Kingdom's need of qualifier 'kick' is clear -- O Flatharta
THE back door is beckoning for Kerry. The tradesman's entrance isn't the way the aristocrats of the game would have chosen, but it's all they are left with.
They last took this route in 2009 when they took to the qualifiers looking like a busted flush. Longford might have beaten them and Sligo should have. They got past Antrim and met Dublin in the quarter-final. The rest is history...
They head to Mullingar tomorrow carrying an expectation that they can negotiate the provincial venues and return to Croke Park in August. As they did with Kieran Donaghy in 2006, they've made a change at full-forward and have asked Colm 'Gooch' Cooper to reinvigorate an attack that just managed 12 points against Cork in the Munster semi-final.
Kerry looked heavy-legged in the final quarter of that game and the constant run that has seen them reach seven of the last eight All-Ireland finals looked to be taking its toll.
"You can't get away from that, they've been on the go a long time," agrees Kerry native Tomas O Flatharta, who spent four years in charge of tomorrow's opponents Westmeath.
"I don't know whether it was complacency or if there was a malaise in the Cork game, but Kerry supporters were certainly very disappointed. Cork outmuscled them and overran them, particularly in the last 15 or 20 minutes.
"They are still very good players and I think we'd all like them see them move the ball much more quickly. There was a lot of handpassing against Cork, but this weekend, I think you'll see more long kicking.
"That's what comes natural to them and that's what they are best at. You'll see a bit more unity and spirit too. If they get over Westmeath, they are into the third round of the draw and that could be very interesting in terms of who they get. But I still think they'll be there come August."
It's only been three years since the An Ghaeltacht man left Westmeath, but all has changed. Only Denis Glennon and Michael Ennis remain from the breakthrough 2004 Leinster-winning team that
O Flatharta trained and Paidi O Se managed. And, even since his last game in charge at the end of the 2009 campaign, there have been many comings and goings.
Even this week, Westmeath's preparations have been far from ideal. Three Tyrrellspass players lined out with their club in a league match last Tuesday night and they will take to Cusack Park as 7/1 outsiders.
"A lot of the key players from that team aren't there -- Gary Connaughton, John Keane, Dessie Dolan -- so they've lost some of that strength," he says.
"But there are some good young players. John Egan from Tyrrellspass is someone we were aware of and he has a good temperament. We had Callum McCormack in with us, too. Kieran Gavin is injured at the minute, but he's a very good full-back. Paul Sherry is another good player. There is a lot of rebuilding going on at the minute."
By his third season as manager, O Flatharta had turned Westmeath into one of the best organised teams in the country. They won the 2008 Division 2 title, beating Dublin in the final thanks to one of the meanest defences in the country. And in the championship that year, they missed a chance to put eventual All-Ireland champions Tyrone to the sword when they lost by just four points, despite having two men sent off.
In the same way Jim McGuinness and Donegal were on the receiving end for their defensive set-up, O Flatharta shipped some criticism for the way Westmeath played that year.
"We didn't get involved in that," recalls the Dublin-based Kerryman. "Even though some of the people saying it actually spent a lot of their playing career doing something similar. A lot of teams have adopted it now. Some counties just have to set up that way. Westmeath are going to have to close down the space on Sunday and that might mean bringing an extra man back.
"But if you're doing that, you have to break very quickly. Denis and David Glennon will have to win a lot of ball for it to work."
"But Westmeath have been impressive. They managed to stay in Division 2, despite missing their Garrycastle players and Frank Boyle and Paul Greville are with the hurlers now, so they were missing what could be six or seven starters. There is talent in Westmeath, they'll need a bit of time."
The rest of the main contenders will have one eye on Cusack Park to watch Westmeath's youngsters test Kerry's mood.
O Flatharta doesn't see a big shock on the cards in Mullingar. "Kerry will improve. There is another kick in this team yet."