Gooch and Donaghy lining up for battle of the townies
There was a time when kids lived in town centres. Oh happy days. It was all play, all day, at the backs of our houses. There were quite a few who wore the green and gold but nowhere near as many as The Rock in Tralee.
If you were to melt down the All-Ireland medals from 'The Rock', the sale would bail out Anglo. In this area, you're never a Tralee man. You're a Rocky.
John, Ger and Tony O'Keeffe came from The Rock. So, too, did Ger Power and Mikey Sheehy. They grew up together playing in and out through parked cars, barking dogs, bikes and prams.
Your mother calling you in when it got dark and you wishing you lived in the land of the midnight sun. Every street, everywhere, had a mad cat-woman confiscating balls and threatening the council she'd sue them if anything happened to her murderous pusheens.
That led to collections for a new ball and a tradition of keeping the kicks low, short and accurate. There were fights over plastering your pals into living murals -- fixed up and forgotten as soon as they started.
You could have 50 kids, of all ages, craving a kick in a narrow back lane. It bred a special type of player who could not only do an ad in a cupboard but turn, solo and play a seven-a-side in there as well. This is how the townie footballers of old were made.
Paddy 'Whacker' Moriarty, a Rocky great, told me a sad story of a boy who would 'go through a hair crack in a Chilean mine'. His main trick was banging the ball off the wall, circling his opponent and running on for the return.
"It was a one-two with himself," was how Whacker put it. Alas, the star suffered from football agoraphobia the first time he played on a field. There were no walls and the pavement artist was as redundant as a silent actor when the talkies came in.
For a time, Kerry football in the towns suffered during the transition from off-the-cuff street games to formal grass games, but nowadays all town teams are well looked after. Kids have to be minded and that is only right. The days of free-range small children are over in the towns.
Today, 120 kids from Listowel Emmets travel to Croke Park and Kilmacud Crokes. It's a day they will never forget. Tomorrow will be a never-to-be-forgotten county final day for either Austin Stacks (The Rock) or Dr Crokes of Killarney, in what is the clash of the quintessential townies.
Crokes have always played clever football. This is the Gooch's club and he is the cleverest of them all. In the semi-final, referee Seamus Mulvihill spotted a foul on the Gooch from way out the field.
He ran for goal, intending to give a 15-metre free but the Gooch stayed in exactly the same position he was fouled in. "Look," he said to the ref. "He fouled me here." It was in the square. The ref had no choice but to award a penalty.
The Gooch played in his first county final when he was only 17. He was as thin that time as a drinking straw but he had his four big brothers to look after him. And it was his brothers who made him the player he is today.
The inter-family Cooper games on the road in front of their house were as intense as any All-Ireland. There are many countrymen, too, who have star qualities and the country lads have contributed just as much as the townies to our games.
Kieran Donaghy, Gooch's great friend, is a Rocky. From town and country. Nowadays, those instinctive tight-space skills are honed on the basketball courts.
Donaghy jumps from a standing start and has developed into the slickest passer in the game. Gooch has a double-jointed dummy. The ball is on a swivel in the centre of his palm. It's there for you to grab but when you go for it, it's gone -- a slick tease.
The friendship will be suspended for a day. The winners will pick the 2011 Kerry captain and that will be either Gooch or Donaghy.
The Crokes and Stacks.
Tomorrow, The Rock will march through Tralee to the game. The march is a statement of who they are, as well as a reminder to the other Tralee clubs that the Stacks are back.
The Crokes are on the march, too. The Yanks will have to change the horse nappies in Killarney tomorrow. And don't forget the Sudocrem, Hank and Randy.
It's the beauty of the GAA isn't it, the inclusiveness. Players and fans, from all backgrounds, travelling and playing together.
The reality is we live in an oligarchy. The country will always be governed by a handful. The GAA are far more democratic. The man with a cause at the back of the hall, speaking 'through the chair' with his notes scribbled on a page torn from the child's sums copy, can get his motion passed into law within a few months. The boy whose dad is out of work can play for Kerry.
Crokes are long odds-on favourites, but this is a one off and form counts for little. One way or the other, the black and amber will triumph. Both clubs have the same jersies. Both teams have a proud tradition.
Crokes won their first county in 1901. Rock Street won theirs in 1928. Both teams have won All-Ireland club titles, but Crokes went 76 years without a county win and the Rock famine lasted 37 years. There will be no let-up tomorrow. Who knows when they might get this chance again?
And it might be decided by the instinctive trigger of a boyhood memory from a game of too-many-a-side in a small garden, a downsized kids' pitch, or even a handy lane.