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Eoin Liston: Graduation to senior ranks the next logical step for Clifford as he follows in famous footsteps



Kerry's David Clifford. Photo: Sportsfile

Kerry's David Clifford. Photo: Sportsfile

Éamonn Fitzmaurice. Photo: Sportsfile

Éamonn Fitzmaurice. Photo: Sportsfile


Kerry's David Clifford. Photo: Sportsfile

After growing up alongside Ogie Moran, I didn't think I'd see a better underage player but David Clifford's minor tour de force last Sunday confirmed that the bar has been raised even higher.

Ogie was like a senior playing U-14, and he went toe to toe with Brendan Lynch, a Kerry senior at the time, in a club championship game aged 15 and more than held his own. He was a one-off during his teens and the only other person who came close to him was Maurice Fitzgerald.

It's funny now that there's a huge resemblance between Maurice Fitz and Clifford, not only by his style and skill but the gait of him. David has a lovely laid-back, lazy style and is one of the few modern exponents of the 'Gooch' hop, an old trick Colm Cooper used to fool players by pulling the ball back towards his body when bouncing it.

With comparisons between Clifford and Maurice Fitz being made, it shouldn't come as any surprise when he follows in the great man's footsteps and bursts on to the senior scene next year as a teenager, forgoing his next two years at U-20. In Maurice's first year, he picked up an All-Star carrying us on his back in attack and while I'm not expecting David to replicate that (nor should he have to), or place extra pressure on his young shoulders, he's ready to make the step up and it's the right thing to do.

He's a serious player but his dedication matches his skill. You'd be travelling through Fossa early morning and he'd be out practising frees at seven.

You don't possess those skills unless you're incredibly dedicated and he puts in the hard yards and has that obsessive pursuit of excellence that all great athletes have.

Two big things that can stop a minor progressing are if they can't win their own ball and other young fellas lack courage and look in the wing mirrors, but he's definitely not lacking in either department.

Pace is not a worry as he's elusive and when you're blessed with skill like that, you don't need to have the speed of Darran O'Sullivan.

It also helps that the game has gotten cleaner, a lot of the rough stuff from my day is long gone.

His physical size is also a huge help. I was barely out of my teens when I played my first All-Ireland final but I wouldn't have had the skills that he has, he's so advanced that the senior set-up will only fast-forward his development.

Some say that he should stick to his own grade but Kerry seniors always take precedent and I'd imagine whoever is in charge, most likely Éamonn Fitzmaurice will be on to him lively and get him on to a specific conditioning programme.

He will have a lot of the basic strength work done already through the development squads, he just needs to develop that mental confidence needed to play against grown men and mixing it with the big boys is the only place for that.

Look at how Con O'Callaghan quickly benefited from a year in the wings with Dublin and lit up this season, and while there's huge expectation on David's shoulders, he's good enough to be there and should get all of the proper preparation and feel comfortable in that environment.

If Éamonn is still in the job, he'll give him time to mature, they won't rush him, but if he's performing he'll get his chance and I can't understand what my old team-mate Pat Spillane was saying about keeping the powder dry and holding him back.

If Maurice Fitz can do it, if Ogie can do it, then Clifford can do it. The '75 Kerry team were really young, a lot of lads were U-20, so age is no barrier.

While other minor sensations like Tyrone's Kyle Coney found it difficult to break through at senior level, that shouldn't be an issue.

His feet will be kept on the ground in IT Tralee while his emergence would be another reason for Kieran Donaghy to delay retirement as knowing what he brings to the set-up, he'd be an ideal mentor and David would hugely benefit from being around him.

With a number of AFL coaches watching on in Portlaoise as Kerry beat Louth in last month's All-Ireland MFC quarter-final, it's obviously going to be hard for Kerry to compete if an offer is put on the table but county chairman Tim Murphy has been pro-active in putting structures in place to help keep lads at home.

The aim is to create a healthy environment if players are unsure about going Down Under, with scholarships, careers and personal development helping to maximise their earning potential and keep them on the right path while also making it more attractive to stay.

Of course, you can't really compete with a professional set-up if a fella really wants to go.

He'll be playing senior county championship at the weekend with East Kerry and he definitely won't get anything soft against Kerins O'Rahillys, but it's another part of the education, one which football folk will follow closely.

The other special weekend performance saw the Dubs show the composure of champions to complete an All-Ireland SFC hat-trick, something few thought possible, and while they haven't played their best in finals, they always find a way.

You can't win them all by a point and that probably worries Jim Gavin as they're not that far ahead of the pack. But if they continue to improve, they could make it five or six in a row.



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