O'Connor's boys show true grit

Jason O'Connor reflects on a very good Munster U20 football final and takes a first look ahead to the All Ireland series

Kerry celebrate after their victory. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Kerry celebrate after their victory. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

What started the previous Saturday evening with the Minors and Seniors in Páirc Uí Chaoimh was completed by the Juniors and Under 20s in Austin Stack Park by the following Friday as Kerry football at provincial level shines as brightly as the sun bringing the intense heatwave at present.

It isn't the first time a clean sweep has been done of provincial football titles by the Kingdom, but for it to happen in the space of six days makes it probably stand out more especially at a time provincial structures are coming under heavy scrutiny at All-Ireland level.

This Under 20 side lived up to people's expectations in winning Munster, but those who might have made such predictions based on events at minor level two years ago learned that it isn't exactly a foregone conclusion in reaching those expectations.

This was a Cork side with a memory of not being that far away from Kerry at Minor level two years ago and older heads certainly appeared to be sharper early on in how they took the game to Kerry.

No one willing admits that they want it to be difficult or be a chore to succeed at any level, but there must have been a strange sense of satisfaction for the Kerry management that now they could see what their charges were like in a proper contest.

Jack O'Connor's ability to make successful changes to sides he is manager of during games has been one of his hallmarks as an All-Ireland winning manager at five different levels.

Taking David Shaw off might have seemed harsh to the naked eye, but when the player you bring on for him scores an important goal shortly upon entering like Eddie Horan did, any dissent or doubt quickly evaporates.

Seán O'Leary being the one to come in for Dara Moynihan's black card too was a shrewd move as the game needed someone who could make the yards for it to be won. O'Leary's progression this year shows that not having instant made seniors like David Clifford or Seán O'Shea from the minor ranks isn't a bad thing as we are starting to see something different to what we saw from some of these players at minor level.

Stefan Okunbor is the perfect example of this. A decent player further out the pitch it didn't look like there would be much hope for him to break through with some of the others ahead of him in the pecking order.

His conversion to a full-back role has been one of the stories of the year at underage and club level though as, despite a difficult start last Friday evening, he looked so adept in doing what has been traditionally expected of a No 3 in such a demanding role.

Time will tell where his prospects go from here, but while David Clifford's performance will be forever associated with the 2017 All-Ireland Minor Final, his namesake from Killorglin is developing into quite an effective workhorse.

Fiachra Clifford scored Kerry's other two goals in the six green flags raised between himself and Fossa's finest last September, but he has such a strong sense for a scoring opportunity for a team-mate from the half-forward line that is most impressive.

Kerry's midfield had its most difficult experience by far last Friday evening, but it might benefit Diarmuid O'Connor and Mark Ryan to have something to spur them on ahead of All-Ireland level.

Again though we must praise Kerry's half-back line for their efforts on Friday evening with Graham O'Sullivan recovering well from an injury that prevented him from playing in the Waterford game while Mike Breen and Dan O'Brien proved very dependable on the wing.

Brian Friel made another strong case for a starting berth but there appears to be a nice balance to this U-20 side in terms of how they line up from the start and what players they finish with.

The modern game no longer guarantees that your starting fifteen is the key to success but with the options available on the bench it is a reassuring for Kerry that there are players to all on when a change is needed.

The start of the 'Super 8' on the same weekend as the All-Ireland Under 20 semi-final might take some of the focus and attention away from the grade but management will no doubt have an eye on Friday night's Leinster Final in Tullamore involving both Dublin and Kildare in learning their opposition in the semi-final.

Derry and Mayo contest the other semi-final, but one thing the Kerry management will have to guard against is outsized expectations with belief starting to rise about further All-Ireland glory for these players.

Last year's loss to Galway in the old Under 21 semi-final will sharpen O'Connor's mind to the potential pitfalls of this stage more than anything from this year's campaign you sense.