Dermot Crowe: 'For Kerry fans, patience is becoming a virtue with Kingdom focus on youth development'
In McSweeney's hotel bar in Killarney last Tuesday night, the drawn match between Kerry and Dublin from Thurles in 2001 received a fresh airing. 'Look at this,' one lady said to her child, approaching the game's defining moment. A point down, facing elimination, Maurice Fitzgerald let fly with the outside of his right boot, giving the ball loads of slice. You watch it take flight; it soars in one direction and then starts to come back in and lose altitude. At the time it intersects the goalposts it has arrived in a perfectly judged line above the black spot.
Even in Kerry, where they have seen some magnificent things on the football field, this is a signature moment. Eighteen years on, how much has changed. Watching the footage now feels like entering one of those caves and finding drawings of an ancient civilisation long dead, in which the Dublin tribe's goalkeeper wasn't Stephen Cluxton. In a quiet footnote, near the end of the match, the Kerry midfielder Donal Daly left the field. He won two All-Ireland senior medals. But his contribution to football didn't stop when he retired.
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While Maurice Fitzgerald is to be found on Peter Keane's backroom team, Daly is now employed as Kerry's Games Manager, one of those figures who had a big say in bringing through the minor stars who have brightened the county's future prospects in recent years. He is quiet and media-shy, but ask anyone to assess his contribution and they will all say roughly the same thing. Under his care the development squad system has been transformed.
For many years, Kerry's absence from the list of All-Ireland minor title winners was perplexing and sometimes used as a case study. You could interpret it any way that suited, as having profound meaning or moderate significance. They stopped winning minors in 1994, not being successful again until 2014 under Jack O'Connor, the first of a record five on the bounce. In the period where they forgot how to win one, they contested a string of senior finals and won six times. Never did Kerry any harm not winning minors, they'd say.
Nobody is saying that winning five minors in a row is not a good thing or a pointless exercise. But it is a glass filled with restraint and caution. Dublin last won an All-Ireland minor in 2012 and before then it was 1984. They have found under-21 a more useful recruiting ground with four All-Irelands at the grade in this decade and a losing final appearance at under-20 this year.
Seán Walsh, the former county chairman, was part of the Kerry minor management team in '94. He would admit that the team they had the year before was the one everyone expected to do well until Alan O'Regan from Castletownbere hit two late goals to deprive them of victory in Tralee in a Munster semi-final. Many of those players still came through to backbone All-Ireland senior wins, starting in '97. Walsh says Donal Daly deserves huge credit. "He put the structures in place so that the people involved at under-14, 15, 16 and up were the same people who were involved on the minor teams," he says. "The big thing about it was there was no one parachuted in to manage a minor team; you had to have been involved with them at an earlier stage. Some said Jack (O'Connor) came in because he thought they were going to win a minor (in 2014). Jack had been involved with development squads for the two years previously."
For a time, if a vacancy came up, it wasn't so much that only All-Ireland medal winners could apply - but the likelihood of them being usurped by someone who hadn't was slim. Not all of the best players made the best coaches and there were some chronically poor choices. That was not unique to Kerry, but it was only really in 2012 that the county set about shaking up their development squads and the work practices surrounding them.
"It is a known thing now in Kerry," says Walsh, "that if you want to be a minor manager down the road you have to get involved at earlier age groups; you have to put in the time with the underage up along and that's it. I wouldn't think Kerry were badly coached (in the past). But everything evolves and training and coaching of teams has evolved. It's not that we hadn't good coaches. We had brilliant managers. The whole system has evolved in how it's done."
According to one former club chairman, speaking anonymously, Kerry has been held back by being set in its ways. "If you think about it, Kerry County Board is absolutely notoriously conservative," he says. "For example, the method of election of captaincy. It's an archaic system and any time a club, and we've had the motion ourselves a few times, brings that motion forward it will be defeated on the basis that the system we've had has served us well and look at all the great captains, etc. And you'd be trying to point out that those great captains we could have had them for more than one year. It's one of those things that will not change in Kerry for a long time.
"If there had been a motion 10 or 12 years ago to set up the development squads it would have been overwhelmingly defeated. It would have been seen as defeatist. But it was never voted on, it was just decided on and it has made a huge, huge difference. There is no guy slipping through the floorboards any more in Kerry."
Of the current Kerry team, Stephen O'Brien and Paul Murphy, man of the match in the 2014 All-Ireland final, didn't play county minor. Both came after the current changes were implemented. The opening of the impressive centre of excellence in Currans, near Farranfore, is also a positive and progressive move.
Peter Keane is a product of that more audited coaching performance system, having led Kerry to three minor titles in succession before taking on the senior position.
Eamon Whelan, the county development officer, outlines the backdrop. "We were going through a lean spell, there was a worry there that we were falling behind a bit. A working group was formed under former county secretary Tony O'Keeffe, and they enlisted the assistance of Jack O'Connor and the former Kerry manager Pat O'Shea, a highly qualified coach, as well as Donal Daly and Bomber Liston.
"I think people hadn't really bought into them (previously)," says Whelan of the development squads. "A lot of clubs were saying, 'ah sure what's that all about?' They felt they were trying to take their players."
The emphasis was as much on raising higher standards for coaches as it was for players. The development group at each age category was divided evenly north and south, with two distinct panels. They concentrated more attention on schools football and targeting the Hogan Cup. With O'Connor's knowledge of the different strands, including the schools, he helped ease conflicts and find a better working relationship where players were serving more than one master.
"Sometimes you might be doing all the right work and not get those results," says Whelan. "The fact that we did get those results was down to there being a really good crop of players coming though. Some of it was down to the great work the GDAs were doing, the clubs were doing, the schools, and certainly the development squads which were much better co-ordinated."
Whelan was involved as a selector with O'Connor for the minor campaigns in 2014 and '15 and later at under-21 and under-20 level.
"I think of the current training panel, 19 have all been minors since 2014," Whelan says. "They would all have minor medals. There would be a lot of potential there. But just because Dublin aren't winning All-Ireland minor titles I don't think that is a (reliable) barometer, because I don't think they put as much into winning minor titles as they do from there on. Looking at it from the outside, they home in on certain players, who have certain talents, to play at senior level, and seem to spend a lot of time working on those players. Invariably they bring in two or three or four new players each year. They are coming in at a very high level.
"We are in a different position to them. We have a smaller pool of players and we probably have to work harder. They have a bigger pool and they can look after that talent at a later time than we can."
Jack O'Connor, during his earlier time as county senior manager, admitted feeling a sense of exclusion by virtue of not being seen as a Kerry blue blood decorated with All-Ireland medals. That culture needed challenging.
"He grew up when there was a great county team and there was a tradition that the county senior manager would be an ex-player who would have a few All-Ireland medals so it was quite new that Jack would have got the position," says Whelan. "In fairness after Jack, Pat O'Shea would have been the next manager, and Pat wouldn't have All-Ireland (inter-county) medals either, so it became more the norm. Previously, if you weren't an All-Ireland medal winner, chances are you weren't going to be the manager. Whereas now if you come in and are asked to do a job and are showing the potential and have a natural flair for it you have an opportunity for coming through the ranks."
He disputes the idea that they did not place enough value in the past on winning minors. "They just felt that if they were to win them they'd have to win them by natural ability rather than by coaching in a structured way."
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Going from minor to major though is not a step Kerry people are underestimating. "They have a chance on Sunday, I know they are very young, there is a huge gap in experience," says Stephen Stack, the former Kerry player who endured many frustrating years playing county before his deliverance in 1997. Stack remains closely involved in the game through club football, previously managing Austin Stacks and recently appointed manager of Legion.
"We made a breakthrough in '97, and the injection of young players that came through from the under 21s made an enormous difference in terms of the mindset. They just came with no fear. If you look back to some of those Dublin players, James McCarthy and Con O'Callaghan, they all played at 19, they were brought straight in. That is great credit to them but Kerry have players like David Clifford and Seanie O'Shea - okay, they are playing in an All-Ireland final for the first time - but they have very good experience of playing up there in Croke Park.
"They are young but they are not bringing a lot of pressure. They are not carrying the baggage of one All-Ireland in the last 10 years, they will see this as a golden opportunity. The idea of doing well and coming back next year, that's not the mindset. The Kerry public is ruthless and rightly so, they expect very high standards. Is there an expectation down here that they will be coming home on Monday night with an All-Ireland? I would say the realists would say no. Is there an expectation that Kerry will play very well? I would say yes. I think the Super 8 was competitive, and it tested the younger players, probably gave them the best chance of being really competitive.
"If there is any mood down here it is probably one of the unknown. They are hoping they will really perform very well, but they don't know if they will perform well enough to win. I personally believe they will perform. It's very unusual, I can't ever remember a Kerry team being 5/1 outsiders going into an All-Ireland final . . . it is surreal, and that's a compliment to Dublin. Jesus, I never thought I'd see the day.
"I think the general narrative would be the public like the way this team is developing. The one thing they do have, whatever about lack of experience, they have pace and Croke Park is a big pitch. To make progress you have to use every blade of grass, They have pace and have to make that count."
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If Kerry win, the captain who brings the Sam Maguire home will be Dr Crokes' Gavin White. Captaincy does not confer automatic selection and he had to settle for being introduced at half-time in the semi-final win over Tyrone. Unusually, he has yet to play a National League game for Kerry owing to extended runs with Dr Crokes and some injuries.
White is one of those minor graduates, having been a medal winner in 2014 and '15. The Dr Crokes selector, Vince Casey, is sitting in his office in Killarney on Wednesday morning, a normal working day but the impending final is never far from his thoughts. He jokes that he has just heard Jonny Cooper claim on radio to have been unaware that five-in-a-row has never been achieved before.
What does his gut tell him? "Look, I think that a lot of things would have to go well for Kerry. Because it's a young team. They've made a huge amount of progress in a short space of time. On the positive side of it, while they are a young team they've been used to winning through the ranks so that can be a help as well. I don't think they will be fazed by it. I don't think they'll be going onto the pitch thinking they are a beaten team. That's the great thing about youth. And Kerry haven't had a big hammering from Dublin in an All-Ireland series game."
He says he doesn't enjoy seeing Dublin winning, but he likes how they go about it. "They have saved Gaelic football to a large degree. There was a lot of passing across the pitch, the mass defence, and they found ways of overcoming that so I think thankfully now teams are starting to realise that the only way of beating them is to try and outscore them."
In the 1978 All-Ireland final, when Dublin were bidding for three in a row, Kerry destroyed them, winning by 17 points. They repeated that margin of victory in a quarter-final 10 years ago. Is that possibility on Kerry minds?
"I don't think so, no, I don't think that will happen," says Casey. "Look, they have the players, they could inflict that kind of damage on you, but I think the Kerry players are all good footballers and there is a lot of pride in each of them as well. I don't think it will happen, I think it may be a lot closer a game than people think. I don't think anyone is giving Kerry a chance, outside of Kerry."
Seán Walsh also professes admiration for Dublin and their style of play. "An awful lot of Kerry people would be giving out about Philly McMahon. I love Philly McMahon. I'd love to have Philly McMahon playing for Kerry. I suppose a lot of Kerry people would be very envious of the whole Dublin set-up at the moment. But the one thing that takes it from being bitter, from a Kerry point of view, towards them is the fact that they are all very good footballers. And a very good football team. And Kerry always admired that."
In 24 hours on the weekend of the semi-finals the mood in Kerry shifted. They went to their beds downbeat on Saturday night having seen Dublin put Mayo to the sword. "Our second-half performance against Tyrone changed it," says Walsh. "On Sunday evening, we were all talking, all making cases for this and for that. We (felt) we had a chance."
Ger O'Keeffe, the All-Ireland medal winner and county selector, a winner three times in each capacity, says the county's followers are ("for once") being patient.
"There is a general satisfaction in the county how the underage structures are working and how players are being developed and improved. We are not going to be putting any pressure on them. We are hoping they will play well and I think they will play well. But if Dublin play to their best and Kerry do, Dublin will win; there is absolutely no doubt about that."
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