Legend Sheehy insists Kerry face major overhaul if they fail to overcome their old nemesis Tyrone in Killarney
SO many aspects of Kerry's reputation as football's greatest empire are under threat in Saturday's All-Ireland qualifier clash with Tyrone that it could develop into both a season and era-defining game.
Defeat would not only end Kerry's pursuit of a 37th senior title for this year, it would also probably result in a radical overhaul on and off the pitch for next season. In addition, it would leave Kerry with an unfortunate legacy of firsts, which both the squad and management are determined to avoid.
- Becoming the first Kerry team to lose a championship game on home ground to any county other than Cork.
- Losing a qualifier game for the first time.
- Losing their record as the only county not to have lost a qualifier.
- Failing to qualify for the All-Ireland quarter-finals for the first time since the new championship system was introduced in 2001.
- Suffering a first championship defeat in Killarney since losing to Cork in the 1995 Munster final.
- Being eliminated from the championship in July for the first time since 1999.
It's quite a list of 'things to avoid' in a season which surprisingly veered off course for Kerry after they topped the Division 1A table in early April, taking 11 from a possible 14 points.
Since then, Kerry have lost to Mayo and Cork, while beating Tipperary and Westmeath, the latter victory achieved so narrowly in Mullingar last Sunday that the small band of travelling supporters left Cusack Park feeling extremely relieved.
Among them was Mikey Sheehy, one of Kerry's greatest ever forwards, who candidly admits that Westmeath were unlucky not to have pulled off a huge shock.
"If there hadn't been a quick response when Westmeath went six points up early in the second half, it was probably curtains for Kerry. We needed a goal and fair play to Darran (O'Sullivan) he got it, but you'd have to say that the free that went against Westmeath just before that was very harsh. No doubt about it, we got what was going on the day. Just as well, because we needed it," Sheehy said.
He suspects that if Kerry had lost last Sunday, it might have been the end of the line for quite a few players. Obviously, it could also had implications for manager Jack O'Connor, but having survived a close call, the big question now is whether it was the turning point for the season.
A similar close call, in which they beat Sligo by a point in a qualifier tie in Tralee in 2009, had a galvanising impact on the squad and just over two months later, Kerry were All-Ireland champions.
However, there is one significant difference this year. In '09, Kerry's opponents after beating Sligo were Antrim, who were facing into a qualifier tie a week after losing the Ulster final, whereas re-energised Tyrone are next up this time.
Also, Tyrone head for Killarney with an impressive record against Kerry over the last decade, having beaten them in two All-Ireland finals and a semi-final.
"It doesn't come much harder, does it? If this game was in Omagh -- or a neutral venue for that matter -- I'd be sceptical about Kerry's chances. But since it's in Killarney, I'd be expecting a huge backlash from the Kerry lads. They know how big this game is. The whole county is talking about it. We're not used to being out of championship in July, so the pressure is on to make sure it doesn't happen," said Sheehy.
He's not convinced by the comparison with three years ago when Kerry reignited their season after a sloppy start to the qualifiers, believing that it will only become relevant if the team actually deliver.
"It's easy to say, 'look how 2009 went after the close call against Sligo', but you have to remember that we're still relying on a lot of the lads who shouldered much of the load then. They're great players, but they're also three years down the road. I just hope we're not all in denial about what's happening.
"The Kerry supporter in me would believe there's another big kick in the squad -- there will need to be because the level of performance against Tipperary, Cork and Westmeath wouldn't be anywhere near high enough to beat Tyrone. There was a lot missing in all three games and it has to be sorted out or else the season will be over on Saturday," said Sheehy.
While Tyrone wouldn't exactly be any county's first choice in the qualifier draw, Sheehy believes that the motivational dimension will be huge for the Kerry players. Losing to Tyrone three times in six seasons was a serious blow to Kerry's ego, but that would turn into outright dismay if the Red Hand's dominance extended to a fourth game, this time in Fitzgerald Stadium.
"The Kerry lads have a ferocious incentive to win this one. That won't win a game on its own, but it's a big help. So, too, is home advantage. The Kerry support will get behind the team in a big way because they know the importance of this game," said Sheehy.
It will be the first time since 2002 when they beat a Mick O'Dwyer-managed Kildare that Kerry are taking on opponents who would be regarded as genuine All-Ireland contenders in the qualifiers. But just as Tyrone are Kerry's highest profile back-door opponents, the reverse is also true.
Sheehy added: "This is as big a qualifier game as we've ever had. It's great for the championship, but one very big name will be gone by Saturday. I hope it's not Kerry."