Monday 23 September 2019

Minor harvest is beginning to bear fruit in Kerry's long game

Kerry's David Clifford in action. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Kerry's David Clifford in action. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

After Eamonn Fitzmaurice stepped down last August, the Kerry County Board chairman Tim Murphy made it clear that they would stay on the path already laid out for them by the departing manager.

Year one of a three-year plan was just completed and continuity of that would, suggested Murphy, form a critical part of their thinking around a successor.

"We've a good strength and conditioning programme put in place firmly, nutrition and all that has been streamlined. That's going to remain a constant, irrespective of who comes in and out as a manager," said Murphy at the time. Everything else would have to fit around that.

When Keane was appointed, the same chorus of patience was being chanted and with good reason with Murphy warning of an integration between minor and senior that would be "not as easy as it might appear."

By then Kerry had won a fifth successive All-Ireland minor title, giving them much of the natural resource they will need to mine over the next decade. The retirement of four stalwarts - Kieran Donaghy, Darran O'Sullivan, Anthony Maher and Donnchadh Walsh - underlined that sense of a new page being turned.

The follow up from those minor successes to U-21/20 level has not, so far, lived up to its billing. No All-Ireland title has been added by the corresponding team three years later though it's unquestionable that they would have been U-20 champions last year had David Clifford and Seán O'Shea been available, but their promotion to the senior ranks meant they couldn't play with the U-20s.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Fitzmaurice. Photo: Sportsfile

Clifford and O'Shea are the undoubted stars of that quintet of minor successes but any fear that the harvest might not reap as much as envisaged has been eased with the progress this summer.

From a 38-man Kerry squad that has worked under Keane this year, 17 have featured on at least one of those five All-Ireland squads. The pioneering team of 2014, which bridged a 20-year gap since their previous minor success, has been much more productive than at first thought.

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Mark O'Connor, who featured in these pages this week, was a stand-out figure in 2014, even with another year left at the grade but he has since pursued a successful AFL career.

But Shane Ryan, Brian Ó Beaglaoich, Tom O'Sullivan and Killian Spillane have been regular starters in recent months, while Micheál Burns, Liam Kearney, Tomás Ó Sé and Robert Wharton bring to eight the number of 2014 winners now populating the squad.

A year later O'Sullivan was joined by current captain Gavin White, O'Shea, Jason Foley and current squad members goalkeeper Billy Courtney and Conor Geaney. By 2016 Clifford had announced his arrival to team up with O'Shea and Courtney remained as Graham O'Sullivan, Dara Moynihan, Diarmuid O'Connor and David Shaw pushed through.

In Clifford's stellar year, 2017, he was joined by O'Connor while 2018, with the switch back to under 17, was too soon for senior graduation.

O'Connor's continued absence leaves Kerry guessing as to where they would be if he was now firmly embedded in their senior squad.

Over the last two seasons Kerry have given 16 championship debutants, a figure that could well be matched in the next two years.

Kerry hired Jason McGahan as their head of athletic development just after Keane's appointment. His primary work has been with the seniors but in the months ahead his focus will turn to the development of the squads beneath them.

Irrespective of the result, Kerry's long game will continue. There's an old adage that 'every season has an end for the harvest to begin'. In Kerry's case, the harvest has begun.

Irish Independent

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