Small club with huge heart just one step from Croke Park dream
Mike Crowley thinks he won't need to say too much to his 21-year-old twin sons, Gavin and Brian, before they leave their home in south Kerry tomorrow and make the journey to Limerick to play in the All-Ireland Club Junior Football Championship semi-final for Templenoe.
He's their father and he's also their manager. He reckons one son will have his gear packed from early on while the other might leave it later to get everything into his bag. Either way, all three will be ready.
Crowley believes in the power of three. In the dressing-room in Kilmallock before they play Meath club Curraha tomorrow, he will focus on three key points in his team talk as the manager of Templenoe. It's something he has learned from his job as a teacher; don't overload young people with too much information. But he's known most of these players since they were very young. With his twin sons playing, Crowley started coaching seven of the players from the age of five or six. And he's been with them every step of the way since.
You may wonder what's so special about a club from south Kerry making it into an All-Ireland football series. To understand where they are going, you have to realise where they've been because they've never been here before.
Templenoe has an estimated local population of 400-500 people. There has been no primary school in the locality since the 1960s. There aren't enough kids to field full U-12 or U-14 football teams so they have to amalgamate with Sneem and Derrynane (a village 40km away). Templenoe has two churches. Two pubs. Two pitches. There is no village as such, no traditional centre-point to the locality. But the football team has become a focal point.
Since winning the Kerry Novice Shield in 2010, Templenoe has won at least one trophy a year and they have progressed from Division 5 to Division 1 in five years. After winning the County Junior Championship final for the first time since 1975 last November, Templenoe beat Bandon in the Munster semi-final and Coolmine in the final. Those occasions were also the first time that the club played games outside of Kerry.
There is an emotion around what Templenoe is achieving this season which locals aren't afraid to show. Not even their most famous supporter could hide his feelings when they won the Munster final before Christmas. Tears were streaming down Pat Spillane's face as he spoke to legendary Radio Kerry commentator Weeshie Fogarty.
Spillane's son Pat was part of the team as well as his nephews Killian and Adrian, sons of fellow Kerry legend Tom.
"We dream about these days. Sorry, I'm very emotional," Spillane admitted. "We're a small club with a big heart. I think we won about four matches in Kerry in a 10-year spell one time we were so bad but we soldiered on. These are my neighbours, these are my family, these are my friends, these are the people I grew up with."
Crowley has felt the tangible sense of togetherness the team has brought to the community. An initial "hello" if he bumps into someone in the shop is now eagerly followed up with a question about how the team is set for the next game. Locals have come together to do fundraising which has helped the hard-working committee and chairman Timmy Clifford with necessities like hot meals for the players after training.
When Templenoe travelled to Birmingham two weeks ago to play the All-Ireland quarter-final against Liverpool club John Mitchels, former player and club PRO Noel O'Sullivan said "it felt like a family wedding".
Nearly three-quarters of the population made the trip from Templenoe with another hundred or so joining them. "Everyone appreciated the history that this may never happen again," O'Sullivan adds.
And so most of the supporters made a weekend of it. As the game wasn't on until the Sunday, O'Sullivan and his father went to see the FA Cup game between Birmingham and Bournemouth on the Saturday. Around 40 Templenoe supporters were dotted around St Andrew's Stadium. The Spillanes even brought a special home-made banner with them. "Templenoe for the Junior", it read.
The Birmingham 'Blues' didn't win the FA Cup match. But the Kerry 'Blues' won their quarter-final the next day. Templenoe treasurer Phil Harrington says she's never seen scenes like it as Templenoe fans cheered their team off the pitch. The club's colours are blue and white. The fans' anthem? 'Come On You Boys In Blue'.
Templenoe is one victory away from surely being the first team from Kerry to sing 'Come On You Boys in Blue' at Croker if they win tomorrow! In the cyclical life of rural GAA teams, they've got a special team here.
"When they were coming through at underage, they competed very strong at South Kerry level and developed a strong winning habit which they brought through to the senior team," O'Sullivan explains.
Of the squad of 31, eight players live in Templenoe with the rest of the panel spread out between Cork, Limerick, Dublin, Tralee and Kenmare. Half of the squad are students with an average age of 23 in the panel (with only one married man in the squad!). To make the trip to training easier, they trained once a week before Christmas in Barraduff which saved on an extra 100k round-trip from Killarney to Templenoe.
The mileage is paying off. "It's their brand of football which excites me most of all, open, free-flowing, devoid of negative tactics, Kerry football at it's very best," Fogarty wrote following their Munster final win. "Young men expressing themselves through their actions on the field for their beloved club".
And it has been their beloved club during a time of unimaginable emotion and grief.
When captain Tadhg Morley made his speech after they won the county final last November, he dedicated the win to the memory of Bernie Crowley - mother of three boys including the twins and wife of the manager Mike - who passed away two months previously.
This rural community has been drawn together. Like Spillane said, Templenoe maybe a small club. But it's got a huge heart.