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Paudie Clifford took the long road and now he’s Kerry’s captain

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Adam Moynihan reflects on Paudie Clifford’s remarkable Kerry career to date, from being overlooked by the juniors to winning an All-Ireland with the seniors – and now taking over as captain - in just a few short years

At 24 years of age, when his younger brother had already brought home two All-Star awards, Paudie Clifford was still waiting to make his debut for Kerry. Now, at 27, he’s the team’s captain.

Okay, Kerry’s archaic captaincy rule meant that the pool of candidates was small. Only four players who featured for champions East Kerry in last year’s county final have made Jack O’Connor’s panel for 2024 and only two – David and Paudie Clifford – are guaranteed starters.

But the elder Clifford’s standing within the squad and his importance to the side’s fortunes would make him a viable option regardless. He’s a three-time All-Star, one of Kerry’s star players, and one of the top footballers in the country.

Much has been made of his unorthodox journey so far but it’s worth underlining just how meteoric his rise to the top has been. This is a guy who never played minor or U21 for Kerry. He was always a stylish footballer but when he started playing senior for Fossa, he was never on the radar of then Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice.

In fact, in 2017 he tried and failed to make the Kerry junior squad.

CHANGE

Things began to change for Paudie in 2018, when he was 21 going on 22. This time he did earn a spot on the Kerry junior team and he played a prominent role on their All-Ireland run, scoring a goal in both the semi-final and final. His performances in green and gold, and also for an emerging East Kerry team later that year, made some Kerry supporters sit up and take notice.

Many still doubted his on-pitch discipline, though. He had a notoriously fiery temper and the fact that he was sent off for his part in a melee during the county semi-final against Dingle did little to assuage those doubts. No matter how good a player is they’re no good to a Kerry manager - or any manager - if they don’t stay on the field.

After spending four years in CIT, he moved to UCC to pursue a masters and he was a key figure when the Cork university won the 2019 Sigerson Cup, playing alongside Kerry’s Seán O’Shea, Graham O’Sullivan, Brian Ó Beaglaoich and Killian Spillane. He even scored a header in the early rounds. (He was grateful that manager Billy Morgan didn’t chastise him for what some might consider an act of showboating.)

Paudie later revealed that playing alongside intercounty talent for UCC gave him confidence that he could make it at the highest level.

Later that year the Fossa man was sensational for East Kerry as they finally made their breakthrough in the County Championship after a 20-year famine. He was the Man of the Match in the final against Dr Crokes and his performances throughout the competition put him firmly in the frame for a Kerry call-up.

By this stage the player himself felt he was ready. By his own admission he felt he probably wasn’t up to playing senior intercounty in the years prior, but now he was raring to go.

Public perception had changed too. His immaculate ball skills, dogged determination and recently improved physical attributes could not be ignored. He simply had to be called into the Kerry senior panel that winter. There was no longer any doubt about it.

CALL-UP

Kerry manager Peter Keane, who had led the county to the All-Ireland final in his first season that September, brought Paudie on board for 2020. He didn't feature for the team before Covid hit and the season was suspended, so he had to wait until October to make his first appearance for the seniors. The 24-year-old was a very late substitute in the league victory away to Monaghan.

His first championship appearance came soon after, albeit in unfortunate circumstances. Paudie was an 89th-minute substitute (i.e. the very last minute of play) in the shocking extra-time defeat to Cork in a rain-soaked Páirc Uí Chaoimh in November.

Keane opted to start the game with two unconventional half forwards – Ronan Buckley (a midfielder) and Ó Beaglaoich (a back) – with players like Paudie and Stephen O’Brien held in reserve. In the post-mortem, Kerry were heavily criticised for their defensive approach in a game they were expected to win comfortably.

The Kingdom started with six out-and-out forwards in Round 1 of the 2021 National League, a 22-point hammering of Galway in Tralee. Paudie Clifford was one of them. The game is perhaps best remembered for David Clifford’s hat-trick and his Cruyff-inspired third goal, but the older brother was excellent too, notching 1-2 from play.

Since that day, there has been no looking back. He rapidly established himself as an irreplaceable cog in the Kerry machine and his consistently brilliant displays have won him three consecutive All-Star awards in his first three seasons as a starter (a feat not even David could manage). His passing is perhaps his strongest attribute – he strokes the ball around the pitch like a prime Ciarán McDonald – but his ability to bring the fight to the opposition when the heat is on is what has really endeared him to the Kerry faithful.

He was pivotal to Kerry’s All-Ireland triumph in 2022 and now, after captaining Fossa to the Junior All-Ireland and East Kerry to another county title in 2023, he has earned the right to captain his county in 2024.

FIRE

One of the more impressive aspects of Paudie’s ascension to elite level football is the way he has managed that fiery temper that caused him problems in the past. Critics said he didn’t have the head for it, that he was a red card waiting to happen, but he has played 37 times for Kerry and has been sent off just once: an inconsequential second yellow against Tyrone in 2023, late on when the game was already won.

The only other time I can recall any indiscipline that hurt the team in any way was on his full debut against Galway. If my memory serves me correctly, he got involved with Damien Comer after Comer won a free, and the referee brought the ball in 13 metres, inside the 45-metre line. This made the free kickable and Galway scored. But Kerry won by 22 points, and that was the end of it.

The fire is still there, of course. He is a fierce competitor and he is fiercely loyal to his team, whether that’s his club, his district or his county. He still bristles easily and he rarely holds his tongue. (His infamous speech after Fossa won the All-Ireland is evidence of that.)

But during his Kerry career so far he has shown admirable restraint, even in the face of severe provocation, perhaps inspired by his late mother Ellen whose pre-match advice was simple: “no fighting and stay on the field”.

Kerry will certainly need both of Ellen’s boys on the field if they are to avenge last year’s heartbreaking All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin.

Who knows, with a bit of luck we might get another Paudie Clifford speech from the Hogan podium at the end of July. For a couple of reasons, not least the unique journey that has brought him this far, wouldn’t that be a sight and a sound to behold?

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Kerry will need more intensity, more physicality and more collaboration to bounce back from Dub drubbing

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by Adam Moynihan

In the 22nd minute of last Saturday night’s league match in Croke Park, Lee Gannon collected a pass on his own 65 and carried the ball unchallenged right into the heart of Kerry’s defence. Brian Fenton took over and a tackle by Diarmuid O’Connor slowed the attack.

Then Fenton looked up and saw that Niall Scully was standing at the top of the D, completely unmarked. It was a simple five-metre handpass to the centre, and Scully had all the time in the world to steady himself and shoot. His point made it Dublin 2-8 Kerry 0-5. Ten shots for Dublin. Ten scores. One-way traffic.

The Dubs deserve credit for their accuracy in front of the posts – Con O’Callaghan was particularly excellent – but the ease with which they were creating their openings was startling from a Kerry perspective. For Scully’s score, the resistance was non-existent. If the same thing happened in a training match, the manager would be well within his rights to call off the session and send everyone home.

The cameras may have been trained on Kerry’s full back line and, yes, Jason Foley and Dylan Casey were struggling against O’Callaghan and Paddy Small, but Kerry were found wanting all over the pitch. You could have sailed the Titanic down the centre of their defence and O’Callaghan exploited that space to great effect for his third goal. Foley got hoodwinked by a lovely piece of movement by the Dublin full forward, but where was the help?

Centre back Tadhg Morley was pushing up on Dublin dangerman Seán Bugler but that’s the thing with Dublin: all their forwards are dangerous in one way or another. Maybe Tadhg was following instructions but you wonder if he could have cheated off Bugler when the all-action centre forward was outside the 45.

Whether it’s Morley or someone else, that gap in front of the goal needs to be filled – especially against teams of Dublin’s calibre.

What we saw in Croke Park last Saturday was a far cry from the solid defensive structure that won Kerry an All-Ireland in 2022, that’s for sure. You can be certain that Jack O’Connor will be demanding a far more intense, more physical and more collaborative performance against Tyrone on Sunday (1.15pm).

KICKOUTS

Speaking after the Dublin game, O’Connor said that his side “malfunctioned” on the kickouts. While Dublin keeper David O’Hanlon was firing out his kicks like a machine gun, Shane Ryan was far more measured with his. Dublin’s press was brilliant in fairness to them but you’d have to question Kerry’s appetite for making honest, hard runs and receiving the ball in potentially tight areas.

Graham O’Sullivan and Brian Ó Beaglaoich (who is currently injured) are outstanding when it comes to breaking free and accepting that responsibility. You’d like to see one or two more backs getting in on the act.

As for Ryan himself, could he be a bit quicker and a bit more adventurous with his distribution? Look, if there’s nothing on, there’s nothing on, but I think at times he could back himself more resolutely. He has the range and the accuracy.

Of course, if he takes a risk and it gets intercepted he’ll be in line for even sharper criticism, so you can understand him being cautious when the kick isn’t 100% on.

Whatever the solution, on the evidence of the Dublin and Derry games, Kerry do need to try something a bit different to beat the press. Tyrone are unlikely to be as aggressive as Dublin were but when they do push up, it will be fascinating to see how Kerry deal with it.

Kerry’s midfielders also need to compete aerially against whoever they’re up against when it goes long – even if that’s Brian Fenton or Conor Glass or Brendan Rogers. It’s not easy to get the better of these guys in the air (or to break even, which would do) but that’s the level required.

Joe O’Connor showed that his ball skills have improved markedly by taking his goal and his point so cleanly, and he is doing well in general, but he and his namesake Diarmuid will have to be more impactful both from kickouts and without the ball if Kerry want to be a real force this season.

Personally, I would like to see Seán O’Brien getting some more game time. He has only played six minutes since being taken off early on his debut against Derry five weeks ago. Kerry will need back-up at midfield as the season goes on and O’Brien has a lot of potential.

FORWARDS

Up front, the main positive is that Cillian Burke continues to make his presence felt. Even when his more experienced teammates were faltering the last night, Burke stood tall and played his usual game. And he swung over a great score for good measure.

David Clifford will be disappointed that he didn’t convert one of his goal chances – the first one was definitely there for the taking – but you know that over the course of the season he’ll finish more of those than he misses. I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if he comes out and strokes one in on Sunday.

It’s nice to see Tony Brosnan back on the pitch as well. He deserves some kind fortune following a tough spell with illness and injury.

Tyrone coming to Killarney gives the players the perfect opportunity to bounce back quickly and show supporters – and themselves – that the Dublin game was a glitch and nothing more. Improvements are needed all over the pitch but the sight of the Red Hand should bring focus and resolve.

A good performance, a win and two points would put a lot of minds at ease.

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Killarney girls will answer Ireland’s call

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A trio of talented young Killarney rugby players have been called up to the Ireland U18 squad for the upcoming Six Nations festival in Wales.

Ava O’Malley, Fia Whelan and Emma Dunican have all been included in Matt Gill’s panel for the tournament, which will take place between March 29 and April 6. They will link up with their new teammates for three weekend training camps at the IRFU’s High Performance Centre on the Sport Ireland Campus in Dublin during the month of March.

Gill, the current Women’s Provincial Talent Coach for Leinster, will be assisted by Sana Govender, who has previously coached Munster Women’s teams.

“I’m really looking forward to continuing our Irish U18 Women’s Six Nations preparations and getting our camps underway,” the head coach said. “I’m excited to work with Sana and our management team, and to work with this incredibly talented group of players.”

O’Malley, Whelan and Dunican are products of Killarney RFC’s blossoming youth set-up and all three were on the U18.5 team that recently won the Munster League.

Including the Killarney girls, there are seven Munster-based players on the 35-woman squad with 15 hailing from Leinster, eight from Connacht and five from Ulster.

“It’s a very proud day for the girls, their families, teammates and coaches, and for Killarney RFC,” the club commented. “Best of luck, girls!”

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