IT IS THE HUMAN condition to focus on the things we don’t have rather than the things we do. Thus, when we speak of Kerry, we point out the great players that have retired and the great players nearing the end of their careers.
Jack O’Connor has problems. He doesn’t have an outstanding goalkeeper or full-back. There are question marks over his centre-back, Eoin Brosnan. Doubts over jerseys one, three and six is not an auspicious start to building a football team.
He could do with Mike McCarthy and Darragh O Sé and Tom O’Sullivan and Tommy Walsh and he must hope that Colm Cooper will return in form. Perhaps O’Connor’s biggest problem is the rather prickly issue of how to stop Tomas O Sé getting sent off. His red card on Sunday, reportedly for striking Billy Sheehan, was his second in his last three starts, and must be even more frustrating for Kerry given that the old warrior is playing well, as evidenced by his intervention in Pairc Uí Cáoimh as Cork were coming to life.
Yes, there are a lot of things Kerry don’t have; yet there they sit, well clear at the top of division one, and if we focus on the things that Kerry do have, it is impossible not to draw the conclusion that they will win the All-Ireland this year.
They have the country’s in-form footballer, Bryan Sheehan. He provides the assurance that more than 90% of frees inside the 45 will be points, and that a fair percentage of dead balls outside that mark will also result in points; witness his glorious free from 60 metres out on the wing against Donegal. Only Cork’s Donncha O’Connor comes close to that level of assurance.
The fact that that is just an addition to what Sheehan brings tells you the form he is in; watch highlights of Kerry’s league games to date and marvel at his engine, his football brain and the crosshair-accurate ammunition he supplies to a forward line that is motoring superbly even in the absence of the country’s best forward.
One key to Kerry’s fine spring is that Sheehan and the dependable Anthony Maher are often dominating midfield; and when Seamus Scanlon enters that sector, he shows that he too has something to offer. Dublin were the first team unable to live with that centre-of-the-park power this year and they have not been the last.
Much is made of Kerry’s perceived weakness at the back but only Dublin and Cork could claim to have comparable back-lines; up front, Patrick Curtin has been a revelation, Darran O’Sullivan is carrying on where he left off last year, and perhaps the best sign of all was Declan O’Sullivan’s imperious five points against the Rebels.
People doubting Kerry’s strength in depth need only bear in mind that the team named to start against Laois did not contain Brendan Kealy, Marc O Sé, Maher, Paul Galvin, Kieran Donaghy or Cooper, and could still do as they pleased while winning comfortably with 14 men.
Many analysts, this one included, doubted where Kerry could find the talent to sustain them, given a mediocre recent record at underage and the increasing age profile of their great team of the decade gone by. Though new recruits have still to be tested in the heat of championship, Curtin and Barry John Keane look the real deal, and all around the team, new faces are being added that will provide options during the summer, such as wing-back Jonathan Lyne, who impressed against Laois.
More encouraging for O’Connor than the form of his own players is the footballing landscape. It may not appear that Dublin and Cork have too much to worry about as they also look odds-on to make the league knock-out stages. It may only be late March, but we beg to differ.
Both of those counties’ All-Ireland breakthroughs were built on stellar league campaigns where there was a remorseless sense of mission about them through the spring. Dublin were worthy All-Ireland champions on the basis of heart and persistence last year, but the fact remains that they were outplayed for most of the final. To retain their title they need to improve further, but the signs so far are unconvincing; they were outbattled in Newry, something that would not have happened in 2011.
Cork look even less assured. They can point to the reinvigoration of Graham Canty, the return of Colm O’Neill and the promise of talents such as Mark Collins, but their play and results do not give the impression of a team hell-bent on a second Sam; for instance, Aidan Walsh may have had an impact in the second half against Kerry, but can you really see him as an All-Ireland winning full-forward?
It is late March and things can change, but we have seen enough to say that there are only three things that can undermine the Kingdom, the same three things that have undermined them in those years since 2002 that they have not won the All-Ireland. The first is self-destruction in the form of indiscipline, as it was in 2010; the second is freakish bad luck in a one-off game, as it was in 2011; and the third, the one that irks and unsettles them most, is Tyrone.