Kerry getting used to the idea of pain before any gain
ON the Monday evening after Kerry's 10-point defeat by Dublin, Weeshie Fogarty chaired a postmortem for his popular 'Terrace Talk' local radio programme.
The participants quickly reached a grim consensus that the evidence after two rounds of National League games was so dispiriting as to demand historical perspective. Fogarty, the respected commentator and former referee, flatly described Kerry's performances as "the worst I have seen since 1966." He isn't a man drawn to the gratuitous and would have been mindful of stress already building around new manager, Eamonn Fitzmaurice. But the games against Mayo and Dublin spoke, above all, of an attacking poverty he reckoned hadn't been seen from Kerry since the year Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup for England.
Back then, successive league games against Wicklow and Louth both produced scoreless halves from Kerry, as did this season's opening assignment in Castlebar.
It was considered a harrowing time for the Kingdom as '66 was also the year they surrendered the Munster crown to Cork after eight successive provincial title wins. Yet, as Fogarty is quick to point out, they would be back in an All-Ireland final just two years later and would win the Sam Maguire in '69 and '70.
The wilderness is a different place in Kerry. Never much more than a stone's throw from the highway.
When Johnny Culloty worked as a selector with Jack O'Connor, he'd sometimes nod towards the austere grey outline of St Finian's mental hospital overlooking the field in Killarney and smile that admissions there would be down any year Kerry won the All-Ireland.
Football has never been mistaken for something trivial in the county. It colours daily existence, quite literally directing the collective humour. For Fitzmaurice, public reaction to successive poor defeats was always likely to dip into the realm of panic. Kerry's aggregate score from the two games would not have beaten either Mayo or Dublin on the day.
Now they head to Newbridge tomorrow to face unbeaten Kildare and a third loss would, inevitably, uncork talk of relegation from the top-flight for the first time in 12 years.
Tadhg Kennelly suggested last week that demotion might not unduly worry Kerry, given their early-season absentees.
Fogarty doesn't entirely disagree. He says there is tolerance in the county for Fitzmaurice's predicament and a broad view that Kerry "will be there or thereabouts this year and might even be capable of winning it (the All-Ireland)." In any event, Fogarty suggests Kerry have always been able to differentiate between the big, broad cannister that matters most and those that merely titillate.
"I'll tell you, relegation wouldn't trouble people down here," he said this week.
"If I go out the door in the morning and ask two people 'How many All-Irelands have Kerry won?' – they'll tell me 36! "If I ask them how many National Leagues have we won, they won't have a feckin' clue!" This week, Micheal Quirke took to Twitter to publicly challenge the expressed view of Tyrone's Brian McGuigan that Kerry are now paying the price of neglect.
McGuigan even disregarded the oftquoted statistic of them not having won a minor All-Ireland since '94, arguing that their problems were more fundamental, starting "much earlier than minor or U-21." He suggested the county needed to invest more in strength and conditioning programmes for 14 and 15- year-olds.
Former county midfielder, Quirke – now a full-time Munster Council coach in Kerry – took issue with McGuigan's critique, enquiring: "As a matter of interest Brian, what exactly would u know about how Kerry develops its 14s, 15s up?" Quirke's job takes him to 30 national schools every fortnight. He says there is "huge, huge work" going into the creation of Kerry's next generation, work that can be all too glibly overlooked by those drawn only to cold arithmetic.
The county's development squads at U-14, 15 and 16 today are co-ordinated by the legendary Eoin Liston, Pat O'Shea ('07 All-Ireland winning senior manager) and Jack O'Connor (three-time All- Ireland winning senior manager) respectively. Quirke explained: "That's the calibre of people we have working with those squads. Our U-14s are working on core and body weight exercises, they won't touch a weight, which is only right.
"Any 13 or 14-year-old shouldn't be anywhere near lifting weights. A lot of people who talk about the work that development squads need to be doing seem to think that 14-year-olds need to be taking 15 gallons of protein a day and bench-pressing 100kg. That's neither realistic nor appropriate for those age groups at all.
"Some who talk about developing young players haven't a notion what they're talking about at all. They hold U-14 and U-15 footballers to the same standards they hold senior players to, which is completely unrealistic altogether.
"A 14, 15 or even a 16-year-old's body is so far away from being fully developed, from where you can actually load their muscles lifting weights and doing all that stuff. Up to that age-group, you're working on technique, bodyweight stuff, core is obviously a huge part of it and flexibility.
"So that you can have a footballer in a period of time who's not going to get injured. The ball first and body second I suppose is the way we're working.
"But the nature of the beast is we haven't won a minor All-Ireland since '94 and people are getting a bit carried away and excited in themselves. None more so than our own." Dr Crokes' recent defeat to Ballymun Kickhams in the All-Ireland club semifinal probably added to the communal sense of struggle within Kerry. It had been widely anticipated that Fitzmaurice would not have access to the likes of Colm Cooper and Eoin Brosnan until after St Patrick's Day.
But Crokes never looked capable of coming to grips with the size and physicality of Ballymun. And, for many in Kerry, this represented a reprise of an all-too-familiar narrative.
The almost militaristic order with which Donegal won last year's All-Ireland called into sharp colour memories of Kerry's failure to deal with Tyrone's swarm tactics in the championships of '03, '05 and '08. While they finally managed to slay that particular dragon last summer, the baton for tactical change had been taken up by Jim McGuinness.
Donegal's winning margin against Kerry in last year's All-Ireland quarterfinal might have been a threadbare two points and, indeed, the Kingdom pressed strongly at the finish. But defeat brought a lingering sense that discipline and collective adherence had once again triumphed over the innate optimism of Kerry's style.