New blood stirs life in Kingdom - and Kerry will be hoping it works out like 1975
Bold selections revive memories of side that launched most successful period in Kerry's history
They looked a sorry sight, the Kerry players, as they loaded onto the coach on Jones Road on August 26 last, a few sipping bottles of beer in the evening sunshine ahead of the long journey home. Defeat to Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final after a replay brought a conclusive halt to their championship ambitions and there was only one road left to take. They were not coming back. Down eight points at one stage in the second half, thoroughly outplayed, they ended up losing by five.
But the county will always resurface and the major question was whether or not the management team would too. It did.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice sets out on a sixth straight championship in Killarney this afternoon. Time heals and Kerry returned in the spring ready to experiment after their winter was spent lamenting. When they boarded the bus outside Croke Park last August it was too soon to know that while All-Ireland final day would not have the county's footballers on the field, the curtain-raiser would belong to a Kerry player of extravagant class and endless potential. He makes his senior championship debut today against Clare.
David Clifford was well flagged before the final but the performance against Roscommon, scoring 4-4 on his last day as a Kerry minor, had a freakish quality and raised county spirits after that loss to Mayo.
In that All-Ireland semi-final defeat Kerry went with a sweeper with little advance notice and Mayo were wise to the tactic. A year before against Dublin Aidan O'Mahony played that role effectively but they had trialled it in the National League. When it bombed last year their loss was compounded.
But then along came Clifford and all eyes switched from the past to the future. On the first day of the National League Clifford was straight on to the team. So too was another rich talent in Seanie O'Shea, who like Clifford is still a teenager. Kerry's tendency to delay the introduction of young players had little sympathy or public patience after the poverty of their display on exiting the championship last year. Today sees a remarkable seven championship newcomers, reviving memories of the young Kerry team that launched the most successful period in the county's history when they won the All-Ireland against the odds in 1975.
In 2014 for the Munster semi-final against Clare, Kerry had five players making their first championship starts but two had played in the previous year's championship as subs.
The announcement of the Kerry team on Friday evening with such sweeping changes from a previously conservative management team took many by surprise. Five of the seven are off hugely successful minor teams that won four All-Irelands back to back. The exceptions are goalkeeper Shane Murphy, of Dr Crokes, who has the additional honour of captaining the team, and the Austin Stacks defender, Ronan Shanahan, who appeared in their last two league campaigns. The least-tested newcomer is the Dr Crokes' wing back Gavin White, who is making his first senior competitive start for Kerry, having been club-tied earlier in the year and later injured.
In the opening round of the National League against Donegal, eight newcomers saw action. But league and championship are like night and day and while Kerry are strong favourites this afternoon, the step-up for all is still substantial. Clare, defeated by just four and six points respectively in meetings with Kerry in the Munster semi-finals of 2014 and last year, are an improving side and retained their Division 2 status for the second year running in the spring. Two years ago they recovered from a 12-point defeat by Kerry in Munster to embark on a run to the All-Ireland quarter-final where it was their misfortune to be rewarded with another match against Kerry. In a tame match Kerry won again with relative ease.
The news of seven newcomers had even long-time followers struggling to recall when Kerry had ever been so experimental in the championship. Most assumed it had to be '75, but suspected that even then the changes weren't as radical. It was identical: Kerry started their opening match in 1975 against Tipperary with seven newcomers although injuries to a few established players played a part in the decision making. With a young, untested side, Kerry ended up surprise All-Ireland winners, deposing Dublin.
They will hope that history can repeat itself but they are facing an even more formidable Dublin force now, looking to win a fourth All-Ireland in succession. With matches likely for Kerry in the Super 8s the added game time may help prepare the younger players for the cut and thrust of handling the demands when the heat rises if they reach the same point where they were eliminated last year.
In 1975, after the team was announced to face Tipp in the Munster semi-final, many raised doubts about Kerry and it fuelled speculation of a possible upset after a Tipp side featuring Babs Keating in the full-forward line had trounced Limerick 7-18 to 1-5 in the opening round. They had also ran a very strong Cork side to five points in a recent challenge match. It was, however, noted that Tipp had last beaten Kerry in the championship in 1928.
The Kerryman newspaper expressed its concern. Tipp sounded confident and their goalkeeper, John O'Donoghue, who won All-Ireland medals for the county hurlers, forecast a Premier win in the days before.
There was no need to fear as Kerry won the match in Clonmel without being dazzling, finishing up 3-13 to 0-9 clear, with John Egan scoring 2-3. Kerry had six players under 21.
Of the Kerry team that started last August's loss to Mayo, only seven will start against Clare today. It is a major sweep out - like it was in that summer in '75, the year after the jacks came back and Kerry's young guns blew open a new chapter in an epic rivalry.
Sunday Indo Sport