequently recovered. Early signs show he hasn't kicked back into gear just yet and he picked up two yellow cards last Saturday. But Kerry are not oversubscribed with experienced defensive membership and they'll be keen to cajole him and give him every chance to help rediscover his 2004-2007 form.
Opportunities haven't and probably won't be scarce for Quirke, but time is running out if he is to fulfil his undoubted promise and transfer his solid club form with Kerins O'Rahillys into something more meaningful with Kerry.
The mark looks tailor-made for him, but mobility is his challenge. He started last season as a first-choice midfielder and now needs to sort out some territory.
In Kerry, the jury remains out on Maher. He enjoyed plenty of exposure in last year's league, but by championship time he had slipped down the midfield pecking-order. O'Connor likes his busy style and honesty, but is it enough to complement Seamus Scanlon?
Another player for whom there won't be a dearth of opportunities. Four years ago, as a 19-year-old, he was deemed good enough to start a championship match in Killarney against Cork at corner-forward, and last year in the All-Ireland quarter-final, he came off the bench to score two points against Dublin. Looks to have the class, but has to make a significant step forward.
These next few months give him that chance.
Five who could surprise
Last year's understudy to Diarmuid Murphy is in pole position. He's small by comparison to Murphy, but the best equipped for the year ahead.
He has turned heads for Spa on their run to the All-Ireland intermediate final; he has pace to burn to complement an accurate finish.
Aidan 'Shine' O'Sullivan
With so many front-line defenders missing, there's a chance for someone to step up. O'Sullivan could do that.
The star of the show last weekend. Legion's O'Donogue is a son of 1980s Kerry squad member Diarmuid and has an eye for goal.
He has been off the radar since scoring two goals in the All-Ireland U-21 final two years ago. If he commits, he could make an impact.