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Appetite for atonement allows Kerry to keep the romance alive

TOMáS ó Sé will be 34 this summer and playing probably his last championship for Kerry.

The oldest footballer left, he's by no means out on a limb. Three more Kerry backs started last year's All-Ireland final at 31. Another clocked in at 32. Had the match not spun out of Kerry's control there would be nothing startling in the news of ó Sé's retirement, or that of Tom O'Sullivan, Eoin Brosnan and Aidan O'Mahony.

But those careers aren't settling for a plain sunset. Beating Dublin in a final has the Hollywood ending, a grand exit fit for a Kerry footballer. The converse has little farewell appeal. So when word came back of Tomás and Marc ó Sé being among the first on the training field in early January, it was perfectly logical; there was still too much to play for.

Motivation was rarely less of an issue -- for players, management and supporters the yearning for atonement is rampant and visceral. Darran O'Sullivan could find some solace in a fine season's work in which his talents blossomed but there is no satisfaction in being on the losing team in an All-Ireland final. "I've never been in a game for Kerry," he confesses, "where we turned away a lead like that. We had done everything right up to then. To leave it slip like that . . ."

On the Thursday after the All-Ireland final he joined Colm Cooper, Kieran O'Leary and Eoin Brosnan on a short break in Marbella, an escape from a county lamenting what went wrong. As bad as 1982, some cried. "It's always lingering, always there in the back of your mind," says O'Sullivan. "If there is stuff on and you're kept busy you're okay but every time I flicked through the TV channels, it (All-Ireland final) was on. I can't wait for the season to start. Fellas seem to be in good form. I have been waiting for that for a while."

Jack O'Connor has had it to the neck in rueful reflection, too, and will be grateful that the action is about to resume. Kerry haven't taken part in the McGrath Cup so Saturday's opening National League match against Dublin in Croke Park marks their return. For all their misfortune last September, O'Connor hasn't escaped criticism for his line-calls -- the timing of the Paul Galvin substitution, taking off Kieran O'Leary and Brosnan -- and the defeat hit him harder arguably than any other. He had a real sense that they were ready for it, and they appeared to be until Kevin McManamon's goal.

For a competitor like O'Connor, it will stick in the craw that Pat Gilroy's calls looked expertly timed and weighted by comparison. Kerry were within a few minutes of winning the All-Ireland that would have wiped out the defeat by Down a year earlier, when the county was out of the championship in July, and they blew it. O'Connor knows they did little enough wrong and a lot right. But they won't be the same team this year and the circumstances will invariably change. Cork are expected to loom large. Dublin are a different proposition.

In an interview given to Sylvester Hennessy of Kerry's Eye shortly before Christmas, O'Connor dealt with those criticisms and the year in general, offering a more sanguine analysis. Of the 15 competitive matches Kerry played in 2011, they lost three, all by one point, twice faltering in injury time. "We need to start winning games like that again," O'Connor told Hennessy. "We need to drive on until the end of a game."

But he doesn't regard it as some intrinsic flaw in the team's make-up or corrosion nearing the end of its life-cycle. "I don't think it has anything to so with the psyche of the team," he outlined. As to the criticism of his decision-making, O'Connor reckoned it was their "best year as a management" and went on to recite why.

This focused on the team's overhaul since winning the All-Ireland in 2009, his comeback year, including nine different changes between the respective All-Ireland final teams. He listed off the "huge improvement" in players like Brendan Kealy, Anthony Maher, Bryan Sheehan, Darran O'Sullivan, Killian Young and Kieran O'Leary. "If we were to listen to the critics then we would not have persisted with these players," he argued.

Kerry had their first training session of 2012 in Castleisland on January 2 but five weeks after the All-Ireland final a number of players met with the Kerry management to assess the mood and appetite for another season. O'Connor was left in no doubt as to their intentions.

"This defeat caused us a lot of hurt and pain," he told Hennessy, who is also the Kerry team statistician. "I spent a couple of weeks mulling it over. I couldn't sleep at night throwing the game backwards and forward in my mind. Anyone who knows anything about this group of players will know that they took this defeat to heart and this really stung. To lose in such circumstances is numbing. We felt that we were in control of the game and that we should have won the game by four or five points. This is not taking away from Dublin's great fightback. They were superb . . . the breaks didn't go our way."

O'Connor remained impervious to criticism only to a point. "The only thing that I would say about the criticism is that I was disappointed with the source of some of that criticism. Some of our critics will know what it is like to be in this position and they will also know what it is like to hurt after a defeat. To rub salt in the wounds of fellas after an All-Ireland final loss like that is regrettable but I suppose it is also inevitable and comes with the territory."

Among those critical of O'Connor after the All-Ireland final defeat were former players Jack O'Shea, Darragh ó Sé and Páidí ó Sé. Darragh ó Sé was part of three All-Ireland-winning campaigns under O'Connor's management and Páidí ó Sé had O'Connor as a selector when they won the All-Ireland in 1997 and 2000. He knows that anything short of winning this year's All-Ireland will bring an end to his second spell managing the senior team.

The pressure is accumulating but O'Connor has said Kerry need to avoid the mistake of trying to rush things in their haste to atone for last September. They must take it one step at a time. They still possess an unrivalled set of forwards and have the added incentive of Colm Cooper striving to lift the Sam Maguire, having been retained as captain. Cooper, O'Leary and Brosnan are club-tied and will miss the Dublin match, offering Kerry the chance to look at other options. Paul Galvin is said to be recharged and if he can rediscover previous form, minus the headless indiscipline, then Kerry will have a serious addition to their attacking arsenal. O'Connor has said the return of Tadhg Kennelly is unlikely but he is not short of options, with James O'Donoghue, who made a series of substitute appearances last year, expected to get added exposure in the league.

Midfield was a greater concern heading into 2001. Bryan Sheehan ended up with an All-Star, surpassing many expectations. He may well benefit from the confidence that has accrued but this will be a season in which he needs to consolidate that promise and show he can stay the distance. There are still some nagging doubts. Seamus Scanlon and David Moran will come back into contention and Anthony Maher, like Sheehan, will know that midfield certainly didn't lose Kerry the All-Ireland and did a great deal to win it.

It will be interesting to see how experimental O'Connor is prepared to be. As he has done in the past with Mike McCarthy and Brosnan, to good effect, the Kerry manager has again scanned the ranks of the retired for possible solutions. Seán O'Sullivan returns to the panel for the first time since 2009, at 32, and played at half-forward in a challenge against Dr Crokes on January 8. With Brosnan unavailable and Tom O'Sullivan mulling over his future, players like Shane Enright and Peter Crowley will be pushing for starting places in the Kerry defence on Saturday.

Darran O'Sullivan, who is on intimate terms with some of the more seasoned members of the Kerry rearguard, isn't concerned by reports of their demise. "You hear it every year. Oh your defenders are another year older. In your thirties isn't old. You don't automatically start slowing down. Sure look at soccer player and rugby players. I see the boys four or five nights a week and they're hanging off me and hitting me, I know they are not getting any slower . . . I never worry about our backs."

O'Connor has said he expects "three or four" new players to make the breakthrough this year. The Kerry bench is one area that needs bolstering but with Galvin returning and refreshed, and Moran likely to see action towards the end of the league, he has reason to feel reasonably upbeat. He has dismissed the age profile of some players, saying it is not an issue provided they can play.

But how much more Kerry can expect of this generation of footballers is another thing. Since 2000 Kerry have featured in nine All-Ireland finals, ten consecutive semi-finals and in every quarter-final since they were introduced in 2001. The qualifiers have, as many suspected, helped stronger counties, with a Jack O'Connor-managed Kerry twice benefiting and going on to win All-Irelands.

Kerry people know it won't last and realise that this has been an era apart even by their standards. There will be some lean years ahead. How soon, or how lean, will depend to some extent on how they manage in the months to come. No member of this year's under 21 panel is on the senior training squad, however, which is causing some disquiet.

Sylvester Hennessy says people need to appreciate the good times they are living in. "Gooch lies only 19 points off Mikey Sheehy's all-time scoring record and Tomás ó Sé is within four matches of Darragh's record of 88 championship appearances. Tom O'Sullivan has 76. They are up there at the top in terms of having the most championship appearances in Gaelic football. This Kerry team has played more football than any other in the history of the game. Since his debut Gooch has never missed a championship game for Kerry; 65 games on the trot."

Tom O'Sullivan has played in 76 of Kerry's last 77 championship games dating back to 2000. Marc ó Sé has made 64 appearances out of the last 65. Cooper looks set to surpass them all given that he is just 28. The nearest non-Kerry long-serving player is Dublin's John O'Leary with 70 appearances, fourth overall.

"The relationship between the Kerry team and the public is special," says Hennessy. "There is a symmetry there built up over 11 years. Look at the amount of times they have been in Croke Park since 2000. If you think about it, Kerry people have been spoilt rotten by this team. It is more like a love affair."

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