Kerry's veterans driven by winter of pain
Galling defeat to old rivals has seen Kingdom return to training sessions on Banna Strand in bid to seek redemption for last year
Published 22/04/2016 | 02:30
When Kerry were winning All-Irelands for fun in the 1970s and 1980s, the summers were spent burning themselves into the Killarney turf, the winters consumed like a victorious army celebrating another conquest.
There was still always another war to fight. When the players wanted their guts tightened and their minds sharpened, most of them had their own training regimes in place before Mick O'Dwyer summoned them back for some more cruel pre-season rituals.
Pat Spillane went to a hill near his house, 60 yards from top to bottom, attaching a ten-pound weight to each ankle before exploding up and down the hill for an hour every day. Páidí ó Sé would be out over the hills in Ventry, into Dunquin and to Slea Head. Two-and-a-half to three-hour stamina running, all to prepare himself for O'Dwyer's beastings in Killarney.
The Tralee boys would head off to Banna Strand, a torturous regime of relentless running on the beach, through the sandhills, or flattening out the bumps on a patch of green overlooking the beach.
Ever since, footballers from Tralee and the surrounding areas have always identified with Banna Strand, of the training benefits that can be accrued on the terrain stretching from Ballyheigue in the north to Barrow beach at its southern edge.
As a player, Eamonn Fitzmaurice had often taken himself there to get ready for Jack O'Connor. After Kerry lost their opening two league games to Dublin and Roscommon, Fitzmaurice decided to bring his squad back to Banna Strand for a weekend of hardship and team-bonding.
The weather was poor and Fitzmaurice wanted to do something different. Banna provided a change of scenery and a very definite change of pace. The players emptied themselves, spilling their guts on the rolling stretch of sand dunes.
Kerry have been on a roll ever since, going six matches unbeaten, but Banna was designed to toughen Kerry's minds as much as their bodies. The squad's biggest regret from last year's All-Ireland final defeat was that they didn't fully go to war.
Kerry weren't ready for Dublin's intensity, especially in the Dublin full-back line. Colm Cooper was hounded and hustled out of his stride by Philly McMahon. Cooper was unhappy by how he had been treated and, despite McMahon bending the law as far as he could stretch it, Kerry regretted not providing Cooper with the protection his team-mates should have.
Not having Kieran Donaghy around for 50 minutes deprived Kerry, and Cooper, of the option of an enforcer. By the time Donaghy arrived, he and Kerry were more preoccupied in their scramble to try and save a match that was long out of their control.
It wasn't the first time Cooper and Kerry had been knocked off their stride in an All-Ireland final. The 'Gooch' had been on fire in the first quarter of the 2005 final against Tyrone until an altercation with Tyrone goalkeeper Pascal McConnell left Cooper flat on the deck with an eye injury.
The referee and the umpires saw nothing untoward in McConnell's actions but Jack O'Connor had a different take on events in his autobiography. "Gooch got hit with a flake at a time when he was threatening to cut loose," wrote O'Connor. "I had always said to our players that if there was an incident they were to stay out of it and let the officials deal with it.
"I decided after that to never tell a team to go out in the field and stay out of it. When Gooch got that first smack, if a couple of our players had gone in and got a hold of the culprit, the referee would have been forced to do something. I tell the lads again and again, we have to be paranoid."
Kerry became far more paranoid in 2006. They also became more ruthless. Kerry won the All-Ireland that year, just like they did in 2004 and 2009, after absorbing harsh lessons from Tyrone in those three previous seasons.
After the disappointment of last September, Kerry are on a similar mission again now. They announced as much when facing off with Donegal in Round 4, a nasty match in Austin Stack Park blighted with brawls and flashpoints, which produced ten cards, including two red and two black.
A week later, Kerry won in Castlebar, their first league victory against Mayo since 2011. They whacked Monaghan in Clones. When they got hold of Roscommon again, Kerry scolded them for their February insolence.
Kerry have got into a groove again but much of it has been driven by their four veterans - Cooper, Kieran Donaghy, Aidan O'Mahony (left) and Marc ó Sé - all of whom are still hurting from last September.
Donaghy was captain and didn't start. ó Sé didn't feature because of a toe injury and a 'flu, which saw him miss him too much training. O'Mahony was black-carded. Cooper has his obvious reasons for wanting redemption.
All four have five All-Irelands but it was Cooper and ó Sé's fifth All-Ireland final defeat, Donaghy and O'Mahony's fourth. That pain drove them all on over the winter as they purged the hurt, individually training harder than ever to be right for 2016.
O'Mahony played against Roscommon but Cooper, Donaghy and ó Sé knew they were being rested by Fitzmaurice for Kerry's opening two games. Kerry lost both matches but Cooper, Donaghy and ó Sé all featured in the next six. O'Mahony didn't play against Cork but he has also played six games. And all four have driven the machine forward like men possessed.
Even Mick O'Dwyer has been impressed. "He (Cooper) has got his confidence back," said O'Dwyer recently. "It takes a bit of time after an injury like that. I was 38 and still playing with Kerry. I got a Texaco (footballer of the year) award when I was 33. Age doesn't matter; it's how you prepare and how you keep yourself.
"Marc and Mahony, Jesus, they're flying and Cooper has really come back. Donaghy's now playing better than he's ever played as well. They must be looking after themselves the way they're playing."
Fitzmaurice has always appreciated their importance but he may have underestimated the impact of the older crew, especially Donaghy, at stages of last year. Despite their age and the mileage clocked, and the question marks still hanging over some of those players, their game-intelligence and experience still offers so much to Kerry. Just as importantly, they are still the emotional heartbeat of this team.
Their spring form has also matched their eternal ambition. Against Mayo in Round 5, Cooper started a league game for the first time in three years but he has still been Kerry's top scorer in this campaign with 1-23. O'Mahony and ó Sé have delivered some big performances. Donaghy has been a revelation at midfield.
Kerry finished last year's All-Ireland final with an ageing forward line. Five of the forwards - Donaghy, Cooper, Paul Galvin, Darran O'Sullivan and Bryan Sheehan - had all played in the 2006 final.
Fitzmaurice has tried something different this season by playing Paul Murphy at centre-forward but, apart from Galvin who has retired, O'Sullivan and Sheehan have been just as motivated and driven. Their form has also been at a similar high level to Cooper and Donaghy.
Sheehan missed much of the campaign but Maurice Fitzgerald described him as the greatest Kerry club player of the modern era after Sheehan drove South Kerry to last year's county title. O'Sullivan has been brilliant in this league and is Kerry's top scorer from play with 1-14.
Donnchadh Walsh, who will be 32 in July, has also maintained his remarkable consistency; he has started all of Kerry's eight league games this season. Pain and hurt is driving them all on, as it always does in Kerry when they lose an All-Ireland final. In 2012, Jack O'Connor told a story about being in Listowel coaching kids on a Friday evening a couple of weeks after the 2011 All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin.
O'Connor met an old gentleman in the community centre. He had a sense of dread as the man approached him because he had the look of someone searching for a spark in cooling embers. The two started talking but the engagement was brief. The man told O'Connor that he had been in a pub the previous evening when a re-run of the All-Ireland final came on. He drank his pint and walked out.
The experience was a measure of O'Connor's own feelings, of the devastation still tearing him apart. "I'd say there was no emotion ever invented that I didn't go through afterwards," said O'Connor in April 2012. "It was like I was in a daze for three or four months. There is no other way out of it. It just hurts so much, especially in Kerry. You try and put on a brave face but you're dying inside. People talk about winning All-Irelands but it's the one you lose that really sticks in the memory."
The manner of the defeat to Dublin last September exacerbated that pain, especially for the older crew who had been through that hurtful experience so often in the past. It has honed their sense of mission even more now.
Fitzmaurice and Kerry also know that the older crew won't be around for much longer, because there is only so much more they can give. Fitzmaurice has already begun preparing for that transition.
On the night Kerry played Dublin in their opening league game in January, seven of the 26-man panel had yet to make their league debuts while another five had played less than ten league games combined.
Kerry were poor that evening but the older crew have returned in the meantime to steady the ship. Nobody is sure if those players will be able to sustain that energy and momentum but hunger and pain is a powerful force.
And the summer could yet deliver the sweetest grace note on their careers.