Monday, June 15, 2009

Kerry Haven't Gone Away, You Know

“That’s not Darragh Sé,” remarked An Spailpín Fánach to his houseguests when Kerry made their first substitution in the drawn game against Cork last Sunday week. “That’s the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.”

The fact that Kerry would allow their talismanic midfielder, the man who has epitomised football in the Kingdom since he helped end the famine in 1997, to winter not wisely but too well is eloquent testimony to just how bothered they really are about the Munster Championship, and just how much the qualifier system has destroyed the Championship as we knew it.

We speak of the qualifier system like it was only introduced last year. This is the eighth year of the system. That’s the guts of two football generations. The backdoor is the tradition now.

And nobody adapts like Kerry. That’s one of the many reasons that they’ve won thirty-five All-Irelands and aren’t sated yet. Kerry whined about Down not playing catch-and-kick against them in the ‘sixties, but were quite happy themselves to win eight All-Irelands in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties playing what often looked like Olympic handball. They whined about puke football in 2003 but have since learned how to duke it out with the best of them, thanks very much.

But the chief penny that’s dropped for Kerry is that the Championship doesn’t now start until August, because it’s not until then that you face live ammunition. Until then, it’s just another challenge game really.

Cork and Kerry played a marvellous game by the banks of the Lee on Saturday but wasn’t it hard not to get the nagging feeling that maybe Kerry weren’t really bursting themselves? Sure they would have liked to win, the same way teams like to win the League, but it’s not life or death, which is the way Kerry play after the pilgrims have descended from the Reek. When it counts.

Peter Canavan said it on the TV. Cork looked magnificent, but we’ve seen this from Cork before. Often and all as they’ve beaten Kerry in Munster, any time Cork and Kerry have met when it counts Cork have taken the pipe.

A pained expression flitted across Anthony Lynch’s face when the TV3 man asked him what this win was worth after the game. Lynch came up with some platitude but he must know as well as anybody that this win isn’t worth two balls of roasted snow because Kerry haven’t gone anywhere.

All this talk about shark infested waters in the qualifiers is a lot of old blather. There will be one great big shark if a surprise happens in Ulster this weekend, and An Spailpín reckons that Jack O’Connor will be much more disappointed than Mickey Harte should Tyrone get up-ended. Kerry would much rather face Tyrone once their training has peaked in August and beyond. But Harte may have chosen the direct route this year – who can ever tell with that most inscrutable of men?

For what it’s worth, An Spailpín thinks a death knell may sound for the qualifiers when the boys in Croke Park sit down to do their sums in October. Qualifier attendance has declined over the years as the novelty wore off and people realised that there’s seldom a point in postponing the inevitable. Now the recession is here, and Kildare v Wexford in the Leinster Championship managed only eight thousand souls in Doctor Cullen Park on a beautiful summer Saturday evening, the qualifiers may be on borrowed time.

And small loss after them if they are. As previously argued in this space, the old winner-take-it-all Championship had its great beauties that have been ignored in the rush to cash in with the extra games. The weaker counties’ chances of winning All-Irelands have not increased in the Qualifier era, but at least under the old system you could stop your neighbour doing it. Seldom has bitter fruit tasted so sweet.

And how sweet would the Murphy’s be Leeside over the weekend if they knew that whoever will win Sam this year, Kerry won’t? Instead they know that Mars bars are banned from now on within a five mile radius of Darragh Ó Sé, and the big man will be spending merry summer evenings running up mountains, working off that beef and dreaming of seeing red once more.

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