New season New Challenges New opportunities
IN just under two weeks the Kerry senior footballers - or some of them - get their 2014 season underway. On January 5 the team begins its defence of the McGrath Cup with a first round match against IT Tralee. Four weeks later, on February 1, they head to Croke Park for their first match in the Allianz League, against the reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin. A week later Kerry host Derry and the new season will be well and truly up and running.
On the one hand it seems a lifetime since the team's last competitive game - the All-Ireland semi-final loss to Dublin on September 1 - and at the same time the winter hiatus seems to have flown by as we stand on the cusp on the new season.
Since that defeat to Dublin last September Eamonn Fitzmaurice will have had much to reflect on in his first year as senior team manager. The early McGrath Cup success 12 months ago, with a very raw and inexperienced panel, gave way to a difficult National League campaign that eventually culminated with Kerry just about preserving their Division One status by virtue of a nervous final round win over Tyrone and a last minute Dublin equaliser against Donegal.
Beyond that Kerry claimed the Munster Championship title with an edgy victory over Cork in the final, before crashing out of the Championship race on the back of a seven-point defeat to Dublin, a scoreline that in no way does justice to Kerry's performance that day.
In the space of a few weeks last summer Kerry's performances went from what Fitzmaurice described as a "malfunction" in their All-Ireland quarter-final win over Cavan, to producing some of the best football the team has played in years, when losing in dramatic circumstances to eventual All-Ireland champions Dublin in a game for the ages.
As he reflects on his first year in charge of the team and ponders what his second year can deliver, the first aspiration for Fitzmaurice must surely be for a much more consistent and even series of performances in 2014. That said, the bottom line remains. Success will be measured by whether the Sam Maguire cup is back in the Kingdom next September or not.
For all the performances last year that ranged from the mediocre to the downright awful - the scoreless second half against Mayo in the League; the four points scored against Dublin in the League; the second half collapse in Omagh against Tyrone; the abject second half against Cavan - Kerry came within one breaking ball of beating Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final that would, in all likelihood, have sent them on their way to a 37th All-Ireland title.
Had Kerry beaten Dublin, and they very easily could have, and won back the Sam Maguire, all those forgettable performances earlier in the yuear would have been, well, forgotten. Such are the margins when it comes to Kerry and the Championship.
The winter of discontent that some people expected to blow through the Kingdom never quite transpired, and the two retirements that came to pass were not unexpected. Beyond that the management will be pleased that there wasn't the mass exodus of older players that some people predicted would happen. Whether the management have plans to use all of those older 'veterans' to the fullest degree remains to be seen, but from the management's points of view it's better to have a slow release of such players from the panel rather than they all rushing for the door at the same time.
The retirements of Eoin Brosnan and especially Tomas O Se will ensure at least one change to every Kerry line-up next year, and O Se's boots are considerable ones to fill. Despite being the oldest member of the 2013 panel, O Se was one of the team's most consistently high performers through League and Championship. His absence will be felt and how and with whom the management fill O Se's no.5 jersey will be a crucial call.
At first glance the leading candidates for the right half back spot would be Jonathan Lyne, Peter Crowley and Fionn Fitzgerald, but in today's game where man-marking jobs are generally preferred, any number of defenders could fill the half back positions on any given day. Killian Young, Brian McGuire and Jack Sherwood are others who will come into the reckoning for the half back line.
Behind them we can be certain that Marc O Se and Shane Enright will be starters, while Mark Griffin, Aidan O'Mahony, Young and Fitzgerald will all be putting their hand up for a place somewhere in the defence. Brian Kelly remains the second goalkeeper in the panel with Brendan Kealy.
Last season Anthony Maher and Johnny Buckley were the established midfield partnership, but that was as much because there was little to displace them as anything else. Both men played some terrific football this year but far too often we saw dips in their performances during games, and far too seldom did we see both click together and dominate matches. Every player needs another breathing down their neck and that's where Bryan Sheehan, David Moran and Kieran Donaghy come in. All three will feel they can be a midfield starter in 2014, and the management will much rather having four or five genuine options there, rather than just the two.
Moran and Sheehan had their fitness and injury problems last season, but both are more than capable of dislodging either Maher or Buckley, while it would seem that Donaghy will be used more around the middle of the park in 2014 and less in the full forward line.
In attack it's safe to assume that Colm Cooper, Declan O'Sullivan and James O'Donoghue are three nailed on starters. Donnchadh Walsh, too, should be first in line for the no.12 jersey. Darran O'Sullivan will feel he has more to offer next season, but needs to rehabilitate properly from his hip operation and get himself right for the Championship.
Outside of those there is a queue for what could be the last starting place or two in the team. Paul Galvin may want to give it one last shot this year and go out with one final All-Ireland medal, but there are a lot of much younger upstarts who will feel they can give the Finuge man a run for his money.
Jonathan Lyne was making great strides in his new role in the no.10 jersey early last season until an ankle injury cut short his entire year. The Legion man is a player who could fill either Galvin's no.10 jersey or Tomas O Se's no.5 shirt.
Paul Geaney is another fine young player who struggled massively with injuries last season, but is a player with all the attributes to make it as a senior footballer. The Dingle man is a real goal-poacher and would be best suited in the full forward line.
Kieran O'Leary and Patrick Curtin are two others who have flirted with the startiung line-up in the last couple of years, while Barry John Keane is another who might be recalled to the squad after showing some great form with Kerins O'Rahillys this year.
Beyond that, the management will be looking at several others who they will try to develop over the year and turn into the future of the team. Stephen O'Brien and Paul O'Connor from Kenmare are training with the panel, as is Mikey Geaney (Dingle), Paul Murphy (Rathmore), Marcus Mangan (Milltown/Castlemaine), Alan Fitzgerald (Castlegregory), Paul O'Donoghue (St Marys), Shane O'Callaghan (Austin Stacks) and Pa Kilkenny (Glenbeigh/Glencar).
Barry Shanahan and Ferghal McNamara (Stacks) and David Culhane (Ballylongford) are others whose progress is being monitored at the moment.
Of course, outside of Cooper, Buckley, O'Leary and Fitzgerald, the management are keen to look at other Dr Crokes players within the inter-county panel environment. Brian Looney and Daithi Casey are the two players the management would wish to give a sustained run of games to, but Dr Crokes involvement in the All-Ireland Club semi-final - and possible final on March 17 - prevents those players coming in with Kerry at this stage.
Last year Dr Crokes did release some players for McGrath Cup games but that won't be the case this year as the county champions, understandably, want to focus entirely on their own All-Ireland ambitions without distraction. Whether the management will draft in any other Crokes man later in the spring remains to be seen.
Certainly Daithi Casey and Brian Looney, under different circumstances could reasonably expect a run of McGrath Cup and League games, but if Crokes are still playing football by St Patrick's Day then the opportunity may have passed them by for another year.
With two colleges and most Likely Cork - in the final - to play, the McGrath Cup doesn't look like it will serve the Kerry panel much use. They will, therefore, head to Croke Park on February 1 a little unsure of who they have and what they are about. It will take that game and the next week against Derry for things to start to fall into place.
By that stage Kerry won't want to be the position they were last season, heading into a four-game losing run and setting all sorts of unwanted records. The hope is that they won't while the expectation is that a good start will be half the battle as Kerry launch their assault on the Championship and reclaiming Sam.