Sunday 24 February 2019

Colm Keys: 'Kerry's need to close gap on Dubs greater than ever'

Tralee clash offers ideal opportunity for Kingdom's young guns to show they can challenge champions

Rivlary on the rack: Kerry’s David Clifford, currently on the sidelines, takes on Jonny Cooper of Dublin in last year’s NFL clash. Photo: Sportsfile
Rivlary on the rack: Kerry’s David Clifford, currently on the sidelines, takes on Jonny Cooper of Dublin in last year’s NFL clash. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Because they are serial winners and dominate the landscape around them, the comparisons between Brian Cody's Kilkenny hurling team towards the end of the last decade and Jim Gavin's Dublin are inevitable.

Sometimes this is most apparent in a league campaign when there is a message to transmit. Those who can recall Kilkenny's 2009 league campaign, coming off the back of their near flawless 2008 All-Ireland win, will remember what they did to a Cork team just off the back of a second successive winter of discontent that led to strike action. And an emerging Tipperary team, who would eventually topple them, were also ruthlessly put down in the Nowlan Park cauldron.

Cork's punishment was for having to audacity to down tools again, Tipperary's was for being just a threat.

Dublin have delivered even more statement league performances like those over the last six years but none was perhaps more chilling that their 12-point dismantling of a young Kerry team, brimful of hope and enthusiasm in their league meeting in Croke Park last March.

The emergence of Seán O'Shea and David Clifford had come with some sense of anticipation last spring and when they combined beautifully with another rookie, Micheál Burns, to score one of their early points to establish a three-point lead, they looked to be on to something.

Dublin were without the suspended Mick Fitzsimons, club-tied Con O'Callaghan, James McCarthy, Diarmuid Connolly, who had already departed, Kevin McManamon, Paul Flynn, Eoghan O'Gara, Paul Mannion, Jack McCaffrey and Bernard Brogan. Vulnerable?

By half-time, it was already evident what way the game would go. In John Small's company, O'Shea experienced a different style of policing. Neither would surface for the second half, Small black-carded, O'Shea limping off.

After a bright start, Clifford faded and the spurning of three goal chances didn't help their cause.

But that glossed over however how ruthless Dublin were when they got going and how physical they were, led by the imperious Ciarán Kilkenny and Jonny Cooper.

It was an opportunity to sow early doubt in the one group of players that are likely to derail them in the coming years and they exploited it to the maximum, running up their biggest win in the six years that Jim Gavin and Eamonn Fitzmaurice had been going head-to-head on the sideline.

In the storied rivalry between the game's two inter-county protagonists, the gap never felt as wide as it did that night, even allowing for absentees and missed chances. Is it still as big?

Tonight, many of the same Kerry players will have home comforts in an effort to claw back some ground lost from last year - ground that had been gained in the corresponding Tralee game two years when they drew, prior to Kerry's one-point league final win the following April.

No doubt, it can be made up fast and Tralee will be the perfect environment for that, given how hostile the locals were able to make the atmosphere two years ago. Rarely has a Kerry team been applauded off at half-time like they were that night.

Kerry have enjoyed a solid start under Peter Keane, headlined by successive clean sheets and an average concession of just 10 points in their two games.

But this is still a period of great uncertainty in Kerry football. Keane and his team have a strong familiarity with the wealth of talent coming through but there are so many variables and just so many of them that fluctuations in personnel and form can be expected.

Keane has looked to regenerate too, recalling Jonathan Lyne, Jack Sherwood and Tommy Walsh who all left the squad over the previous three seasons for varying reasons.

For those emerging players the structure they need to thrive is structure they will ultimately have to provide for themselves.

In contrast, players of similar profile in Dublin find their transition to senior football more seamless because of the stability built up through the decade.

The timing of Gavin's agreement with Dublin County Board, announced last December, to continue as manager for a further two years, taking him to 2021, looked like a move to take the issue of his future off the table in a year when they are bidding for an unprecedented five-in-a-row.

Bringing certainty to that at this early stage removed any sense of finality about this year.

Dublin selections over the opening two rounds of the league would certainly suggest that the manager has an eye on the shape of his squad beyond the next seven months.

Their use of 27 players between the Monaghan and Galway games is as broad as that spread has been at this stage of the season in recent years when 23 were used in the first two games of 2017 and 2018 and 25 were used in 2016 - all games that allowed for six substitutes instead of the current five under the experimental rules programme to cater for the new black card sanction.

Gavin has invariably allowed for some degree of continuity between his first couple of league games and while that path has been followed the range of new faces has still been greater than ever in his reign.

Emphasis has switched to the most recent All-Ireland U-21-winning squad from 2017.

Brian Howard, O'Callaghan, Eoin Murchan and Colm Basquel had already stepped up, goalkeeper Evan Comerford has played back-to-back games, having featured in Cluxton's absence on a few occasions last year and Darren Gavin, a substitute on that team two years, has made his debut against his father Fergal's old team Galway.

Conor Mullally, Robbie McDaid, a blood substitute against Monaghan, and Ryan Basquel have added game-time, while Seán Bugler and Kilmacud pair Liam Flatman and Cian O'Connor made debuts. The battle for the higher squad numbers has, arguably, never been as intense.

Different

All this while Cluxton, Cian O'Sullivan, Bernard Brogan, Philly McMahon, Kilkenny, Colm Basquel Kevin McManamon and Eoghan O'Gara have yet to reappear in the league this season.

Taking it that all seven will feature at some stage over the next five games Dublin could potentially take their league head count to in excess of 40.

In that respect, it already feels like different campaign for Dublin's players but one where the ultimate goal, as always, will be to win.

Losing two from their first three games isn't unfamiliar territory.

In 2015, they lost to both Cork and Kerry before embarking on that 36-match unbeaten run that took them over two years.

Defeat tonight would not then be uncharted territory but, with last year's game in mind, they won't want to give this Kerry team any oxygen with a view to the years ahead.

Irish Independent

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