Sean Moran had a good piece in yesterday’s Irish Times (I know, yesterday’s paper equals today’s fish ‘n chips wrapper or, at least, was until the health ‘n safety lads got on the case) where he discusses the various reasons why Kerry have enjoyed enduring success at All-Ireland level. He makes the interesting point that it’s not, as was the case with Dublin’s Heffo era, down to the promptings of an exceptional manager – Kerry have won five All-Irelands in the past 11 years with three different bainisteoirs. Nor is it that, as happened with Kerry themselves in the Seventies and Eighties, the same group of driven individuals have remained there year after year – 39 different players have started for the county in these five All-Irelands.
Moran also pooh-paws the notion that the new championship structure has much relevance to Kerry’s renewed domination at All-Ireland level, pointing to the fact that only one (only one – hah! What we poor sods wouldn’t do for only one Sam Maguire) title was won via the backdoor (Mayo fans don’t need any reminders as to which one that was), whereas a front-door Kerry were beaten by back-door Tyrone in 2005.
In the final analysis, Moran comes up with three reasons as to why Kerry have been - and are once again - very much the dominant force in championship football: players, coaches and tradition. Clearly, Kerry produce more exceptional footballers on an incredibly consistent basis compared to every other county and it does appear as if the notion of “playin forr de jursey, like” has had the conveyor-belt effect of spawning generation after generation of gifted footballers. Coaching is obviously relevant too, as it was back in Micko's time.
Success, of the ongoing and continual variety, is obviously critical in keeping the assembly line of emerging talent in place, otherwise the pride resulting from pulling on the fabled jursey would be diminished. It’s here where I think Moran’s analysis came up a little short because an enormous factor in Kerry’s ongoing success has got to be the easy run they get every year into the business end of the championship.
It was bad in the old days - in 1997, after their first round victory over somebody like Waterford or Tipp (I can’t for now confirm who it was), Kerry beat, Clare, Cavan and Mayo to win the Sam – but it’s arguably worse now. Dish ear, Kerry had just to negotiate their way past Waterford to clinch their place in the last twelve and, had they then lost their subsequent match (the Munster final against Cork), they’d only have had the inconvenience of dispatching the likes of Louth to make it to the All-Ireland series. Under the new structure, Kerry are effectively guaranteed a place in the All-Ireland series and it’s little surprise that they’re the only county to reach the quarter-finals every year since 2001. (A related question is why Cork have failed to do so but that’s one for another day).
Under the old structure, Kerry only had to worry about three games every year – the Munster final against Cork, then the All-Ireland semi and final. They were able to prepare themselves with this in mind every year and, in the Mick O’Dwyer era, this became a kind of fine art. The old structure did, however, have its dangers, as Tadhg Murphy’s 1983 thunderbolt proved but, by and large, it served Kerry well and gave them a far easier run at the All-Ireland than their major rivals enjoyed.
Under the new system, the threat of the thunderbolt is gone. Last year proved that it’s of absolutely no advantage to Cork to beat Kerry in Munster. Indeed, last year showed just how warped the structure is when Cork took the field in the quarter-final to play for the right to meet in the semi the team they’d just beaten in Munster. It takes a strange form of genius to come up with a championship structure like that.
The only place to get Kerry now is in the quarters and even that’s difficult. Either Kerry will arrive at this stage as Munster champions, in which case they’ll face a team that has lost already and so would be hotly fancied to lose again (although Monaghan went a long way this year towards helping to disprove that one) or else they’ll be, like last year, on the rebound from a Munster defeat to Cork and so hell bent on redeeming their reputation. Either way, they’re still the team to avoid.
It all comes back to the issue of the championship structure which just sucks. Sporting competitions should be about everyone starting from the same position and facing the same number of hurdles between them and ultimate success. Imagine, for example, if Real Madrid were allowed, every single year, to skip the Champions League group stages. How often would they win it? On that basis, there is not, perhaps, any great mystery about Kerry’s enduring domination at All-Ireland level.