Tomás O'Sé: 'This was a reality check for two or three men who'd been having a great league'
Maybe the human thing is to be toughest on your own and, hand on heart, I came away from the league final like a bear with a sore head.
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That was the word rattling around my head on the long drive home. To me, Kerry had been pushed around by Mayo. Shown up as naive. Knocked back on our a***s basically. And that needled me, always will. Because Mayo, essentially, repeated what they'd already done in Tralee on March 16.
Their runners hurt Kerry, their midfield beat Kerry up, their backs gave Kerry (save David Clifford and Stephen O'Brien) nothing. And all of this when it really mattered. That's what got to me.
So my immediate reaction was to wonder where the hard-nosed, on-field leaders would come from for Peter Keane this summer? Who'd be our Brian Fenton, our Mattie Donnelly, our Aidan O'Shea, our Michael Murphy? Who'd be our ruthless, man-marking defender? Our Pádraig Hampsey if you like? Our Keith Higgins? Our Jonny Cooper?
I think Kerry are still searching for that man or men.
I heard Colm O'Rourke describing it as Kerry maybe "missing a few dogs". I knew what he was saying. Colm wasn't talking about dirty players. He was talking, I'd imagine, about fellas like Paul Galvin, Darragh, Declan O'Sullivan, myself even, who could mix the football with a little bit of ruthlessness!
But I honestly believe all that will come. These boys will learn with time, but strictly on current form, they're fifth in the race for Sam Maguire behind Dublin, Mayo, Galway and Tyrone.
Listen, I realise I watch Kerry in a different way to how I watch any other county. I sometimes over-scrutinise. My imagination can end up magnifying problems; my emotional connection over-riding rationality to the extent that I'm nearly barking at my own shadow when I watch them.
So everything felt raw coming away from Croker last Sunday week. My disappointment at how easily Mayo seemed to get past our defence really got under my skin.
But then I watched the video back and realised that maybe that sense of doom and gloom hadn't been entirely justified. Now I'm not trying to sugar-coat what was, in effect, a sobering reality check. But the difference between the first and second halves was very stark and, accordingly, educational.
Mayo clearly decided at half-time to turn the heat up on Kerry goalkeeper Shane Ryan. In that first half, Jack Barry had been an easy target for Ryan on his own '45. Just small, dinked passes from the 'keeper that, largely, went uncontested. After the resumption, Mayo squeezed up noticeably, turning the game into a mirror-image of Tralee.
And Kerry just couldn't work the ball out of defence because of what became a physical mismatch. They kept getting bounced back, turned over.
You could see Barry trying incredibly hard, but just not being entirely sure whether to stick or twist in terms of defensive responsibilities. I was watching him closely that night in Tralee, specifically when Kerry turned over ball on their own '21. As the counter-attack happened, Jack was inclined to stop. And on the line, Keane was becoming increasingly frustrated.
His eyes wouldn't even follow the counter-attack, they were welded instead on Jack Barry. And I could hear him roaring "Jack, f**k sake, get up the field..."
Keane, rightly, wants Jack Barry to be an attacking threat but in the league final that came at a cost. The easy thing is to see Jack as just a defensive midfielder. A man-marker. A protector. But he has so much more to offer and Keane can see that. The challenge is striking the right balance.
So this was a serious learning curve. With the wind at their backs, Kerry got to the interval with a four-point lead (2-3 to 0-5). Both goals came from direct ball in - Hallelujah. With the right men inside, that'll cause any defence trouble. But three points from 35 minutes was a damn poor return in the circumstances
Stephen O'Brien has been brilliant this season, but two other men who've been on fire too - Seánie O'Shea and Tommy Walsh - were essentially marked out of it by Lee Keegan and Chris Barrett. Yet Mayo always had at least three runners from deep too, whereas I thought Kerry's two most attack-minded defenders, Paul Murphy and Tom Sullivan, ended up anchored at the back.
I thought Mayo's half-back line was immense, Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Paddy Durcan attacking at every opportunity. They set the tone and didn't, I believe, get the credit they were due on the day.
It ended up that the Kerry full-forward line became so isolated, the entire team's attacking shape was essentially dispensed with. And yet, for all that, I think I counted something like six wasted opportunities that should have been Kerry scores. Worse, I counted a dozen simple errors that handed Mayo easy possession.
So James Horan's observation afterwards that they should probably have won by double digits was, I thought, a little disingenuous. Maybe he's just bigging up his players. After all, there can't be any harm in him going into that Mayo dressing-room and telling them they should have had Kerry bate out the door.
I get that. It's smart management. Mayo know they have Kerry's number right now, good luck to them. But one question: Had David Clifford nailed his goal chance, would Kerry have won? I think so.
The big thing for Horan is he's found four or five new players who look like they could possibly take Mayo to the next level. Being honest, at the start of the year, I couldn't really figure out why Horan had gone back. Now I can see the reasons.
Matthew Ruane is an unbelievable find. Ciarán Treacy, James Carr, Fergal Boland and Fionn McDonagh are all potential championship starters. Diarmuid O'Connor is playing the football of his life.
Better still, he always had a rampant Aidan O'Shea at close quarters. People are constantly asking different things of O'Shea, wondering what's his best position. I've seen him four times this year and he's looked the main man for Mayo every time.
It really allows someone like Ruane blossom when you've a guy like O'Shea doing the dirty work, fetching, passing, making and breaking tackles, generally working his socks off. O'Shea, to me, is the best tackler in the country and has had some start to his season now.
O'Shea did to Kerry in the league final what my brother Darragh used do for us across the years; same as Anthony Tohill with Derry and John McDermott with Meath. He set the physical agenda, basically giving his team their rhythm. He bossed, he bullied. O'Shea was my league final man of the match.
And maybe the best part of all this is it leaves Mayo with a potentially huge bench, with big names like Andy Moran, Cillian O'Connor and Seamie O'Shea to come in.
Winning a national final in Croke Park at last is massive for that group and maybe it'll give them a greater sense of freedom for the summer now. But Horan's got to forget about games in Dublin for the immediate future and make sure Mayo put their house in order in Connacht. Because what they did to Kerry in the league final is precisely what Galway have done to them for the last three championships.
Bottom line, Mayo now need to take Galway's scalp.
And Kerry? This was a reality check for two or three men who'd been having a great league. I thought in some key areas too that we just looked maybe a year behind in terms of strength and conditioning. So it was a wake-up call.
But, remember, O'Shea and Clifford are still children in the greater scheme of things. In fact, what they've achieved so far in their senior careers has been nothing short of ridiculous. In time, they could be anything. But that's the proviso. They need time.
And maybe some of those who were giving Eamonn Fitzmaurice stick last year are beginning to realise that this job isn't quite as simple as they'd been making out. Put it this way, I'd certainly put Kerry in the top five teams right now. But beyond that?
My suspicion remains that Dublin's five-in-a-row destiny is in their own hands.
That said, I honestly cannot wait for the 'Super 8s' because I think they could be brilliant. The perception (and that's all it is) of Dublin coming back to the rest is inevitable after their failure to make the league final. Tyrone look like they could be more of an attacking threat. Galway and Kerry are coming. Mayo haven't gone away.
Monaghan and Donegal? I'm not so sure. On their day, they are capable of taking out any of the big five outside of Dublin. Can you rely on them though?
We're always hugely impressed by the last thing we saw and, right now, the consensus is that Kerry are a bit too light, a bit too callow to seriously contend this year.
It may well be true. But they're not as far off as some are making out either. And, in Kerry, we're always genetically wired to believe we have a chance.
Roll on summer.