Mindset changes completely with arrival of the Championship
On a drive home from Killarney last week, I noticed five or six Kerry flags on my journey, outside houses and hanging off poles.
They were either soaked by torrential rain or being blown by the ferocious winds we've had recently. The weather might not have given it away, but the sight of the green and gold decorations certainly did. The Championship is here. For players, managers, coaches and supporters all over the country, this is what they have been waiting for. This is where the men and the boys get separated.
Killian Young summed it up nicely during the week when he said 'Championship is a different game completely. You can't look at the league campaign'. He's right. There is just no comparison. The minute the final whistle went in Kerry's last league game in Omagh on Sunday April 7, their mentality changed. That phase of their season was over. Done and dusted. The League serves a purpose for players and management alike but, ask any player and they will tell you, it is nothing but a rehearsal for the main event. Performances and results, from the start of February to the end of April, have no relevance when the first whistle goes on Championship Sunday.
The Kerry training sessions were always a good barometer for measuring the difference between preparation for League and Championship. First of all, and something we all looked forward to, were the sessions moving to Fitzgerald Stadium. After toiling and struggling through the winter months on softer ground, it was great to get onto the carpet-like surface of 'the Stadium'. It didn't make the running any easier but it helped.
As a result of players' mentality switching to Championship mode, the intensity of the training sessions increased many levels. The guy who ended the league with that prized starting berth would do everything in his power to hang onto the jersey. If he suffered lack of form or injury, there would be guys lining up to take his spot. Nothing personal, it's just the way it is. Competition for places leads to success. The famous A versus B games at training were the perfect opportunity for players to impress and for management to assess who was going well. We had some cracking battles in those practice matches, sometimes in front of a fairly large crowd of supporters who came to watch training.
This leads me to Eamonn Fitzmaurice's decision to hold the majority of Kerry's training sessions behind closed doors. It was a difficult call for him but the right one as far as I'm concerned. I understand that a trip to Killarney to watch the Kerry senior team prepare for an upcoming game is something that the public has done for years. I played with Kerry from 2002 to 2009 and it happened every year without fail. That opportunity will still be there for the supporters, just now on certain pre-arranged days.
People have to understand that the Championship has become seriously competitive and what happens at Kerry training needs to stay in-house. I lost count of the number of times I would meet someone on the street the day after we trained and he could tell me things that happened the night before that I didn't even know about! This tradition needed to be changed and Eamonn has made the correct decision to do so. I'm sure the current players agree and I have no doubt the Kerry supporters will understand why the manager has taken this action.
So where do Kerry sit in the pecking order of prospective All-Ireland champions? I'm sure the management team aren't looking past the first test on Sunday against Tipperary but, as Diarmuid Murphy acknowledged during the week, expectations in the county are always high and winning Sam Maguire is the ultimate goal.
I feel Kerry are in a good place at the moment. If you walk by any bookmakers these days they are placed as fourth or fifth favourites behind Dublin, Donegal, Mayo and Tyrone. The men from the capital will, no doubt, have taken huge confidence from their League title win and are in a good position to repeat their All-Ireland success of 2011.
Tyrone have a good mix of youth and experience and are tipped to come out of the most difficult of provinces up north.
For me, Kerry are coming into the Championship in the best possible way. They have been getting about their business nice and quietly since the league finished and from what I gather, training has been going well. They will be taking it one game at a time, starting with Tipperary. There are no 'gimmes' in championship football and, with Tipp's record at minor and U-21 level recently, they will provide a stern test for the Kingdom in Killarney.
It will have been seven weeks since Kerry last played a competitive game, when they take to the field on Sunday. In that time, the players continued to train with Kerry mid-week and returned to their clubs at the weekends to play in their respective championships and county leagues. This would have served the management well as they could continue championship preparations with the full squad and also assess players' form by viewing the various club games.
Barring a few knocks, most notably to Shane Enright and Jonathan Lyne, the players came through this hectic schedule more or less unscathed. Eoin Brosnan remains a doubt for the opener and David Moran's bad luck continues after he suffered a nasty eye injury in a recent challenge match against Laois. According to reports, Kerry looked very lively in this game with fast, direct ball into the forwards being a highlight of their play.
Colm Cooper, as he did in the league, operated at centre forward and should continue in that position on Sunday. The midfield pairing of Anthony Maher and Johnny Buckley will be looking to pick up from where they left off and continue their good form.
The management will have a few decisions to make at the back. Aidan O'Mahony has returned from injury and will surely slot in somewhere in the back six, possibly at centre back with Brosnan out. I expect Mark Griffin to make his Championship debut at full back.
Peter Creedon will bring his Tipperary team to Killarney with nothing to lose. They finished third in Division 4 of the league but this counts for nothing. Creedon has a good batch of young talent to pick from with Tipperary capturing the Munster U-21 championship (beating Kerry) in 2010 and winning Munster minor championships in 2011 and last year. Their minor team will again contest the Munster final when they face Kerry in July. While these youthful players lack experience at this level, they will have no fear of taking on Kerry and will relish the chance, albeit a small one, of causing an upset.
Kerry will want to lay down a marker in front of their own supporters on Sunday and I fully expect them to get over Tipperary. The players will want to get the job done and move on to a semi-final against Waterford. They will just be happy that the Championship has finally arrived. It's what they play for.