Kerry are on the up but there are still plenty of areas from improvement for the defending League champions
Kerry’s win over Roscommon on Saturday evening means the defending League champions have more than a decent chance of qualifying for next month’s Division 1 final via a top two finish in the table, which could – other results dependent – be secured with a win away to Galway next weekend.
Which two teams occupy those top two League final places, and which two end up below the relegation line and head for Division Two, will be decided next Sunday, but for now here are five things we have extracted from Kerry’s latest match and performance in a typically shape-shifting top tier of football...
In the turf wars, home ground is king
There really was no surprise that Kerry beat Roscommon on Saturday night, just as there should be no surprise if Galway turn over the reigning champions next weekend in Salthill. After all, in the turf wars, the home patch remains king. Of the 22 fixtures played up to and including Saturday, 15 were won by the team playing at home, and only four have been won by the team on the road. Interestingly, of those four ‘away’ wins, three have been won by two points, and the fourth by just a point.
Suffice to say, no host has been humiliated by their guest. Kerry are not one of those teams to have won away from home, and by their own form on the road, along with the general trend in the division, the odds favour Galway to reverse last year’s All-Ireland final result in Pearse Stadium next Sunday. Galway are one of the four teams to have won away from home this year – they have also drawn away to Mayo and Donegal – but they have also won both their home venue games, and Kerry are going to buck a fairly significant trend if they are to go to Salthill and get the result that could get them back to the League final the following weekend.
Good starts don’t always make for good finishes
Make what you will of it, but a bright start by Kerry – by which we mean any early goal – doesn’t always translate into a strong finish, as was evidenced again on Saturday against Roscommon. David Clifford’s fifth minute goal helped Kerry to a 1-3 to no score lead by the 10th minute, the sort of platform one would expect Kerry might use to build a significant lead from, or at least go one to record a comfortable enough win from. Sure, football isn’t that black and white, and certainly not in a super competitive Division One where everyone is gunning for points.
Still. In the opening round Dara Moynihan seized on a Donegal defensive blunder to score a 13th minute goal in Ballybofey to put Kerry 1-2 to 0-2 ahead; a lead the visitors grew to five points by the 20th minute, and yet Kerry left the North West the losing team that day. Against Tyrone, Sean O’Shea put the ball past Niall Morgan in the second minute and Kerry were five points clear by the 13th minute, but they eventually coughed up that lead and left Omagh beaten by three points.
Scoring those early goals and building those first half leads is all well and good, but Kerry’s propensity to squander that good early work needs to be addressed.
Absence has robbed White of none of his zip and zing
Like a proven racehorse not seen on the racetrack for several months, there’s is always a degree of mystery – even concern – that he will come back as good as he is known to be. Gavin White had not been seen on a football field in 217 days until Saturday evening. Significantly, the reason for the Dr Crokes man’s long absence from the game was because of a serious knee injury that required surgery and a long winter rehabilitation.
To say that White looked the same player as the one who played in the All-Ireland final last July will have come as a huge relief to the Kerry management and supporters, not to mind the player himself. Against Roscommon, White was frequently the Kerry defender who punched forward with those trademark runs that put the opposition on the back foot and his team mates on the front one.
There was much to admire in White’s performance here, not least that that blistering pace remains, but also the self-assurance on the ball, the vision to pick out a pass, and, most importantly, the defending qualities that won him an All Star last year.
Midfield remains a minefield for Kerry management to sift through
In an odd way, the fewer options Jack O’Connor has, the easier the choices he has to make should be. But that’s not the way the Kerry manager would want it, particularly when it comes to sorting out the midfield as the Munster Championship looms. Jack Barry and Barry O’Sullivan did fine against Roscommon; both men did some very positive and constructive things. But ‘fine’ won’t cut it at the sharp end of the All-Ireland series, and there remains a nagging sense that Kerry are light in this department.
David Moran’s retirement has elevated Jack Barry to being the senior partner in whatever midfield partnership Kerry alight on, and we’re not sure if the Na Gaeil man fits that glove well enough. We were going to add ‘yet’ to the end of the last sentence but Barry is 28 now, and playing his seventh season of inter-county football. There’s no doubting his talent: he’s strong over his head, has a great set of wheels on him, is a neat passer and can finish a score. For all that, though, he doesn’t always impose himself on games they way you’d like to see from a Kerry no.8. He doesn’t bend matches to his will or bully or dominate opponents with a consistency you’d want.
The return of his club mate, Diarmuid O’Connor, on Saturday night was as necessary as it was encouraging. It well be that the Na Gaeil partnership will settle into being the Kerry one for the next two or three seasons, but what other options does Jack O’Connor have? For whatever reason, Ronan Buckley hasn’t been given the opportunities this spring that his Listry and East Kerry performances last autumn suggested he would get. Greg Horan, at this stage, seems a fine utility player, who can be relied on to come on and do a few jobs in the last quarter of a game.
That leaves Barry O’Sullivan, who has done a fine job across this league, but who has been neither tried nor test in championship football. And Adrian Spillane, who has more than shown he can survive and thrive at the highest level, but who – at almost 29 years of age – ticks most of the required boxes for a midfielder at this level but not, perhaps, them all.
Case for the defence is weakened by Ó Beaglaoich’s absence
Apart from Gavin White making his first appearance for Kerry in almost eight months, and looking like he was never away, it was crucial that Kerry got Paul Geaney and Diarmuid O’Connor back into the action this weekend. With possibly just one more league game to be played before the Championship rolls around in four weeks, getting those three players up to match speed is critical to Kerry’s provincial and All-Ireland titles defence.
But what of Stephen O’Brien and Brian Ó Beaglaoich? Neither man has kicked a competitive ball in 2023, and it doesn’t look like they will feature against Galway next week. Darragh Roche, Adrian Spillane and Stefan Okunbor sat out the game against Roscommon due to injury, but all three have valuable match minutes already played this year.
O’Brien’s place in the starting team might have already been under threat by a couple of the younger forwards in the squad – Tony Brosnan, Donal O’Sullivan and Roche have been putting themselves in the frame over the course of the league – but there still seems like there is a ready-made place for Ó Beaglaoich in the defence.
To his credit, Paul Murphy has been very consistent in the half back line all spring, and Jack would have no hesitation is keeping the Rathmore man in situ, but back-up then might become an issue. Take Graham and Tom O’Sullivan, Foley, Morley and White as nailed on starters, and include Murphy as the sixth, then the fall-back options without Ó Beaglaoich are a little light.
Pa Warren has got some game time but isn’t hugely inexperienced at the highest level. Okunbor can place in defence but remains a little green. Dylan Casey has seen very limited action and is more a full back line defender. Mike Breen remains somewhere between the treatment table and a return to action but will have missed all of the league campaign.
Without the An Ghaeltacht man, Kerry’s defensive options might look a little light when the business gets serious in high summer.