'When you're in our position you can't take anything granted'

FOUR days later the planning began.

On Sunday they saw off Derry in a bit of a thriller. On Thursday they were being put through their paces by Fergie O'Loughlin. A fitness test. Having just completed a league campaign you might, not unreasonably, expect their fitness levels to be pretty good. The players would have thought so too themselves, no doubt.

The message Tom Howard was sending out to his players was clear: you ain't seen nothing yet, you ain't won nothing yet. To win the Christy Ring will mean hurling at a higher level, with greater levels of fitness, on better pitches.

The league campaign was impressive. It was exciting. It was invigorating. It was a shot in the arm to the game in the county after a disappointing 2012. What it wasn't was an excuse for complacency. Just four days after their final league game – and their fourth victory – that message was being hammered home.

The intensity of the training increased week on week. They trained on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. They would have been training at the weekends too were it not for club football and hurling fixtures.

Did that frustrate Tom Howard? Of course it did. He would have wanted what all managers want: 100% access and control over his players. The man himself is wise enough to realise that's simply not always possible.

"Everybody has a job to do," he says.

"Fixtures have to be played, clubs have to be respected and you don't want players playing Friday, Saturday and Sunday."

As a result the scope for challenge matches was severely limited. The management had been hoping to have at least three between the conclusion of the league and the beginning of the Christy Ring Cup. They ended up getting just one. As it turned out, it was quite a good one, against the Limerick Under 21s two weeks ago, midweek, in Rathkeale.

The conditions were, according to Howard, "horrendous". The result – and much more importantly the performance – was far more positive.

"It was a good work out for us," he says.

"It's not too often that a Kerry team goes out and beats a Limerick team, but we did and we beat them comprehensively, albeit it they were minus a few of their senior stars, Hanlon and a few of those. We played well in very bad conditions, hurled well, which is very encouraging."

The hard work, the increased intensity of the training, is beginning to play dividends. This Kerry team, this young Kerry team, is constantly improving. There's so much for players like Brendan O'Leary and Tommy Barrett and Daniel Collins to learn that any improvements to their game are going to be more significant, more dramatic, than any improvements to the more established players will be.

Kerry's graph is pointing upwards and should continue to point upwards for the next few years. Sounds like a manager's dream doesn't it?

"The difficulty with expectation is not so much the pressure that would be on the manager or a management team, it's what gets into fellas' heads," Howard says.

"The more examples you see of this in sport, the older you get, the more you realise that. I was talking to Anthony Daly and he mentioned all the great training methods and all the great hoo-hah that surrounds teams with video analysis and trying to get that extra 10% and in his experience he talks about going for the 10% that will give his team the edge, yet when you aim for that 10% you sometimes take your eye off the 90%.

"When you're in our position you can't take anything granted. We're working all the time with the 90% and maybe when we get to a level of performance and a level of consistency we'll be then looking and breaking our colleagues' backs in the County Board looking for that something extra that might get us to 95%. Right now it's about the 90% and achieving consistency. In a sense that is what we are getting across to the players."

Kerry might be the favourites to win this season's Christy Ring Cup, they might be the top ranked county in the competition in terms of the national league, but that, essentially, means absolutely nothing. Does the fact that Kerry beat both Wicklow and Derry by a couple of points in Austin Stack Park guarantee they'll be better than them in the Christy Ring? Of course not.

"If we were a little unfortunate we'd have been scrapping it out for relegation, given that we won three of our games by three points or less," Howard says.

"I don't know that you can really rank teams on the basis of what we saw in the league. It's going to be competitive. There isn't going to be much between the teams."

There won't be much between Kerry and Down in Newry this weekend. Not with Gareth 'Magic' Johnson back in the Mourne fold this season. Of course, losing to Down wouldn't be the end of the Kingdom's Christy Ring ambitions. Win or lose they'll be playing again the following weekend – with a fifty percent chance of that game being away from home yet again – but if you think that takes the pressure off then you don't know Tom Howard.

"If we lose to Down my heart will be in my boots," he says.

"We play every game to win it. We'll be playing that Down game as if our lives depend on it. If we lose that game, which is a possibility of course, we'll be bitterly disappointed. We won't be leaving anyone on the sidelines, we'll be playing to the best of our ability and I don't think you can go into any game soft like that, because that's infectious. That gets into teams.

"It gets into your psyche and into your mentality – 'oh we won't play today, but we'll play tomorrow' – when that starts to happen in any sort of environment, even if it's going on inside you head, that's going down a rocky road.

"We'll put pressure on ourselves. We may win and still be disappointed, we want to make sure that what we're doing on the training field is being replicated on the day of the game. We now want to have a go at winning the Christy Ring championship and every day we go out we want to develop. We're hoping we'll be a smarter team, when we're in good positions we can close games out, that we have learnt a little bit, that we won't concede goals at the back, that's our pressure."

Last summer, as reigning champions and pre-competition favourites, the Kingdom struggled in the opening round against Wicklow in Greystones and, a week later, they crashed out of the competition at the hands of Kildare in Newbridge. Proof that the best laid plans can go awry.

"I think we've a chance," Howard says with a healthy dose of realism.

"I think we have to take it every game at a time. I'll give you all the one liners you like: we're in it to try and win it, but in winning it we have to win every game and if we take our eye off that Down game we're going to get a suck-in, but yeah it is my ambition to be here the first weekend of June talking to you.

"I might be above in Clare drinking a cup of coffee and eating a biscuit and licking my wounds and that's a likely possibility as well. That's what's interesting about sport. We have a chance and a real chance, but that's what we have. Anything else is just fodder and nonsense."

Howard, clearly, is no dreamer. A realist through and through when he says Kerry have a chance at winning this thing we should listen to him. When he says nothing is written in stone we should pay equal attention. Game by game, week by week, with Howard cracking the whip, Kerry will be striving to reach that Christy Ring final.

Howard has set the tempo. Now it's up to the players to deliver.


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