Fanning flames of an old rivalry
KERRY: Using spring tide to clear autumn debris
JACK O'Connor found himself in the happy position of being able to put away his pencil three weeks ahead of schedule. Kerry ticked the Division 1 semi-final box when they beat Cork in Pairc Ui Chaoimh on March 18 to record their fourth win and move onto eight points, a return which was always like to be enough for a semi-final booking.
With the top four headed for the knockout stages and Kerry's last two games at home to Laois and Mayo, it was a mere formality that they would reach their first target of the year quite comfortably.
Indeed, they would have been within touching distance of the semi-finals after four games, except for a distraction issue which undermined them against Armagh. They played so well in the opening round against Dublin that there was always a danger that a touch of complacency might infect their approach in Tralee a week later.
And so it did. Armagh hit Kerry for 1-3 early on, a cushion which sustained them all the way to the finish line. However, it was a mere blip for Kerry, whose positive response was to win their next three games.
Now, as all seven of their Division 1 rivals head for Easter Sunday showdowns which will decide their league fate, Kerry can afford to indulge themselves for their clash with Mayo in Tralee. Their subs bench includes Marc O Se, Paul Galvin, Declan and Darran O'Sullivan, Bryan Sheehan, Brendan Kealy and Aidan O'Mahony, presenting several members of the extended squad with the opportunity to gain valuable experience against opponents who need to win to ensure they stay in contention for a semi-final place.
It also allows Kerry to give a seasonal debut to Colm Cooper, who is eased back in after devoting the early part of the year to club pursuits.
So far then, it's all very positive for Kerry, except for the unfortunate David Moran, who will miss another season due to a second cruciate ligament injury.
But then, it was always likely that Kerry would buzz early this year. They generally do well in the league anyway but, this time, they had an added incentive which everybody knew was there without mentioning it.
Last year's All-Ireland final still haunts Kerry for the simple reason that they believe they presented the title to Dublin, rather than having it wrestled from them. There's some evidence to back that up.
They outscored Dublin by 0-8 to 0-1 between the 40th and 63rd minutes to lead by four points and were looking good for a six- to eight-point win. Then, for reasons unknown, they lowered their guard, were caught by a swift counter-attack, conceded a goal and imploded.
Their play over the closing minutes was most un-Kerry-like. It was as if they lost faith in each other and instead of trusting the instincts which have served the county so well for so long, they went into individual mode.
They needed the basketball-style time-out to re-calibrate their approach to the new and vastly different challenge now facing them. However, it wasn't available so they continued to thrash around, while Dublin, sensing glory, pressed on.
In the end, all Kerry could do was watch in abject horror as Stephen Cluxton kicked the winning point. Any wonder so many of the Kerry players had that bewildered "how the hell did that happen?" look as they watched Sam Maguire being handed over to Bryan Cullen?
It would be a long winter in Kerry. In the circumstances, it was always likely they would spring from the blocks in the league. Dublin were seeking their fourth successive win over Kerry in two years in the opening game in Croke Park which, when coupled with the memory of last year's All-Ireland defeat, set a very clear agenda.
Kerry needed to beat Dublin to make an early-season statement of intent, which is exactly what they did in a game where they were full value for their six-point win. Two months on, Kerry are through to the league semi-finals where, depending on tomorrow's results, they will play Cork, Mayo, Dublin, Down or Armagh.
Priced at 5/4 to win the title (3/1 pre-tournament), they are likely to attract plenty takers as they appear in better shape than anybody else right now. Besides, it won't have gone unnoticed in the camp that four of their last six All-Ireland titles came after winning the league earlier in the season.
Having gone so well up to now, the last thing Kerry want to do is lose a league semi-final or final in Croke Park. That would undo some of the excellent work put over recent months and allow the haunting memory of last September to nudge back into their consciousness.
As it is, Kerry are convinced they blew last year's All-Ireland final, and a win in the league would reinforce that view, thus providing another layer of motivation for the championship.
And, to add to Kerry's wish list, the ideal way to win the league would be to beat Cork in the semi-final (always good to keep the Rebels in check), followed by Dublin in the final.