Spillane: Ageing Kerry face struggle to overcome youthful Dubs in 2016
GUESS what question I’ve been asked most often since the start of 2016 – particularly by Kerry natives!
What are the Kingdom’s chances of winning the All-Ireland this year? Well, I’m not sure if I’m the best person to answer the question.
I didn’t give Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s side a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the All-Ireland in 2014 and they ended up being crowned champions.
Last September I fancied them to beat Dublin in the final and they flopped.
So what do I make of their chances in 2016?
Well, I believe they will again be in the mix at the business end of this season, even though I don’t necessarily think they will be a better team than last year.
So why then am I so optimistic? My reasoning is very simple. With the exception of Dublin, every other team is on the slide.
At best there are four ‘serious’ contenders for Sam in 2016: Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and, at a stretch, Tyrone.
Furthermore, I don’t think retaining the Munster title will tax Kerry too much. It will probably take rookie Cork boss Peadar Healy at least one season to settle into the job.
Remember, to win the Munster title the Rebels will almost certainly have to beat Kerry in Fitzgerald Stadium, where they haven’t won a championship game since 1995.
While Clare and Tipperary have improved, they are not serious contenders to win a provincial title. So Kerry will reach the business end of the season without having to hit top form.
They may well face the beaten Connacht finalists in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The downside of that is that Fitzmaurice won’t know their true worth until they take the field against their probable semi-final opponents, Dublin.
Their failure to perform in the final last September doesn’t mean they have become a bad team.
They still possess serious footballers – the majority of whom have loads of experience and know how to win All-Ireland titles – and crucially they have scoring forwards.
Despite having a bad day at the office in the All-Ireland final, Fitzmaurice hasn’t become a bad manager overnight either.
Provided he learns from the mistakes he made in last year’s decider – just as Jim Gavin did after Dublin’s collapse against Donegal the previous year – then Kerry can possibly come back a better team.
The big flaw in their All-Ireland final performance was that they concentrated too much on countering Dublin’s perceived strengths. As a result they didn’t perform with their traditional panache and paid the price.
Getting the balance right will be the key, but that’s easier said than done.
So what are my greatest fears for this Kerry side?
Top of the list is that they will attempt to win the title with virtually the same group of players who came up short in 2015. There is an awful lot of football mileage in the legs of most of these players.
Even if age is only a number, it is an issue in Kerry because so many key players – all of whom have played at the highest level for an extended period – are the wrong side of 30.
By the time the 2016 championship kicks off, Darran O’Sullivan will have celebrated his 30th birthday, while new team captain Bryan Sheehan will be 31 in August.
Brendan Kealy (30), Donnchadh Walsh (31), Colm Cooper (32), Kieran Donaghy (33), Aidan O’Mahony (35) and Marc ó Sé (36), are other members of the squad who have passed the three-decade mark.
Even though they are all playing decent football, their best days are probably behind them. In the case of Cooper and Donaghy, and in particular O’Mahony and ó Sé, they have lost a vital yard of pace.
Given the unbelievable speed that Dublin play the game at, Kerry’s lack of pace, especially in defence, is a potential fatal weakness.
Fitzmaurice has been particularly slow to nurture young talent – especially in championship football. Astonishingly, he has never used an U-21 player in the championship.
This decision could come back to haunt him this season as new Kerry U-21 boss Jack O’Connor will be reluctant to release any of his players.
It is conceivable that Fitzmaurice won’t have any U-21 player available during the spring as the league final is scheduled for six days before the All-Ireland U-21 decider.
Kerry have been fortunate to keep their place in the top flight of the league in the last two years and all the signs are that they will struggle again in 2016. They have only three games at home and their shortest away trip is to Dublin at the end of the month.
Worse still, the squad looks like a casualty ward right now with Paul Geaney, Michael Geaney, Kieran O’Leary, James O’Donoghue, Anthony Maher and Colm Cooper all recovering from surgery. O’Donoghue’s recurring shoulder injuries are a huge concern.
Although Cooper will be back in action shortly following a minor shoulder operation, the key question is whether he can ever again be as influential as he was prior to his cruciate ligament injury. Last season he was a shadow of his former self.
Nobody knows how the departure of team trainer Cian O’Neill will impact on the squad. Not alone was he an innovative trainer, he was able to challenge the ‘groupthink’ as he was an outsider.
We’re back to an all-Kerry management team with Padraig Corcoran upgraded to team coach and Fitzmaurice’s friend and old team-mate Liam Hassett coming in as a selector.
Fitzmaurice was only given a one-year extension of his contract, so the pressure is on to deliver. Speculation is already rife in the Kingdom that Jack O’Connor could return for a third stint as senior team boss.
Right now, I’m more hopeful than confident that Kerry will win the 2016 All-Ireland.
Frankly, I think the squad needs to be rebuilt. Only Paul Galvin has retired, which means that the rebuilding programme could be delayed for another year.
So this could be a lost year for the Kingdom.