Tomás Ó Sé: Kerry are the best-equipped team to stop Dublin's four in-a-row. In fact, I strongly suspect they will
It takes a lot more to win an All-Ireland these days than Paddy Bawn Brosnan's famous recipe of "a few farmers, a few fishermen and a college boy to take the frees".
Some would have you believe it takes AIG millions and a coaching network more finely tuned than a Swiss time-piece. The assumption that Dublin are untouchable is everywhere and, given they won't get a serious game any time soon, that's not going to change.
Mayo and Tyrone have run into early trouble so, theoretically, the field of chasers is on the wane. But I'm convinced that, if Kerry get things right this year, they're the best-equipped team to stop that four-in-a-row. In fact, I strongly suspect they will.
Fair enough, I've tipped Dublin basically because they're a proven force and seem to have this insatiable appetite to keep on going, despite their huge success.
However, the new structure of the season is set up for Kerry, because the Super 8s will stress-test them in a way the Munster Championship hasn't done in years.
Bear in mind that Kerry are going for six-in-a-row in Munster. Apart from the silverware, they've been getting little else from dominating the province. On the contrary, they've been arriving into All-Ireland semi-finals, particularly, half-cooked. And that's when they get caught.
Dublin can win Leinster in their sleep but they're already hardened campaigners. So they're not trying to learn anything on the hoof. All that experience is in place and Jim Gavin's only concern right now is pacing them for a long season.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice doesn't have that luxury. With so many young players involved, every day needs to be a learning day for Kerry.
And, if you wanted to condense their worries down into a single incident, I'd suggest having a look at the Niall Scully goal for Dublin against us in this year's National League. Kerry were cut wide open; Peter Crowley being forced eventually into leaving Scully to press the advancing player.
But the thing to understand is that that problem started with an overlap in midfield.
Those overlaps don't tend to happen to Dublin because they're better tacklers and harder man-markers around the middle third.
That becomes a positive in both defence and attack because, when the Dubs pile forward, they do so with the aggression to break tackles. They have men who'd cut you in two.
Kerry still have to build that into their make-up and it's obvious that, right now, they don't have a Stephen Cluxton, a Brian Fenton or a Ciaran Kilkenny. In other words, they don't have the same leadership profile. I saw Kerry four times in the League and Paul Murphy was the only man I felt who had that cut about him consistently. He needs others to follow him now.
I don't doubt that Clare will put it up to Kerry tomorrow (they created four clear goal chances in this fixture last year), but Kerry will win. And, though I was in Thurles last weekend to witness the obvious improvement in Cork, Kerry should still have their number in the Munster final too.
Shane Murphy (below) is a big upgrade in goals, although I could honestly have only named two of tomorrow's starting defensive six - Murphy and Peter Crowley - with any degree of certainty. That's unprecedented. And it's undoubtedly an issue of ongoing concern for Kerry that we seriously lack a top-class, man-marking corner-back.
When I think of my time with Kerry, we never feared facing superstar corner-forwards such as Bernard Brogan, Padraig Joyce, Michael Meehan or Peter Canavan. Why? We had Mike McCarthy, we had Tom Sullivan, we had Marc ó Sé. Hand on heart, I'd consider them the three best man-marking defenders I've seen in my life.
And it was from them that Kerry took so much confidence going in against the big guns. It gives a team great comfort to know they don't have to unduly worry about the opposition's danger-man, that they can focus on winning the game as distinct from not losing it.
That confidence is missing at the moment. Daniel Flynn gave Jason Foley an awful time of it in the League game against Kildare. Crucified him.
Foley is well capable of filling that role, but he needs to learn. He has the pace but needs to find the cuteness. Whenever I'm home now, I have people lamenting how we don't have man-marking backs anymore.
My answer is that, actually, we might have. They just have to find their way.
Another problem for Kerry is that we haven't yet quite nailed down the running-game. Gavin Crowley, Briain Begley and Peter Crowley have serious pace and 'cut' about them, but Murphy is the one Kerry defender who consistently breaks forward. And I can see that Fitzmaurice's view is that a long kick inside should always be an option when you have the likes of David Clifford, Paul Geaney and James O'Donoghue on the end of it.
He's right too. Early ball to these players is a serious weapon. But the dogs in the street know that Clare will use one, if not two, sweepers tomorrow and those lads will spend the day in heavy traffic.
One thing Kerry have failed to do is break down that traffic with enough runners coming from deep. It means they end up stalling and passing laterally. Sometimes, they turn back too easily.
Freeze-frame an image of any Dublin player attacking and just look at the options at his shoulder. He'll always have at least two players running alongside, as well as guys bursting a gut inside to give the long-ball option. When Dublin attack, they do it with absolute conviction. It means they always have a multitude of options, rather than just kick or run.
Kerry need more runners like that, off the shoulder. They've been too careful in my opinion. They need to attack with more intent. And, to that end, it's in the Super 8s they'll really get the chance to learn if that ability is within them. Clare tomorrow and Cork in the Munster final will give Kerry a game. I'm not trying to be disrespectful.
My point is that Kerry will still beat both without being fully tested. And that's why the Super 8s are a godsend.
A big player for us this year will be Jack Barry. David Moran and Anthony Maher were our midfield against Mayo last year, but this guy has a cut to him that I haven't seen from a Kerry midfielder in a long time. Trouble is, people have, largely, only seen him in man-marking jobs so far for Kerry. Trust me, this guy has the ability to rip holes in any defence.
If he's given licence to cut loose, even Dublin's Fenton would struggle to cope.
Then the two big additions to the attack, Sean O'Shea and David Clifford, are real blue-chip footballers, both of whom Fitzmaurice has handled beautifully.
He didn't use O'Shea last year, giving him a year to immerse himself in senior training. This might seem a sweeping statement but, long-term, I believe O'Shea could have the same kind of impact Declan O'Sullivan had on our team.
He looks a natural leader and his physicality in the League against Galway was phenomenal for a young fella. In my time, nobody stepped direct from minor to senior the way he's done. And Eamonn's decision to put Clifford straight in has worked out way better than I'd have expected too.
As long as Clifford gets early ball, he'll thrive on the hard ground but the kickers outside need to be doing their job. And that's where people need to play with nerve.
Just because it might be a two-against-three inside isn't always a reason to always turn back and revert to this lateral passing. Lord God, expect a sweeper to be in there. Expect your inside forwards to be out-numbered. But, if the movement inside is good enough, that early delivery can still be a weapon.
Keep switching. Keep forcing the sweeper to make a decision.
When I was playing, I'd regularly drive four or five balls inside to Kieran Donaghy, Johnny Crowley or Dara ó Cinnéide. Even though they'd be decent enough balls, three of them could come straight back out to me. But the other two might do the damage.
That's how you keep the opposition honest.
Nowadays, maybe there isn't the same patience there. If a guy kicks in three balls that come straight back out, chances are he'll get the curly finger when, in fact, patience could be the winning or losing of the game. You lose possession? Work your socks off to get it back.
This is, above all, a very pacy Kerry team which is exactly what you need to win an All-Ireland. I suppose we've very little big-day experience compared to the Dubs and, if I'm brutally honest, the win in 2014 would be interpreted within the county as a little flukey. We won it against the head.
It was, above all, a tactical triumph for Fitzmaurice. And that's one of the reasons I have such faith in him now.
There's something about this group coming through at a time when the structure of the Championship is so different that makes me think the planets are aligned for Kerry. They'll get three tough games from the Super 8s and, if they're still swimming after that, I'd fancy them to go the whole way.
One thing that's very noticeable is just how little information has been coming out of the Kerry camp so far. There's almost a wall of silence. Nobody could have confidently picked the starting 15, backs especially. That's remarkable.
One place Kerry fell down on last year was in work-rate, especially the middle eight. Don't get me wrong, they work hard but they don't always pressurise the ball-carrier as early as they should.
Once you allow momentum to build, the damage is already done. That has to change. And they'll be feeling the pressure, no question. Eamonn will be feeling it. He gave a very good interview on Radio Kerry recently when it was put to him that a lot of people would question the way Kerry have been playing.
His answer was typically diplomatic, but firm. The gist of it was that he respected other people's opinions but that the only ones that really counted were those within the camp itself.
I admire that stubbornness in him I believe there's nobody better equipped to be in charge of Kerry at this moment.
The problems we've seen with the team are all fixable, particularly this issue on ending up on the wrong end of over-laps - because the answer to that is work-rate, aggression in contact, trust in one another. Having the cuteness to see two moves ahead.
That aggression must start with your forwards and the work they put in off the ball, making that physical contact with defenders coming out.
Look at how Dublin re-invented Bernard Brogan. When I marked him in the early days, he'd never dream of chasing me. Five or six years later, he chased everything.
That's the key. Your team needs to tackle high up the field. They need to be constantly aggressive. It's what disgusted me about Kerry against Mayo in last year's All-Ireland semi-final replay. The full-back line didn't stand a chance when people were being allowed run through the middle like a bull run in Pamplona.
It's brilliant to see those new starters in the Kerry line-up for tomorrow but our backs have to improve defensively and offensively. They have to be harder to score against and the forwards need to be more ruthless.
Kerry people are impatient by nature and don't believe in periods of transition. You'd never hear the phrase 'Give them another year...'. They want success and they want it now. So, the pressure on Eamonn and his team is immediate. Once you pull on that jersey, you're in the bear pit.
I believe the raw material is there to win an All-Ireland and I'd love them to lay down a marker by looking clinical against Clare tomorrow, by looking ruthless.
I was watching Michael Darragh Macauley for the Dubs against Wicklow and his hunger to get on the end of things was incredible for a fella with nothing to prove.
That's the Dublin mentality and it's a mentality I want to see in Kerry. I want that to see a bit of madness in this group. Not reckless, off-the-ball stuff, but for them to show me a real edge.
Because the year is set up for Kerry if they do.