Friday 30 September 2016

Cork star who remains a Rebel 45 years after crossing the enemy line to live in the Kingdom

Declan Rooney

Published 03/07/2015 | 02:30

The Cork team that won the 1973 All-Ireland SFC title. Back row, from left: Donie O’Donovan (team coach), Denny Long, Ray Cummins, Jimmy Barry-Murphy, John Coleman, Dave McCarthy, Declan Barron, Ned Kirby and Denis Coughlan. Front, from left: Jim Barrett, Con Hartnett, Kevin Jer O’Sullivan, Billy Morgan (captain), Frank Cogan, Brian Murphy, and Humphrey Kelleher
The Cork team that won the 1973 All-Ireland SFC title. Back row, from left: Donie O’Donovan (team coach), Denny Long, Ray Cummins, Jimmy Barry-Murphy, John Coleman, Dave McCarthy, Declan Barron, Ned Kirby and Denis Coughlan. Front, from left: Jim Barrett, Con Hartnett, Kevin Jer O’Sullivan, Billy Morgan (captain), Frank Cogan, Brian Murphy, and Humphrey Kelleher
Tralee-based Cork GAA legend Denny Long pictured in the Austin Stack club grounds in Connolly Park, Tralee
Denny Long at the Austin Stack club grounds in Connolly Park, Tralee along with five-year-old Luke O’Connor

There are just some canyons you don't try to cross. You can move from Cork to Kerry; you can work in the Kingdom for nearly half a century; you can switch clubs from Millstreet to Austin Stacks in Tralee and plant deep roots in the club.

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But the thought of pulling on the green and gold of Kerry was one step too far for Rebel Denny Long.

With minor, U-21 and senior All-Ireland medals in his pocket, Long was a GAA star on the rise in the mid 1970s. Even hailing from just a couple of miles from the Kerry border in north-west Cork, the thoughts of moving to Tralee - a town he'd never been to before - must have been like relocating to the moon.

Doubling

The initial plan was to give a job working as an electrician across the border a go for six months. Little did he know he'd still be the Cork man in the town in 2015.

"There was a first cousin of mine who was working here and he had only just got married after he moved to Tralee. He was from Cork, his wife was from Cork, but she couldn't settle in Tralee.

"He rang me and he said that his job was going in Tralee, that he was going back to Cork. I'd be doubling my wages so it was worth six months. Six months and 45 years later and I am still here."

But the red shirt was Long's true love, and it still remains that way today. He won Sam Maguire with Cork in 1973 and after his move to Kerry he was soon lining out for Austin Stacks, where he helped the club to their only All-Ireland in 1977.

All along he continued to play for Cork though, until a badly broken leg picked up playing in Dingle in a league final in 1978 ended his career prematurely at the age of 29. Kerry went on to dominate Munster and All-Ireland football in the subsequent years, and maybe a fit Long could have made a difference.

Yet despite playing club alongside the likes of Mikey Sheehy, Ger Power and Ger and John O'Keeffe, he was never approached by Mick O'Dwyer and never had any intention of switching county allegiance.

"I was never asked, but I don't think Kerry ever had an outside player. I certainly can't remember any, definitely not in my time in the last 40 or 50 years anyway. It never crossed my mind and I would never have done it anyway," says Long.

"I was lucky enough to play minor and U-21 with Cork so I think if you come in at minor level and you see the great enjoyment and excitement that you get out of representing your county, how could you change?

Natural

"It was a natural progression that I would play with Stacks when I moved there though. Mikey Sheehy was only living a few doors away from where I was staying. I would meet him a few days a week so it was only natural that I would throw my lot in with the Stacks, so I didn't have a problem with that."

Come Sunday there is only one team that Long will shout for, but he's sorry to say that he thinks his beloved Cork will lose out in Killarney. Last year's decider saw Kerry dole out the heftiest Munster final defeat to Cork since 1982 when 12 points separated the sides. Long thinks it is still a realistic estimation of the gulf between the sides.

"I think there are four teams in the country now just gone away from the rest. Kerry, Dublin, Donegal and Mayo. They have the big gap, I think they are gone away a good bit from the rest and Cork are struggling to be in the top six, seven or eight. That is my reading of it.

"Up until last year or maybe the year before, Cork had a very good side but they had a lot of retirements and things like that. They just didn't find an adequate replacements, they are in a bit of a limbo trying to build again.

"They brought in a lot of new fellas and they had a reasonably good league and got to the league final. But the heavy league final defeat to Dublin, plus the result in last year's Munster final, obviously has taken its toll."

Long had a ringside view of one of those Kerry forwards on his way to the top. Stacks spent quite a bit of time trying to convince a young Kieran Donaghy that football - not basketball - was his game, but Long always saw something in him.

"I had Kieran for a number of years, we won an U-21 county championship and he was on it. Kieran was late coming to football. He wasn't that interested in it when he was young at U-10, U-12 or U-14. Eventually he started playing and all of a sudden he got his lucky break on that 'Underdogs' programme. It was Jack O'Connor who gambled on him after that and put him in full-forward; as they say, the rest is history.

"If you look at other big fellas that counties tried, they didn't have the same skills. He has very quick hands and he has a great brain for the game as well. He has very quick feet, even for a big man he is very mobile. You wouldn't make it to the level that he made it unless you had great ability."

At the ripe age of 66, it's still football 24-7 for Long. He enjoys nothing more than dissecting the pros and cons of the game. Maybe that's why moving to a football-mad county was such a natural fit.

After a 20-minute talk we bring the interview to a close, but 10 minutes later we're still chatting football. "You could talk football all day, forever," he says.

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