Depleted Kerry will be really up against it as they start League title defence away to Donegal


Donegal v Kerry

Sunday, January 29

Ballybofey, Co Donegal

Throw-in at 2pm

Referee: Liam Devenney (Mayo)

Live on TG4

Jack O’Connor has managed a Kerry team to play in Donegal just once. And while it was far from a disaster, it wasn’t a win either. It was also 18 years ago, which makes any sort of correlation between then and now completely redundant. But it also means that Jack will been keen to straighten up the record books: who knows if he will get another opportunity to manage against Donegal on their own patch; and, he doesn’t like to lose any game.

It was March 13, 2005 when the then defending League and All-Ireland champions arrived in Ballybofey for a round 4 fixture against a Brian McEniff managed Donegal team. Kerry had lost their first League game to Cork but had bounced back with wins against Offaly and Dublin. 

The message was clear going by the team selections for those first three games: Kerry were going all out to retain their League title. Diarmuid Murphy, the three Ó Sé brothers, Aidan O’Mahony, Eoin Brosnan and Colm Cooper started those first three games. Eamonn Fitzmaurice, Paul Galvin, Seamus Moynihan, William Kirby, Tom O’Sullivan and Liam Hassett all featured prominently.

By the time Kerry arrived in Ballybofey, Jack O’Connor started eight of the team that had started against Mayo in the All-Ireland final the previous September. Injury prevented Darragh Ó Sé playing against Mayo, but a fit again Ó Sé was back in midfield to face Donegal. Seamus Moynihan also wasn’t fit enough to start the 2004 All-Ireland final but he did come on as a sub, same as he did in Ballybofey less than six months later.

William Kirby, Liam Hassett and Dara Ó Cinnéide were  All-Ireland final starters in 2004 and active participants in some of those first four League games the following spring, including all three coming on against in MacCumhaill Park. The wonder is that Kerry actually lost the game – 1-10 to 1-9 – Gooch and Ó Cinnéide scoring three points apiece, Brosnan with the goal. 

Eighteen years on and Kerry and Jack O’Connor are back in Ballybofey as League and All-Ireland champions, but the manager will have nothing like the resources to call on this time like he had in 2005. O’Connor said Monday that he will likely have four or five of last July’s All-Ireland final starting team. He should also have three, perhaps four, of the six used All-Ireland final subs making the journey at the weekend. All told, however, Jack will have far fewer All-Ireland medal winners at his disposal next Sunday than he had for his first trip MacCumhaill Park.

What it all means with regard to how Sunday might pan out is anyone’s guess, but this much we know for sure: Kerry are well behind the curve in terms of pre-League training, and despite having played two McGrath Cup games, O’Connor concedes that there is a huge amount of work to be done.

What we don’t know, and what the Kerry team won’t know until Liam Devenney throws in the ball at 2pm, is how much work Donegal have done. The home side start 2023 under new manager Paddy Carr, a native of Fanad and a well travelled club and inter-county team manager. They also begin the post-Michael Murphy era. The latter might be as liberating for the team as the absence of Carr’s predecessor Declan Bonner, but that’s Donegal’s bag. Kerry have more than enough to be getting on with.

It remains to be seen if Shane Ryan is ready to re-join the squad after his exploits with Rathmore, but Shane Murphy will be an able stand-in between the posts. In front of him there should be four of last year’s six All-Ireland final defenders – Graham O’Sullivan, Jason Foley, Tom O’Sullivan and Tadhg Morley – but is it beyond that where things start to get threadbare.

From 8 to 15 it seems Jack O’Connor will only be able to call on his namesake Jack Barry from the front eight that started against Galway last summer. David Moran has retired, Diarmuid O’Connor and Paul Geaney are out in the medium term with lower leg injuries, Stephen O’Brien and Sean O’Shea are understood to be rehabbing less serious knocks but will likely be unavailable for the first two League games, and the Clifford brothers are getting a much needed break from the game.

Killian and Adrian Spillane, Micheal Burns and Paul Murphy are expected to travel at the weekend, and beyond that the management will be dipping into a pool of players who were, to one degree or another, on the fringes in 2022.

Mike Breen, Tony Brosnan, Dan O’Donoghue, Gavin Crowley, Dara Moynihan and Darragh Roche offer League experience to some degree, before the management start to consider the more callow members of the current squad, several of whom have just been drafted in over the last few weeks.

There certainly should be a steely spine to the Kerry team – Foley, Morley, Barry, Adrian Spillane, Moynihan and Killian Spillane wouldn’t be the worst 3-6-8-9-11-14 backbone to face Donegal, but it depends, too, on how much dirty diesel some of those had to blow out still. There was certainly a rustiness to most of the ‘senior’ players in the McGrath Cup trouncing back Cork three weeks ago. And while they played a little freer against Clare subsequently, the manager confirmed on Monday that the squad has put down a couple of weeks of heavy training, which could have a bearing on how fleet of foot they will be on what could be a heavy sod in Ballybofey.

On the face of it, it might be that relegation will trouble Roscommon, Monaghan and Donegal more than the others in Division One. Kerry have four ‘away’ games this year, including Tyrone, Mayo and Galway, so it might be that an early win this weekend will be more important that the obvious need for points on the board. 

Jack O’Connor was asked this week if, all things considered, a mid-table finish in Division One could be expected and would be acceptable? 

“That’s a fair enough assessment,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we won’t be trying to go out to win every game, we’ll be going flat out to win every game and be as competitive as we can, but the fact that we have to train pretty hard through the league might affect some of our performances.”

Eighteen years after his first and last trip there, Jack O’Connor will remain wary of what Ballybofey holds for his National League champions.


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