‘Until this Kerry team beats Dublin or wins an All-Ireland, there will be question marks’

“UNTIL THIS KERRY team beats Dublin or wins an All-Ireland, then there will be question marks” — the opinion of former Kingdom manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice.

Former Kerry manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice pictured as EirGrid announced a five-year partnership extension for the GAA Official Timing Sponsorship.

Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

Peter Keane’s side impressed through their Division 1 Allianz Football League campaign, bouncing back from their shock Munster semi-final defeat to Cork last year accordingly.

The 2019 All-Ireland finalists, beaten only after a replay, are many’s favourites to put it up to all-conquering Dublin this summer, and derail their seven-in-a-row bid.

Overall, Fitzmaurice reports a mood of “cautious optimism” from the county as we hit championship.

He, more than anyone, knows about the weight of expectation and pressure in the Kingdom at this time of year. “There is an expectancy in Kerry that every year you’re setting out to try to win the All-Ireland and if you’re not winning the All-Ireland you’re certainly competing very hard for it,” the 2014 winning boss nods.

So far, so good.

“Look, everyone is probably happy that it was a positive league campaign. I think the big thing looking in from the outside was that the lads got off to a good start and last season was put to bed straight away.

“From a management point-of-view, that was great. It just meant that you were moving on, last season was in the rear-view mirror, you were able to focus on this season, you weren’t trying to manage chatter or noise outside the group and it was very positive from the off.

“Obviously, you know, the caveat of the Galway game was that Galway didn’t show up on the day, but it was still great from the Kerry perspective just to get up and running.

“And after that, it was a positive league campaign. I think the lads are going into the championship in rude health. Obviously there’s plenty to do and there’s always plenty to work on, but they’re in a good place.”

Several former Kerry players have suggested that one area of concern for Keane after the league could be his defence. 

Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper is one former Kerry player to have dished out criticism in recent weeks, suggesting that the rearguard is one huge cause for worry.

“From 8-15, we are as good as anyone, and it’s probably unfair on the individuals, but as a team, they conceded a couple of goals above in Thurles in the league against Dublin, that’s still the flaw,” the five-time All-Ireland winner told last week’s BBC The GAA Social podcast

Fitzmaurice feels Keane won’t have major concerns, though, “happy enough with the league”.

“I think with Kerry, forever and always, going back to when I was playing myself, certainly going back to when I was managing the team, there’s always that kind of perception of Kerry that we have the forwards and the players up front to win All-Irelands if we can keep other teams out at the back. So I think they’d have been relatively happy.

“Obviously the disappointment from a defensive perspective would have been conceding the four goals against Dublin, and I think until this Kerry team beats Dublin or wins an All-Ireland, then there will be question marks.

“There will be question marks about the team and there will be question marks about the defence until they get that job done. The best way always to answer those question marks is to win, win big games, win All-Irelands.

“And, obviously at the moment, that’s probably going to mean beating Dublin. I think if you can do that and if you can hold down the Dublin forwards, then you’re obviously in a good place then.”

David and Paudie Clifford have been impressing for Kerry.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Looking to Kerry’s attack, David Clifford has certainly been the man leading it.

The 22-year-old Fossa man scored 6-22 through the league, his star continuously rising having established himself as one of the game’s most lethal forwards.

It was Fitzmaurice who handed him his senior debut in 2018, so it’s interesting to hear if he thought the youngster would go on to hit the exasperating heights he has since.

“I think we knew he was a special player,” he explains. “What was obvious straightaway was that he had the physique, but most of all he had the mentality and the character to be comfortable.

“They are the kind of things you are looking for, I suppose, outside of the skill levels he has. In terms of his personality and character, it was obvious from the off that it was there. Plus, he had the size to be able to look after himself straightaway at senior inter-county level.

“In terms of the levels, I think it’s hard to predict the levels that a fella will get to and it is hard to predict how far more David can go, if there is more in the tank with him.

“He is a fantastic player and he is doing very well, obviously, and we are delighted in Kerry to have him, but he’ll keep his feet on the ground and he’ll know that it’s all about trying to win All-Irelands and get medals in his pocket. Until he does that, I don’t think he’ll be happy with where he is at.”

What about his brother, Paudie? The older of the Clifford siblings has certainly made waves too since making his first start against Galway and driving on from there.

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Fitzmaurice says he wasn’t really on his radar when he was manager, playing much more soccer than Gaelic football, going away over the summer, and breaking his leg in his last year in charge, though he’s been very impressed with what he’s seen since.

“To be fair, he wasn’t on my radar as much as he probably should have been. The way that he’s playing for the last couple of seasons, he’s playing great football. I suppose it’s in the last two or three seasons really that he’s really started to step up and play very well for East Kerry.

“And obviously since he’s got into the starting team, he’s done very well this year. He’s a great bit of stuff and he brings a lot. He can score but he also works very hard and he’s a good link player, big engine, and obviously he has a good chemistry with David, which is good.

“I thought he had a great league and I’m sure he’ll be looking to build on that now for the championship. ”

Running the rule elsewhere, Fitzmaurice believes David Moran will start through the championship, despite the impressive Diarmuid O’Connor regularly replacing him as anchor recently.

Moran and Fitzmaurice in 2017.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

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“David has been very lightly raced so far, whether that is minding him for championship or whether the lads are looking at something else I am not quite sure. It is a big positive to see Diarmuid O’Connor continuing with his development.

“In fairness to him he has done very well over the last couple of years and he started the All-Ireland final replay in 2019, which was a huge day for him and a big jump. He has come a long way since then and obviously he is the future but I still think there will be a place for David Moran and he will be very important as the season is going on.”

He is also interested to see whether Paul Geaney will again be utilised at wing-forward through the summer, or whether a return to the full-forward line is on the cards for the Dingle man.

“It will be an interesting one to keep an eye on but I would say it worked for the league and it got him on a bit more ball out the field, doing different things and would have freshened him up which was probably part of the management’s thinking.”

It all starts again in Fitzgerald Stadium on Saturday night, with Clare coming to Killarney for the Munster championship quarter-final.

One thing’s for sure, Fitzmaurice says: “There will be zero complacency” as they set out to try to win the All-Ireland once again.

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