Allianz Football League Div 1 Preview: Kerry

By GAA.ie on Monday, January 26, 2015

This week on GAA.ie, we will be previewing all the teams in Division I of the 2015 Allianz Football League. Here we take a closer look at All-Ireland champions Kerry ahead of their campaign in the top tier.

KERRY

Manager: Éamonn Fitzmaurice (3rd year)
Backroom Team: Mikey Sheehy, Diarmuid Murphy, Cian O’Neill
Captain: Kieran Donaghy
Allianz League 2015: Division I; opener v Mayo, February 1
Allianz League 2014: Sixth in Division I
Championship 2014: Munster champions; All-Ireland champions
Allianz League Record: 19-time champions
Star Man: James O’Donoghue
One to Watch: Pa Kilkenny (Glenbeigh/Glencar)
Injury List: Colm Cooper (knee – March return), Brian Kelly (ankle), Marc Ó Sé (back), Peter Crowley (hamstring), Aidan O’Mahony (ankle operation), Donnchadh Walsh (groin), James O’Donoghue (shoulder surgery), Darran O’Sullivan (hamstring), Paul O’Donoghue (knee), Alan Fitzgerald (chest).
Players In: Tommy Walsh (back from AFL)
Club Tied: Kieran Donaghy (Austin Stacks)
Players Out: Declan O’Sullivan (retired)

***

This time last year, after defying the odds to reach an All-Ireland semi-final and pushing Dublin all the way the previous August, we wondered if Kerry were on the rise again. Midway through their subsequent Allianz League campaign, which didn’t get off to the most auspicious starts when Paul Galvin retired before a ball was kicked in anger, Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s side were pointless after three games and for the second year in a row there were whispers of a crisis in the Kingdom.

With Tomás Ó Sé and Eoin Brosnan gone too and question marks hanging over the quality of talent coming in to replace them – Joe Brolly famously said the “production line had ground to a halt at the Kerry football factory” – those talking up Kerry’s chances at the start of the year were beginning to look some way off the mark.

Famously cool in a ‘crisis’ Fitzmaurice called some of his more experienced players back from their winter breaks and together they worked it out, winning three successive Allianz League games to ease any relegation fears. Still, the jitters returned in their final league game, a humiliating 2-18 to 1-11 loss at home to Cork.

And, of course, we all know what happened next. What Kerry’s Allianz League form over the last two years has taught us is that they are a very special case. They have won just six of their 14 league games in 2013 and 2014, suffering some brutal defeats along the way, and have still managed to make it to an All-Ireland semi-final and to lift ‘Sam’ in that time.

Run a finger through their current list of absentees, outlined above, adding in Anthony Maher, who has work commitments at the moment, and there is every chance that Kerry will struggle again this spring, though the critics will be far slower to the engage in loose talk about crises this time. Once bitten etc.

The great challenge for Fitzmaurice and his backroom team of Mikey Sheehy, Cian O’Neill and Diarmuid Murphy is try and crack defending their All-Ireland title, Kerry being the only county to have managed that in the last 20 years when they won back-to-back All-Irelands in 2006 and 2007. In an era when training levels are being taken to new heights, it’s an increasingly difficult thing to do, something Donegal and Dublin can attest to.

In 2013, Donegal manager Jim McGuinness put his side’s slide down to the huge number of early season training sessions they had missed out on because of the post All-Ireland celebrations and all the various commitments that come with winning ‘Sam’. That, of course, may be one of the primary reasons for the perennial failures of defending All-Ireland champions, but in Cian O’Neill, Kerry have one of the smartest physical trainers in the business, and with a philosophy centred on the quality rather than the number of sessions completed, they should be well prepared to deal with that potential pitfall.

O’Neill’s stamp has become increasingly apparent, and the difference in their collective conditioning between 2013, when they tailed off towards the end of the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin, and last summer, when they seemed to grow stronger and faster as September neared, was stunning. “In year two of our system we were superior to teams who were in year four of their system, which is a huge jump in a year,” Kildare native O’Neill told the Sunday Times recently.

In order to continue the progression, O’Neill will have to work his magic once again. For now, Kerry are without a host of players for various reasons, including their marquee attackers Kieran Donaghy, James O’Donoghue and Colm Cooper, but Cooper’s expected March return from the cruciate knee injury that kept him out all last year as well as Tommy Walsh’s return from a six-year spell in the AFL, mean that as well as all the goodwill generated from last year, they have two superb attackers to come into an All-Ireland winning side.

Where Walsh will play is still open to question because he hasn’t appeared in a Kerry jersey since his return from Sydney, with some suggestions that he could even be converted to full-back, having featured in the full-forward line in his last appearance, the 2009 All-Ireland final win over Cork.

Kerry only returned from their team holiday to South Africa in the second week in January, by which point they were already out of the McGrath Cup, Darragh Ó Sé’s U21 side having lost heavily to IT Tralee. Fitzmaurice will allow the U21s to focus on their Munster Championship opener in mid-March while it is still considered far too early for even the most prodigious of last year’s All-Ireland winning minor team to make the step up to the senior squad.

Kerry meet Mayo on Sunday in a repeat of their unforgettable All-Ireland semi-final meetings last August, although with so many players out injured and this forming what will effectively be their first run-out of the season, there is a little prospect of a repeat of those thrill-a-minute encounters.

For now, the hope will surely be to blood some new players and potentially unearth another gem like Paul Murphy, while Tommy Walsh will surely be given as much game time as possible to re-acquaint himself with the round ball. Further down the line, it will be about knitting Colm Cooper and James O’Donoghue back into an attack the envy of every other county in the country, before retaining ‘Sam’ gets their undivided attention.

Preview: Brian Murphy

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