will kerry fold? | 

Pat Spillane: I’m fearful Kingdom’s grip on Sam is in grave peril

Jack O’Connor’s men got lucky at times last year and are over-reliant on David Clifford

Kerry manager Jack O'Connor and Paudie Clifford of Kerry celebrate All-Ireland victory against Galway. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

David Clifford of Kerry celebrates after scoring a point against Dublin in last year's All-Ireland semi-final. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

24 July 2022; Kerry county board chairman Patrick O'Sullivan clelebrates with players, from left, Tom O'Sullivan, David Clifford and Seán O'Shea and the Sam Maguire Cup after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Kerry and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

1 September 2019; Seán O'Shea of Kerry in action against Jonny Cooper of Dublin during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Pat SpillaneSunday World

NO prizes for guessing what question I’m asked most these days.

Do I think Kerry can win back-to-back All-Ireland titles?

It will be very difficult to replicate last year’s clean sweep, which enabled Jack O’Connor to keep his remarkable record of winning the All-Ireland-League double in his three debut seasons in charge (2004, 2009 and 2022).

In a recent interview he posed a key rhetorical question. Can the players go to the well again and replicate the hunger of last year, or will some live off the fat of the land in the wake of last year’s glories?

During the Mick O’Dwyer era we parked our All-Ireland wins on the Friday after the final (apart from the team holiday) when we went to Waterville for one final celebration.

This time around the celebrations have been ongoing since July 15. No All-Ireland victory in Kerry’s history has been celebrated for so long.

The players have been brilliant role models and ambassadors, and available for everything.

But having sampled the good life for nearly six months, it will now be extremely difficult to fold away the tent and get back on the wagon again.

Every season for the last four I was totally convinced Kerry would win the All-Ireland. What went wrong?

Had the players shown a bit more composure in the dying minutes of the drawn 2019 final against Dublin they would have got over the line.

In 2020 they should have beaten Cork in their sleep.

Poor selection, questionable tactics and taking their eye off the ball cost them – and there was no second chance.

In 2021, due to the postponement of the semi-final because of a Covid-19 outbreak in the Tyrone squad, Kerry were undercooked and the injury to David Clifford put the tin hat on it.

Finally, I got it right last year.

But having reviewed their performances in a detached, analytical way, I must acknowledge that Kerry did not play particularly well in the 2022 All-Ireland Championship.

David Clifford of Kerry celebrates after scoring a point against Dublin in last year's All-Ireland semi-final. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

I would go far as to say that a Kerry team has never played so poorly and still won Sam.

Against Cork, they huffed and puffed for the first 50 minutes. In the first 25 minutes against a limited Limerick team they struggled to by-pass their blanket defence.

Though Mayo were a pale shadow of the team they once were, they completely dominated the third quarter against their Kerry opponents.

They had 11 shots at goal, but scored only three points. Had their conversion rated been better, it would have made for an interesting finish.

Do I need to write any more about the semi-final against Dublin?

Kerry were hanging on grimly at the death and needed that miracle free from Seanie O’Shea to save them.

They were outscored 1-7 to 0-6 in the second half and had just four shots on goal – converting two – in the last quarter.

In the All-Ireland final Kerry were quite poor, until the closing stages.

In the first 12 minutes they got one score out of seven shots – a 17 per cent return.

Overall in the first half Galway scored seven points from nine shots – a 78 per cent return; Kerry managed six points from 15 shots for a 40 per cent return.

They won because they stayed in touch, and finally hit form in the last quarter.

The big difference this year is they’re now the hunted team with a target on their back.

Don’t forget, until Jim Gavin’s broke the mould in terms of retaining All-Ireland titles, no county had won back-to-back titles since Cork had done the trick in 1999-2000.

The mental attitude of the players is critical.

They know the sacrifices they have to make, the total commitment and the savage training. Can they replicate the hunger that drove them in 2022?

The chimp in some of their heads will be telling them that their only reward for devoting six months’ of their life to football is another medal.

As Tyrone discovered last year, even a marginal drop in intensity is fatal.

I’m not being a cute hoor by writing that I’m overwhelmed with negative thoughts about Kerry.

The county and club Championships were underwhelming, with no player managing to put up their hand to stake a claim for a place on the panel, never mind the team.

God forbid if anything should happen to David Clifford because we were, and are, over-dependent on him.

We don’t have a recognised centre field pairing and we lack scoring half forwards.

Nobody is reading too much into the team’s performances in the McGrath Cup. Nonetheless they were worrying trends.

There are signs new Cork coach Kevin Walsh is putting a new defensive structure in place, the Rebels hunted in packs, achieving a record 62 turnovers.

Interestingly Cork’s most accomplished player, Sean Powter, lined out at centre-forward, forcing Tadhg Morley to focus on him rather than on his sweeping role.

I’m convinced this was a dress rehearsal for a similar tactic if, as expected, they clash in the Munster final.

Of course, it’s not all bad news for Kerry.

They now have an opportunity to bank three weeks of uninterrupted training before facing Donegal in the League; they are virtually assured of a place in the All-Ireland series and know they can plan to peak when it matters.

Having finally won an All-Ireland crown they will certainly play with more confidence this season, while defenders Mike Breen, Dan O’Donohoe and Dylan Casey are back from injuries.

In Kerry, past achievements count for nothing. For the fans it is all about delivering the next All-Ireland. As I have often said Páidí Ó Sé was spot on when he said Kerry fans are f…… animals.

So no pressure then.

Team psychologist Tony Griffin will have a big role preparing the players mentally. Paddy Tally will have to tweak the defensive system and – most important of all – O’Connor and his selectors will have to find at least one new player to allow them to adjust their approach slightly.

Remember Gavin never fielded exactly the same team during Dublin’s glory years.

At least one new face was introduced every season and Kerry have to do the same.

Honestly, I am less optimistic about Kerry’s All-Ireland chance than I have been in any year since 2018.

I hope I’m wrong.

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