Cork may not test it, but Kingdom’s mental strength is a concern

Expert view

Ciarán Whelan

Jack is back in the Kingdom with just one job to do – bring the Sam Maguire back to Kerry. No pressure then.

Maybe it’s a bit unfair, but you get the sense that O’Connor was biding his time before his third coming as Kerry senior manager – getting the timing right, and then delivering the goodies.

Kerry have been league champions for the past three renewals, sharing the honours with Dublin in 2021, and have won five All-Ireland MFC titles in a row in recent times (2014-’18), so the raw material is there, particularly in attack. However, they have suffered a number of ‘close but no cigar’ years with Sam proving an elusive target.

This season the serious intent has been obvious. I distinctly recall the first weekend of this year and flicking through the phone to find GAA results.

Kerry were one of the first teams in action on January 5, against Limerick in the McGrath Cup. The result spoke for itself – Kerry won 2-23 to 0-6. It was not really the scoreline that stuck out that day, it was the team selection.

Here we were on the first weekend of the new season in an unimportant competition and O’Connor had put out close to his strongest selection. Kerry were on a mission.

We all know that in Kerry it is all about the Celtic Crosses. Nothing else matters. Aside from Éamonn Fitzmaurice steering Kerry to All-Ireland glory in 2014, it has been a long time, by their standards, since the dominant days of the noughties.

The feeling is that if Kerry can deliver with the current young crop, then it could open the doorway to a period of dominance.

Peter Keane, after delivering minor All-Ireland titles, looked primed to be the man to bring Sam back to the Kingdom. However, he ended up ‘under the bus’ after losing to Dublin in 2019, collapsing against Cork in 2020 and falling into the Tyrone trap last year.

When the Kerry job was advertised last winter, there were probably very few managers who would have refused to take up the role.

O’Connor was quickly out of the blocks – and with his reputation of delivering All-Irelands, the job was always going to be his.

After a successful league campaign, Kerry now enter the championship as most people’s strong favourites.

The biggest question mark is how they cope with the weight of expectation and the mental pressure that brings.

When you evaluate Kerry’s squad, they look the strongest in the country. But the demons from the last few years remain unanswered. Dealing with that will make or break them.

It is clear from O’Connor’s reign to date where he is trying to alter his team. Naturally, some of their players have developed physically and are now more experienced at this level, so they continue to improve.

Not unlike Dublin in the past, they have worked on a defensive system, where Tadhg Morley drops off to protect the scoring zone – and he has played this role effectively in the league.

In some ways Kerry’s greatest asset, their forward unit – with their lead actor David Clifford supported by the likes of his brother Paudie, Paul Geaney and Seán O’Shea – have allowed them to work on a defensive structure.

I don’t think there is any team who will take Kerry on man-to-man in the space of Croke Park.

Just ask Mayo manager James Horan after what happened in this year’s league decider.

With the danger that younger Clifford and Co bring to the table, every team is likely to play an extra defender and drop their wing-forwards in to close down the space.

In return, this offers the option of deploying Morley as their free man, to sit deep and do what he does best.

This has given extra confidence to their full-backs, who now look more willing to play on the front foot.

Jason Foley has thrived in the full-back line throughout the spring, but are Kerry fully road-tested?

Any assessment of Kerry may be somewhat skewed by the league final, when Mayo were extremely poor.

So questions linger.

If Kerry lose the battle for possession off long kick-outs, can their defence still be exposed? Have they settled on a goalkeeper?

Midfield is still a work in progress – Diarmuid O’Connor continues to develop but will need to be more consistent. Is Jack Barry the ideal partner or does his selection depend on what opposition Kerry are facing? Will David Moran be an impact sub with limited game-time under his belt?

Will David Clifford hold his discipline when he is targeted later in the year?

I do not expect Kerry to have to answer too many of these questions tomorrow, when they face Cork in Páirc Uí Rinn.

What used to be a massive game in the GAA calendar is no longer, owing to the current status of Cork football. It is very hard to see anything close to an upset.

I felt Cork should have travelled to Killarney, which would have offered them two years in row in Páirc Uí Chaoimh when they should be at a better stage of their development.

Don’t get me wrong, Páirc Uí Rinn is worth a few points to the Rebels. But this is different – whatever extra few points of an advantage the venue might afford Cork could be wiped out in the opening 10 minutes.

I watched Cork a few times during this year’s league – and while there were signs of some improvement, they continued to be very exposed in defence.

It is hard to see how they can curtail the power, movement and scoring potency of this Kerry forward line.

The injuries to Ian Maguire and Seán Meehan, and lack of quality game-time for Seán Powter, take away some of their core leadership and experience, and there is little hope that Cork can make this a decent contest.

Bigger days lie ahead for Kerry, when they might just illustrate that they’ve found answers to the lingering questions.

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