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Saturday 7 December 2019

Rise of the Kingdom

Ó Cinnéide says Kerry are putting together a team with capacity to rattle Dubs

Sean O’Shea in action for Kerry during the Allianz Football League Division 1 match against Cavan at Kingspan Breffni Park
Sean O’Shea in action for Kerry during the Allianz Football League Division 1 match against Cavan at Kingspan Breffni Park

Dara Ó Cinnéide came from an era when Kerry challenged for Sam Maguire far more frequently than Dublin.

Now the three-time All-Ireland winner is 13 years into retirement and the boot isn't merely on the other foot ... the Dubs have shot into another history-chasing stratosphere.

But a new force is rising in the Kingdom. Five All-Ireland minor titles on the spin is the tantalising prologue.

Moreover, contrary to some New Year scepticism about a callow team's ability to hit the ground running in the league - as a result of injuries, club-tied absenteeism and sheer inexperience - they have started life under new boss Peter Keane with back-to-back victories.

Enter Dublin, who will put this new Kerry under a forensic Tralee spotlight on Saturday night. Ó Cinnéide fully expects Dublin "won't have it all their own way down here. (Kerry) forwards are working harder off the ball, apparently the tackle count has gone way up."

Beat the Dubs

But a Division 1 tie in early February is not the barometer. As Ó Cinnéide explains, all the chat in Kerry can be distilled to one simple line: "Is there anybody to beat the Dubs?"

"And obviously, as a Kerryman, then you say, 'What have we got to rattle the Dubs?' The more Kerry get confidence from this league campaign, the more the sense will grow into the championship that we might be the ones to rattle them. But I think every realistic Kerry person is kind of saying, 'Possibly not this year.'"

The standout players of this golden generation of gilded Kerry youth have already established their SFC credentials. David Clifford, the All Star sensation of an otherwise not-so-super 'Super 8' campaign, is nursing a shoulder injury, whereas Seán O'Shea's metronomic free-taking has been the headline feature of wins over Tyrone and Cavan these past two weekends.

Assessing the rest (several have already made their summer bows) Ó Cinnéide believes his An Ghaeltacht clubmate Brian Ó Beaglaoich, Jason Foley, Tom O'Sullivan and Gavin White will all "make it".

"There is genuine excitement down in Kerry about the amount of talent," he says. "But it's not being cute, I just think it's going to take those lads until they're 23 or 24 to emerge as serious footballers.

"Clifford and Seánie O'Shea are well ahead. They're like Gooch or Maurice Fitzgerald, going straight from minor, very few players do that. And more so now with the level of conditioning required. I see Tom O'Sullivan: he has developed physically, in the last year to 18 months, phenomenally.

"These lads have to put in the hours, the weeks, to get them to 13-and-a-half, 14 stone, low body fat, able to 'horse' into Drew Wylie and all the Dublin players as well.

"I've no doubt they'll make it because of their attitude - these are the first group of lads who have been guided all the way up along. As in told how to eat, told how to train, told how to rest. There was no 'ad hocery' in their development."

But in the meantime, can anyone stop the Drive for Five?

"Dublin are no better than they were," he reckons. "I don't know when Dublin's apex was, but it's certainly not last year and I don't think it's going to be this year either. And Mayo are the team that pushed them hardest when they were right at the peak of their powers.

"You're always looking at signs. Historically, look at Tyrone even though they've gone badly at the start of the year; they've been beaten in a semi-final and in a final by them.

"So, they have motivation, they have a lot of the necessary qualities - mobility, the mindset, Tyrone always think they're going to win anyway. But have they the talent? I don't think they do.

"Donegal have the once-off madness to beat Dublin - as they've proved in 2014 when everybody said they couldn't. Donegal have that kind of insurrectionist mentality, but that has to happen in an All-Ireland semi-final, not in a Super 8 game.

"A couple of weeks ago I would have discounted Mayo. But (James) Horan hasn't come back for nothing. Players trust him; he trusts players. That's worth a lot in the middle of a championship."

And Kerry? "Kerry will always believe, whether they're good enough or not.

"Kerry will have the tradition, the know-how, a clutch of players who have been there, done that at different levels underage, and the odd lad who has been there, done that in 2014. Is that enough?

Game-changer

"I find it very hard to pick somebody out," he admits. "And I'm not saying the five-in-a-row is inevitable.

"We're only in early February, things happen - but things have happened to Dublin over the last five years. The departures of Rory O'Carroll, Diarmuid Connolly, and you're saying 'Jesus, this might be a game-changer.'

"In fairness, there's a grudging respect in Kerry for Dublin. What they're doing, what they've achieved. And every public utterance their players have, you cannot but admire them. I say that grudgingly because it bugs me that they're not Kerry lads doing that!"

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