Last Sunday, East Kerry’s young guns claimed a first county title for their district in 20 years. But will it prove to be the first of many? Adam Moynihan assesses the team’s long-term prospects
It didn’t take long. Just a few short hours after last weekend’s surprisingly one-sided Kerry Senior Football Championship final, some observers were already questioning the merits of East Kerry’s victory. Six clubs versus one isn’t fair in some people’s eyes (although presumably it was fair enough over the course of the last two decades when East Kerry didn’t win a thing).
Such talk is a measure of how powerful this team already is, and how dangerous it can become. But how far can Jerry O’Sullivan and this young group of players go? Is talk of multiple county championships and potentially dominating the 2020s premature? Well, yes, of course it is.
But it’s fun to speculate.
East Kerry have so much talent in their ranks right now and the age profile of the squad certainly suggests that there is significant scope for improvement in the years to come. Goalkeeper James Devane (35) is really the only old man, for want of a nicer way of putting it, in the squad.
Kerry senior Jack Sherwood is 28 (not exactly on his last legs) and after that you’re basically looking at a team of under 25s. Their best player, potentially the GOAT, turns 21 in January.
Add to that a sprinkling of starlets who are likely to graduate from the district’s hugely successful underage teams and the future certainly appears to be bright in terms of personnel.
One conceivable stumbling block is the possibility of losing clubs to promotion. At present, East Kerry is comprised of six clubs: Glenflesk, Spa, Gneeveguilla, Listry, Firies and Fossa. If either of the two intermediate clubs (Glenflesk or Spa) get promoted to senior, their players will become ineligible. On Sunday, Glenflesk provided three starters and three subs while almost half the current panel (13 out of 30) hail from Spa.
The other side to that coin is that any senior East Kerry club who get relegated to intermediate can then join up with their divisional team. While it seems unlikely that Dr Crokes or Legion could face such a disastrous fate in the near future, you would have said the same thing about Rathmore at the start of the 2019 campaign. The club from just the right side of the Cork border have rubbed shoulders with the best of the best in recent years, notably beating the Crokes numerous times in the East Kerry Championship.
In April, with 20 minutes to play in their final Club Championship game against Legion, Liam Hassett’s team were top of Group 2 and heading for the final. However, that match turned against them and Dr Crokes’ simultaneous victory over Kerins O’Rahilly’s meant that the All-Ireland Club finalists topped the group, and Rathmore finished bottom.
Last month’s defeat to the bottom team in Group 1, Kilcummin, who themselves provided seven starters to East Kerry in 2018, consigned Rathmore to intermediate for the first time in 20 years.
While it would be customary in these circumstances for Rathmore to link up with East Kerry, as they did in the late nineties when the district won three County Championships in a row, unconfirmed reports suggest that it isn’t a foregone conclusion.
Either way, I’m sure that East Kerry manager Jerry O’Sullivan will be more than happy with his squad heading into next year’s championship.
Another plus point for East Kerry is that the revamped Kerry SFC schedule has made it easier for divisional sides to build momentum. Up until recently, Kerry’s showpiece competition was played in fits and starts. In 2017, for example, the opening rounds were played in May and July with the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final taking place in September and October. The scattered nature of the championship had been less bothersome to club sides as they have the advantage of training and playing together as a unit for the entire year.
For divisional sides such as East Kerry, assembling a squad and finding suitable times to train in between the club season was a challenge. Look at it from a manager’s perspective. How can you make real progress with a group of players if you only see them a couple of times every couple of months? And it wasn’t exactly a picnic for players either. In truth, many, in recent years at least, saw playing for East Kerry as a bit of a chore.
In 2018 and 2019, the County Championship was played off in a far more timely and efficient fashion. Barring the preliminary round fixture between the two lowest-ranked divisional teams (St Kieran’s and Feale Rangers) on August 29, it took just seven weeks to complete this year’s tournament (September 21 to November 10).
In fairness to the county board, they deserve great credit for streamlining their competitions; all-in-all you couldn’t really fault the manner in which the Club Championship, County League and County Championship are being run off. It has benefitted every team, club and divisional, but it has made a more marked impact on how teams like East Kerry go about their business.
And looking at the honours roll, divisional sides needed a boost. The 2010s was an unusually lean decade for the boards; Sunday’s final marked only the second county final victory for a divisional side in the teens, with South Kerry’s triumph in 2015 the only other for an amalgamation since 2010.
In each of the previous five decades (60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s) at least five Kerry SFC finals were won by a divisional side.
Of course, it should go without saying that the brilliance of the Crokes, who won seven out of the last 10, was a major factor in that recent decline for teams like East Kerry.
In light of Sunday’s defeat, rivals will naturally be keen to bury Edmund O’Sullivan’s side but it would be foolish in the extreme to assume that they’re dead at this point.
A number of key players may be in their thirties but all of those older guys made important contributions in this year’s championship, and in Michael Potts, Mark O’Shea, Jordan Kiely, David Shaw and Tony Brosnan they have enough young talent to challenge the champions again in 2020.
But there’s no denying that this is East Kerry’s week and East Kerry’s year. It would be far too bold to christen this conquest as being the dawn of some kind of Eastern Empire, that’s only something that can be done retroactively, but all of the pieces are there. All we can do now is sit back and see if they fall into place.
Pic: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile.