By Jackie Cahill
Former Kerry senior football manager Jack O'Connor has expressed his delight with the news that teen sensation David Clifford has committed his immediate future to the Kingdom.
But O'Connor, who will guide the fortunes of the U20s next year, concedes that it's highly likely that he won't be able to call upon the services of the Fossa scoring machine, who's expected to earn a call up to Eamonn Fitzmaurice's senior squad.
O'Connor collected the Electric Ireland Minor Star Special Merit Award at Croke Park last Saturday, after guiding Kerry to successive All-Ireland minor titles in 2014 and 2015.
And he warned Clifford, who was a target for leading AFL clubs, that he'll be a marked man when he steps up to the senior grade, after shooting the lights out at minor level.
O'Connor said: "It's a big jump. Minor level is all about playing ball whereas at senior level there's a bit more to it, David will get a lot more attention than he would have got at minor level.
"He'll get a lot more on the field, and maybe off the field as well. He just needs to take that in his stride and not get anxious if it doesn't work straight away for him. The people of Kerry need to be a bit patient as well."
O'Connor added: "He's had an exceptional career up to now, he's won two Hogan Cups and two All-Irelands, and seemed to do it almost within himself.
"He's a good, level-headed lad and comes from good stock. It's just exciting times and I'm delighted he's committed to Kerry, rather than throwing in his lot with Aussie Rules.
"The key now is to try and bed them in with some of the established senior players because you can't throw them all in together - that doesn't work either."
O'Connor insists that Fitzmaurice's senior set-up could do with an infusion of new blood - and admits that the Kerry public will "demand" that Clifford is part of that.
He added: "It is a big jump so it will be interesting to see how he (Clifford) gets on.
"We'd be delighted to have him at U20 but the Kerry public will demand that he gets a go at senior level because he's an exceptional player, probably the most dominant minor that's come along in a long, long time.
"Sean O'Shea is already in the senior panel so the two of those guys will probably be unavailable to the U20s but we still have a strong panel to pick from so hopefully we'll do well.
"The key for Kerry is to get some of these young lads bedded into the team next year because Kerry do need new blood, there's no question about that.
"They (seniors) fell short this year, it's an important year ahead because these fellas have won a good bit underage, Hogan Cups and minors, and the stuff is in them.
"It's just a case of whether they can make that step up because it's still a big step up to senior."
O'Connor took charge of the Kerry U21s in 2016 and 2017, and oversaw a Munster championship win this year.
He'll now guide the county through the transitional process as the grade moves to U20.
And he reflected: "It's going to be a tougher one for the minors than the U20s.
"The minor one now…a lot of these U17s are still a bit young to be exposed to the very big days that you have in Croke Park and so on, before All-Ireland finals and that.
"I'm not sure about the U17 but I think the U20 is a good idea, moving it to summer football will certainly help the standard and ease some of the burden and the pressure that was on them. I'm not sure about the U17 yet until I see it in action."
And O'Connor said that he was "pleasantly surprised" to be honoured with the individual award at the Electric Ireland awards at the weekend.
He added: "It's fantastic, I'm pleasantly surprised and delighted.
"It's a great idea, All-Star awards for young players, because it incentivises them to stay in the game, and dedicate their lives to it, because it's a great lifestyle.
"It gives them discipline and brings order to their lives, and it's fantastic for their confidence and self-worth."