Championship is all that matters in Kerry – Micko
AS Eamonn Fitzmaurice faces up to the latest challenge in what has been a turbulent start to his managerial career, the 'high priest' of Kerry football has advised him to hold his nerve, work through the problems and think of summer.
"The championship is all that matters in Kerry. Always has been, always will be," said Mick O'Dwyer.
"There won't be a word of what happened in February, March or April if Kerry do well in the championship. It has always been like that down here. We won four leagues in a row in the early 1970s, but all people remembered was that we didn't win the All-Ireland," he said.
His comments come as Kerry find themselves 1/3 favourites to be relegated from Division 1 after starting the season as third favourites to win the Division 1 title. It's unusual territory, but, according to O'Dwyer, should not cause undue alarm.
"No one likes to lose any game, let alone three or four together, but it happens everyone from time to time. When it happens to Kerry it's big news, but when you look at the players they have been without so far this year, it goes some way to explaining what's happened," he said.
He believes that the dual handicap of injury and unavailability, which has left Fitzmaurice unable to deal from a full hand, is the main reason for Kerry's worst start to the league since the 2000/2001 season.
"Being without 'Gooch' (Colm Cooper), Declan O'Sullivan, Paul Galvin, and Bryan Sheehan makes an awful difference. No county can afford to lose players of that calibre," said O'Dwyer.
However, while that is clearly a mitigating factor, the extent of the defeats by Mayo (6pts), Dublin (10pts) and Donegal (9pts) is of concern in Kerry, suggesting that the squad lacks the required depth to match their main rivals.
In particular, the return from the attack has been quite abysmal, yielding the paltry total of 1-28 (average 7.75pts per game) in four outings. That is by far the worst of all 32 counties across four divisions and comes in 22 points behind Tyrone, who are next lowest on 3-44 (53pts). However, Tyrone – who are in second place in Division 1 with three wins from four – have a better defensive record, conceding seven points fewer than Kerry.
"The shortage of scores is most unusual. Kerry people aren't used to that," said O'Dwyer.
While he believes there will be a significant improvement once Kerry return to full strength, he concedes that the failure of the county's underage teams at All-Ireland level hasn't helped in the succession stakes.
Kerry haven't won a minor All-Ireland since 1994 and while they won the U-21 title in 2008, it was their first in 10 years.
"It always helps to have good underage teams coming along. Kerry haven't had that many for quite some time. As well as that, when a team is going well at senior level – as has been the case in Kerry – there's always a tendency to stick mainly with the same panel. Lads on the fringes can get lost at a time like that," said O'Dwyer.
The league fixtures were unhelpful for Kerry, handing them three 'away' fixtures from their first four games against Mayo, Kildare and Donegal, while they were at home to Dublin.
They returned a miserable total of 1-16 against Mayo, Dublin and Donegal, having gone long periods in all three games without scoring anything. It leaves them almost certainly needing to win their remaining three games to have any chance of staying in Division 1, starting against Down on Saturday night.
"One win could change things. Going down to Division 2 wouldn't be the end of the world either. It's all about what happens later in the year. There's no need to overreact at this stage. What's important is to get all the lads back as soon as possible and build for the championship," said O'Dwyer.
Clearly, the markets side with O'Dwyer's view that despite their current predicament, Kerry will be serious All-Ireland contenders as they remain joint third favourites with Cork on 9/2 behind Dublin on 3/1 and Donegal on 7/2.
Meanwhile, O'Dwyer is battling to keep Clare in contention for a promotion place in Division 4. They are currently one of five counties in joint second place, four behind leaders Limerick.
"Every division is mightily competitive. There are a lot of good teams in Division 4, so whoever gets out will deserve it. I'm getting a great response from the Clare lads, but we've been unlucky with injuries, which hasn't helped the cause. Still, we're in there and will give it a good go," he said.