Leen hopes Kerry's rollercoaster year ends on a high
By John Harrington
Kerry’s journey to Saturday’s Joe McDonagh Cup Final has been a proper roller-coaster ride.
It started off with an early dip, losing their opening round match at home against a Down team they were highly motivated to beat after losing to them in the Allianz League.
That was followed by two highly impressive wins against Carlow and Meath and then a heart-breaking one-point defeat to Offaly that many presumed had ended their hopes of qualification for the Final.
But, instead, they finished the round-robin on a high, beating Antrim away from home, which was enough to secure them a place in the Final because Carlow did them a favour by beating Offaly.
The self-belief and skill they displayed in that match against Antrim is what Kerry defender Eric Leen is drawing most encouragement from as they prepare to play the same opponents in Saturday’s Final.
He’s hopeful too that the tough experience of losing both the 2021 and 2020 Finals will stand to them this time around.
“When we started off this year we didn't really know where we were,” admitted Leen. “We've had good days, we've had a lot more bad days, but we're still there.
“Something they've been hitting home with us all year is to have that resilience that we mightn't have had before. If we can get a performance you don't know what could happen. That's what we'll be looking to do on Saturday, get a performance.
“Sometimes we maybe lacked a bit of belief in ourselves. I remember the last two years being in a dark place after losing the Final. I suppose maybe we have that experience now and we're mentally tougher. A bit of belief as well is a big thing for us.”
Antrim were in the fortunate position of being able to rest a handful of players for that final round-robin match against Kerry two weeks ago because they’d already qualified for the Final.
They’ll be at full strength for Saturday’s match and Leen is keenly aware the northerners will be a tough nut to crack having won their previous four McDonagh Cup matches by an average of 12 points and off the back of a League campaign that saw them perform very creditably in Division 1.
“Antrim are a serious team,” he said. “Since they beat us here two years ago they've come on leaps and bounds and it's great to see them performing in Division 1 where they deserve to be and rightfully are.
“It gives us a bit of hope that we're not far off it and if we could just break a few barriers that we could be right up there in contention in the Championship and in Division 1. They'll be a different outfit to what they were two weeks ago. We know that and just have to be ready for that and get a performance and after that we'll see what happens.”
Were Kerry to beat Antrim on Saturday they wouldn’t just have an All-Ireland Preliminary Quarter-Final match against Cork to look forward to, but a Munster SHC promotion/relegation play-off against Tipperary. It’s a prospect that Leen would relish.
“We want to be playing those big games. Even having a qualifier there with either Wexford or Cork, seriously looking forward to that as well.
“If we do have to play Tipperary in what's considered a relegation play-off it would be another great day out and we'll thrive on trying to beat them.”
Even if it doesn’t happen this year, Leen’s dream is for Kerry to earn the right to hurl in the Munster SHC and get to test themselves against the best on a regular basis in Championship hurling.
“That has to be the end goal,” he said. "I'd love for it to be within my career, but it's not a question I can answer.
“I'm doing my best, and all of the fellas that are in there at the moment are doing their best to progress to that stage. If not us, the next generation, the generation after. That is the end goal. We're not going to stop in Kerry until we get there, and we are competitive.
“Antrim have shown that, and we're not that far off it. How far they've come on in the last few years, it's great to see. We feel we can get there ourselves.
“Are you going to improve if you're not playing against the best? There has to come a stage where...We're a team in Munster, we have to play in Munster.
“We want to be up there playing with the best, and we'll find out where we are then.”