When the darkness of defeat clears Kerry can look to long-term future brimming with potential
Published 30/08/2016 | 02:30
Brendan Moran's superb Sportsfile photograph taken in the aftermath of Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final captures a tear making its way across Aidan O'Mahony's cheek as he contemplated the probability that it was his last match for Kerry.
O'Mahony had given everything and had earned redemption from his previous big match Croke Park experiences against Dublin which ended in red and black cards.
But at 36 it's hard to see him committing to another season. It's likely he won't be alone in making that decision.
Marc Ó Sé's late appearance for Paul Geaney, still an item of considerable talk in the Kingdom yesterday, brought him up to 88 championship games, the same figure that his older brother Tomás checked out on. Again he unlikely to seek to add to that.
Kieran Donaghy had the look of a man ready to draw a line under one of the most colourful inter-county careers in the modern era.
Bryan Sheehan and Colm Cooper may think long and hard too about their future commitment, though Cooper may just elect to wrestle one more campaign out of a body that has taken its fair share of punishment over the last two-and-a-half years.
Whatever decisions are reached they'll know that they are leaving behind a dressing-room with a very strong long-term future.
Over the course of the season the extended Kerry panel has undergone quite an upheaval.
Up to this year's Munster Championship manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice had never used an U-21 player in a championship game, but Brian Ó Beaglaoich's selection for the Clare game in Munster changed that, while Dr Crokes 'bolter' Tony Brosnan became the second against Clare when introduced as a substitute for the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Behind them were Barry O'Sullivan, Tom O'Sullivan, Andrew Barry, Killian Spillane, Michael Burns, Gavin White, Mark O'Connor and Jason Foley, all getting used to the experience of being part of a senior set-up for the first time.
Their integration this year was the beginning of a process that will see marked change over the next three to four years.
O'Mahony may have been shedding a tear for the present, maybe even a bit of the past as Dublin's choke hold on Kerry gets that bit tighter.
But there should be no tears for the future as they have put themselves in arguably their strongest position for years with the individual talent that has been fostered on the way to collecting the last two All-Ireland minor titles and the last three Hogan Cups - back-to-back for Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibne in Dingle and the latest from St Brendan's in Killarney.
No county, arguably, will have it better over the next decade, even allowing for the guarantee that some won't follow through on the potential shown over the last three seasons especially.
Think of a Kerry team in three to four years time with Jason Foley at full-back, O Beaglaoich, Tom O'Sullivan, Barry and White around him, Mark O'Connor giving them the same kind of impetus that Brian Fenton has given Dublin and then any one of Conor Geaney, Killian Spillane, Michael Burns in attack, with stars of Sunday's rout of Kildare in the All-Ireland minor semi-final, David Clifford and Sean O'Shea, dotted in.
Clifford only turned 17 in July and while you must always be cautious in projecting the pathway of talented minors he looks a really special talent. Others are sure to prosper and develop within the environment of a solid senior set up. The production lines have rarely been more active.
"Maybe getting to six All-Ireland finals in a row, the same emphasis wasn't put into the development squads," said five-time All-Ireland winner Tommy Griffin, a selector on the current Kerry minor team.
Who guides them into that future is a big question now. Fitzmaurice took the job for just one year after last year's All-Ireland but he'll be leaned on heavily in the coming days to go again.
In his four years Kerry have consistently been a top-three team who have only been beaten by this Dublin team, and the challenge to try and halt their dominance may be too great to give up on now.
Jack O'Connor is an obvious candidate to succeed him but is likely to want to remain with the Kerry U-21s for at least another year before even considering a return to senior so soon after his last departure.
He'll surely want a greater gap between his past teams if he is to step back in, underlining further the need for Fitzmaurice to continue providing the stability he has given them.