With players like Paul Murphy and Paudie Clifford reporting for duty early in the season it’s clear that there’s no desire to lift off the accelerator
In his opening press conference of the year in early January, Kerry manager Jack O’Connor issued a subtle warning to his squad on the dangers of resting on their laurels after a 2022 of success in every competition that they participated in.
It wasn’t an attention-seeking statement from the Dromid Pearses man, akin to the Premier League manager who admitted writing names of players on a piece of paper that he predicted would let him down in the following campaign, or anything of the sort.
No, this was simply O’Connor focusing the minds of the group on the task in front of them. What happened last year doesn’t matter a damn anymore. The trophies are in the cabinet, the memories are great, but now it’s time to ink another chapter of achievement in this tale of Kingdom renaissance.
“When you win an All-Ireland, there is an awful lot of things that come attached to it. Players have been on the go between social occasions and social engagements, as well as football and all the rest of it. It can be tough enough to replicate the hunger that you had the year before,” he said.
“We won’t know whether that hunger is still there until the league starts and we have long journeys and tough games behind us. We will know more after our opener in Donegal and places like Omagh and Castlebar, and we will know how much of the hunger is there.
“That is the key to it, can fellas go to the well again, or do they live off the fat of the land, and keep thinking back to last year. We must make sure that looking back is not a factor and fellas have to just move on and use the old Tom Brady line.
“When asked what was his favourite Super Bowl win, he said ‘the next one.’ That is the way we have to be looking at it, that it’s the coming year that counts, not the last one.”
Brady may well have sailed off into the American Football sunset in the last week, and Kerry might have returned home from Ballybofey after being pipped at the post with the very last kick of the game, but on the ‘hunger’ front, O’Connor will have seen hugely encouraging signs to really hearten him.
Chief among them, of course, was Paudie Clifford’s late addition to the squad for the Monaghan game on Sunday. Just three weeks after Fossa’s All-Ireland junior club final victory, the sight of the playmaker wearing the number 26 jersey was as unexpected, as it was illuminating.
Make no mistake about it, after one of the most jam-packed competitive years that any footballer has had to endure, Clifford, and younger brother David (who the Kerry boss admitted was also willing to get straight back to action against the Farney), could have stayed away for another few weeks.
Nobody would have batted an eyelid, least of all the Kingdom management, but Paudie’s premature return to the fold, coupled with David’s willingness to do likewise, is a clear statement of intent – not alone to their team-mates, but also to the rest of the country. There will be no easing of the foot off the throttle in 2023.
Following Darragh Roche’s early second half goal, Kerry were in a comfortable position, 1-12 to 0-9, at the time of Paudie Clifford’s introduction in the 46th minute. In my own head, I was thinking that there was no need whatsoever to give him game-time, but that was under-estimating the player’s own ravenous desire to be involved.
Igniting the crowd by his sheer presence, he simply picked up the creative baton that he has held since he broke into this team in 2021. Immediately adjusting to the pace of proceedings, his solo goal was the obvious highlight of a blistering 25-minute cameo. His influence was everywhere, to be honest, killing off any hope of a Monaghan revival.
Hunger isn’t just a buzzword for the Fossa man either. Sitting in the dug-out with him at the start of the game was goalkeeper Shane Ryan, again returning to the squad three weeks after Rathmore’s own glory day at Croke Park. Shrugging off any speculation about a possible shoulder operation, the Kerry number one is also showing that he is raring for road as well.
To be fair, his club-mate Paul Murphy had led the way the previous week in Donegal. Okay, it was well known that the defender had taken some time off before Christmas, finally going on his delayed honeymoon, but lining out just a fortnight after the Rathmore win said it all about his determined focus.
Reduced to substitute appearances in the championship last year due to the phenomenal consistency of the starting All-Ireland-winning defensive sextet, Murphy’s league availability, from match one, is a clear declaration that he means business. A 100th senior competitive outing in the green and gold jersey is a fantastic personal milestone.
On Sunday’s overall performance, while undoubtedly a significant step in the right direction after the Donegal disappointment, the Kerry management won’t be reading too much into it either. Monaghan, after an encouraging opening 20 minutes, disintegrated into a dishevelled bunch pretty quickly after that, and it was a stroll in the park for the home team in the second half.
In saying that, Dónal ‘Down’ O’Sullivan and Darragh Roche certainly didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth when it came to making an impression against underwhelming opponents. The Kilgarvan corner-forward, so direct on his league debut off the bench in Ballybofey, was similarly penetrative again, notching 1-3 from play in a man-of-the-match display.
Roche produced an equally noteworthy performance, continuing the score-taking prowess that he has shown since the start of the season. A tally of 1-9, all from play, from his two McGrath Cup and two league outings is, most definitely, nothing to be sneezed at, especially in the height of winter football, which isn’t exactly conducive to accurate shooting.
Credit too to wing-back Pa Warren, who was solid and composed on his first league start, Jack Barry was a dominating presence in the middle of the park, while Micheál Burns, Dara Moynihan and Tony Brosnan all took turns at conducting the attacking orchestra, before the number 26 arrived to initiate the dramatic closing encore.
With a two-week break before three monumental back-to-back tests against Mayo, Armagh and Tyrone, Kerry won’t be getting ahead of themselves, in any way, shape or form. However, regarding the ‘hunger’ to keep going to the well, Jack O’Connor has gotten his answer from the attitude of the Fossa and Rathmore contingent.
That, more than anything else, will have given him a very pleasing sleep on Sunday night.