From the very first game of the season – a famous victory at home over Tipperary – this team have been exceeding expectations
Given that the Kingdom had been in the previous two finals before this, it might seem an odd contention to make that they've exceeded all expectations this season.
All the same we believe that to be the case. Have a look at how many survivors there are from the last time Kerry faced Antrim in a Croke Park final. Just six guys who are likely to start on Saturday started in the December lockdown final.
Colum Harty and Pádraig Boyle are sure to start this weekend too, but they were on the bench in 2020, while Daniel Collins (another starter from the Covid final) is touch and go for this renewal of acquaintances with the Glens men.
It means that an almost entirely new Kerry team has been forged over the past of the last seven or eight months under this new management team.
Maybe to say they’ve exceeded expectations is the wrong way of looking at it, perhaps it’s more so that they’re ahead of schedule
To lose that many players – and really bloody good hurlers too like Tomás O’Connor, Jason Diggins, Cian Hussey, John Brendan O’Halloran, Brandon Barrett, Barry Mahony, Bryan Murphy, Evan Murphy, Michael O’Leary, Brendan O’Leary, Shane Nolan – and to still be in contention for prizes is a real achievement in its own right.
Of course, it’s always the case that teams change over time, with fresh blood being brought into the fold, but the level of churn Kerry have had over the last twelve months is probably beyond which we’ve ever seen before, and not just in Kerry.
Frankly it’s near unprecedented and extraordinary. Very few counties will ever have had to construct a new team on the fly in the manner in which Stephen Molumphy and his management team have done.
It obviously helps that there’s the core of a team still in place with stalwart players like Mikey Boyle and Paudie O’Connor, nevertheless had you told us before the start of the season that Kerry would lose that much talent, we’d very much have doubted their ability to get back to another Croke Park final.
Before Tipperary came to town in early January, there’s no point saying otherwise, we were a bit nervous about the Kingdom’s chances, so much seemed in flux.
Seventy minutes in Austin Stack Park soon changed our minds on that one. It was the first time, and certainly not the last, that this team surpassed expectations. There was a vibrancy to Kerry that crisp January afternoon, which augured well for the rest of the season.
The performance of one guy in particular gave real hope for the future of Kerry hurling. Ballyheigue’s Colin Walsh pretty much came out the box fully formed as one to watch, and one upon whom to hang hopes for the season and for seasons to come.
Though relatively slight for an inter-county hurler – remembering, of course, that he's still an Under 20 hurler this year – he’s got the heart of a lion. More than that he’s one of the finest hurlers the county has produced in the last four or five years.
He can be almost reminiscent of Shane Conway at times, the stance he has, the way he holds the hurl, the way he can glide by opponents seemingly at will. Playing anywhere from half-back to half forward – more often from midfield though – Walsh has been a driving force for his team.
That sprinkling of fresh talent has brought an energy to the thing this year that maybe was a bit lacking last year as injuries exerted a heavy toll. Last year Kerry rather fell over the line and into the final, this year they were sprinting to the tape.
Sure, the Kingdom needed a touch of good fortune – Carlow had to do them a favour in Tullamore – but they made their own luck by ensuring they upheld their end of the bargain in Belfast the other week.
There’s been that sense of Kerry leaving no stone unturned all season long. The training regime we understand to be fairly full on and that work behind the scenes has been reflected on the field of play.
The Down match excepted – and maybe they were over-trained for that one with a trip to Bere Island for a training camp the weekend before it – Kerry's work-rate and intensity has been second to none.
Indeed, after the slip-up against Down, Kerry attacked the Carlow game a week later with such ferocity that the locals were rocked back, taking until the second quarter for them to get any sort of momentum going and even then it was fleeting in the face of what the green and gold were bringing to the table.
You don’t get performances like that unless the players are 100% bought into what the management is trying to do, and frankly, it sounds fairly punishing.
Trainer Shane Briggs told the media last week of a session where the players were doing push ups in the surf as the tide was coming in on top of them. Not for the faint of heart. Clearly though it's paying dividends.
You see it collectively and you see it individually with players like Eoin Ross really stepping up to the plate this year.
The Ballyduff man wasn't a central figure under the previous manager, but this year he's come into his own. The three points he scored against Antrim last day out, just another example of his application.
Win or lose on Sunday, there should be a bright future ahead for this team and this management team as long as they stick together. Winning this year would be, as we've said, ahead of schedule so failure to win it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
Still given how often these guys have shattered people’s expectations of them, would you doubt their chances of doing what they couldn’t twice in 2020 and getting a win over the Saffrons in a national final?
No? Us neither.