Frank Roche: For Kerry and the Dubs, league is a means to an end
NEWSFLASH from the McGrath Cup: IT Tralee 4-12, Kerry 0-16. Shock horror! The Kingdom in meltdown! Sack the boss! Champions are a busted flush!
It's safe to conclude that Éamonn Fitzmaurice's tenure is not under threat as post-mortems rage in the deep south over Kerry's shock exit from Munster's pre-season lung-opener.
After all, you can hardly blame a manager when he isn't even at the match - nor his squad of All-Ireland champions who, instead of labouring in Tralee, were preparing to depart their team holiday in South Africa.
We all know that what happens in the public glare during January doesn't really matter, especially if you're the All-Ireland kingpins. Moreover, what happens during February doesn't really matter when it comes to Fitz's Kerry either.
When the three-time All-Ireland winner from Finuge inherited the keys to the Kingdom, he was taking over a squad in transition and the early auguries were ominous: he lost his first four Allianz League games in 2013. The first two setbacks (going scoreless for the full second half during a 0-15 to 1-6 loss in Mayo, followed by a 1-11 to 0-4 defeat at home to Dublin) had the February alarm bells at record decibel levels.
But Kerry, being Kerry, conjured up a Houdini-like escape from relegation, winning their last three top-flight games. And, come the business end of the summer, they were slugging it out with Dublin in that All-Ireland semi-final for the ages.
Fast-forward to last season: Kerry's penchant for extended hibernation was repeated as they lost their first three Division One outings, against Dublin, Derry and Mayo.
Again, they rallied to ensure survival ... but when their spring campaign culminated in a grisly ten-point defeat at home to Cork, a Kerry team sans Gooch was perceived to be goosed.
You know the rest ...
What the above synopsis underlines is that Kerry, at least in their current incarnation, don't follow 21st century conventions.
For much of the past decade and more, there has been a tangible link between spring promise and ultimate All-Ireland success.
In the 11 seasons from 2003 to 2013, six NFL winners went on to complete the league-and-championship double that September. They were Tyrone in '03, Cork '10, Dublin in '13 and - curiously - Kerry on three separate occasions, each time under Jack O'Connor's stewardship: '04, '06 and '09.
This year, coming off the back of another Sam Maguire win, don't be surprised if Fitz's men amble out of the league blocks for a third year running. And if it happens? Don't be alarmed if you're a Kerry diehard - or complacent if you're from Dublin, Mayo, Donegal, Cork or wherever.
By the same token, we'll be intrigued to see how Dublin approach this year's league. Clearly, given a league CV that reads two titles from two attempts, Jim Gavin embraces the philosophy of trying to win every game.
But as last year's Donegal ambush underlined, his team will be judged by the ultimate benchmark - All-Irelands in the bank.
This spring, Gavin needs to (a) unearth another few first-team contenders, especially at the back; but more importantly (b) modify his defensive system to ensure there is never a sieve-like repeat of what happened at the end of last August.
If he can do that, and keep on winning - great. But ultimately, this spring is about lessons learned, not titles amassed.
Ask Éamonn Fitz.