Kerry have had a troublingly poor record on Jones’ Road since the 2015 All Ireland Final
With the arrival of ‘the canister’ on 37 occasions, there is no doubt but that Kerry have more than earned their place in the pantheon of the elite gaelic football counties. Heading home from the capital with that amount of All-Ireland senior titles in the back pocket takes some doing.
Delivering the goods on a consistent basis on the hallowed turf of Croke Park obviously then becomes imperative when you are seeking to be crowned the best team in the land. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the Jones’ Road venue has often been hailed down through the years as Kerry’s second home.
Go back to the ‘Golden Years’ period of 1975-1986 and it is clear to see that the men in green and gold became almost unbeatable on the big days at GAA headquarters.
With eight Sam Maguires hoovered up in those twelve seasons, their dominance was striking, and almost universally expected, so that the odd Croke Park defeat was automatically headline news.
In 22 championship appearances during that fantastic spell of success, Kerry won 18 of them (a win rate of about 82 per cent). Their only losses were to Dublin twice (1976 and 1977) and, of course, Seamus Darby’s Offaly in the game that will never be forgotten that ended the five-in-a-row dream in 1982. Monaghan also deserve kudos for taking the Kingdom to a semi-final replay three years later.
With a brief disappointing showing in the All-Ireland semi-final of 1991 against a Peter Withnell-inspired Down outfit, the Kingdom were shunted into the Croke Park wilderness after the break-up of Mick O’Dwyer’s legendary side until Páidí O Sé instigated the renaissance of Kerry as a serious footballing force in the mid to late 1990s.
When the All-Ireland eleven-year famine ended under the Ventry man in 1997, the standard-bearers of the game went on to capture another five titles up to 2009, and while this lengthy time in and around the summit of proceedings didn’t lead to a ‘Golden Years’ moniker of some sort being labelled on them, those particular Kerry players were outstanding exponents of their art.
From 1996 to 2009, Croke Park, once more, became a happy hunting ground for the Kingdom, and while the advent of the All-Ireland quarter-finals, and the back-door system, increased the amount of games and added to the difficulties of going all the way, Kerry won 23 of their 33 championship outings at Jones’ Road (70 per cent success rate), with three draws and seven losses.
So, while those outside the county, and all prospective opponents, might not have been overly enamoured with the perception that Croke Park truly was almost like playing at Fitzgerald Stadium for Kerry, nobody could deny the fact that they often had opponents well and truly spooked before a contest had even begun.
Now in 2022, however, as we prepare for this Sunday’s eagerly-awaited All-Ireland quarter-final against Mayo, the situation has unquestionably changed.
With Sam having only returned to the Kingdom once (2014) since Tommy Walsh shot the lights out as a young prospect against Cork all of 13 seasons ago, the aura around Kerry and Croke Park has practically disappeared.
Beginning with the shock last-eight defeat to Championship nemesis Down in 2010, the continuing custodians of the green and gold footballing heritage have only recorded 10 victories in their last 24 championship performances at GAA HQ (a paltry win rate of 41 per cent), with four draws and ten losses.
This statistic becomes even worse after the last victorious All-Ireland campaign of eight years ago. Since 2014, Kerry have amazingly won only five of their 14 championship matches at Croke Park (35 per cent success rate), with only one victory in the last eight trips to Dublin, which will certainly surprise, and worry, many people.
The 2019 semi-final triumph over Tyrone remains the only ray of light in a dismal run of under-achievement in the capital, which takes in the draw and subsequent defeat by Mayo two years earlier, the Super 8s loss to Galway in 2018 and draw with Donegal in 2019, the two All-Ireland finals with Dublin three years ago and, of course, last season’s heart-breaking exit to the Red Hand in the semi-final.
You can be damn sure that Jack O’Connor and his selectors are extremely aware of how poorly Kerry have performed at Croke Park over the last decade and more.
The Kingdom’s current management know only too well that if they harbour genuine ambitions of resuming their exalted perch on the throne of Gaelic football, this unwanted record of failing in the pressure-cooker environment of knock-out championship fare has to stop.
That’s why, looking ahead to Sunday’s meeting with James Horan’s charges, April 3 this year was hugely important from a Kerry perspective. It might only have been the National League final against a much depleted opponent, but to produce a brilliant display to lift a piece of silverware at Croke Park can only do a lot of good to boost the Kingdom self-belief.
Next Sunday will tell the tale of course. The shadow boxing is over. The league and the provincial campaigns have been consigned to the memory banks.
The four-week wait to resume their season simply has to be surmounted. Especially against a Mayo side significantly bolstered by the returns of Rob Hennelly, Oisin Mullin, Paddy Durcan, Eoghan McLaughlin and the O’Connors since the league decider.
While Kerry have had to bide their time on the training pitch over the past month, Mayo have come through two difficult qualifiers against Monaghan and Kildare.
They certainly haven’t pulled up any trees on their way, but they are undoubtedly battle-hardened, and unbeaten in their last three championship meetings with the Kingdom at Croke Park, they definitely won’t be overawed at the task ahead.
The Kerry support base will be keeping their fingers crossed that star man David Clifford and fellow attacker Dara Moynihan will have overcome their respective calf and quad muscle injuries to be at full tilt for Sunday because, whether they are flying high or simply stumbling through, Mayo can never be under-estimated.
But, more than anything else, this weekend’s encounter is about Kerry. The signs have been promising all season that this team are now a tougher hurdle to get over for everybody, with a stronger backbone when push comes to shove.
The proof will be in the proverbial pudding, however. Flopping at Croke Park has to end. Starting at 4pm on Sunday. Because if you really can’t stand the heat of a roasting hot kitchen, then your chances of cooking up a storm are over before you really begin.