Sunday 23 October 2016

Kerry hurlers emerging from football's shadow

Dermot Crowe

Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30

It is a rare event that a Kerry hurling victory has people chattering as they were in the wake of the win over Laois in Division 1B of the National League last Sunday.

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That a second-tier league match in February could elicit such a warm response demonstrates how scarce true novelty remains in the game at county level, even if the field is more competitive than ever. Now and then Kerry come up with something like this and disappear; the challenge for this generation is to show they are men of sterner stuff.

Aside from the lone All-Ireland of 1891, arguably the county's finest accomplishment came in Walsh Park in 1993. The ground shook when Kerry defeated Waterford in the Munster senior hurling championship, a victory revived for Maurice Leahy, then a selector, when Kerry put Laois to the sword last Sunday.

Days like this are rare glimpses of the good life, fleeting experiences that tend that to stand alone and live long in the memory. Twenty-three years later Leahy can still hear the singing in Walsh Park. "Somebody started The Rose of Tralee and everyone joined in and there was a massive sing-song. We nearly rose the roof off the dressing rooms. It was great."

Beating Laois, while good, isn't in that league. But it is a significant achievement and a sign that this group of Kerry hurlers can play and are quickly learning the ropes. Laois were not full strength, missing influential players like Zane Keenan and Willie Hyland and most of the defence from last year's championship. Still, Kerry have marked their first match in the second tier with a win over more highly-rated opposition. In their world, beating Laois is a noteworthy result.

Their Christy Ring win in 2015, their second in four years, and later promotion, coupled with repeated success in under 21 and minor B All-Irelands, points to a steady line of progress and not some fluke occurrence.

Kerry's Patrick Kelly celebrates at the final whistle last Sunday Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Kerry's Patrick Kelly celebrates at the final whistle last Sunday Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

They face a daunting test against Limerick today in Killarney, where they could well be put back on the seat of their pants, but this is the kind of spotlight any ambitious hurler aspires to.

For a good few years outside coaches have been bringing their knowledge and expertise to the traditional hurling belt in north Kerry, where eight clubs contest a championship so fierce that the former county chairman, Seán Walsh, deemed it wise to employ outside referees. That managed to ease the tension but it could never dull the passion. The current county manager Ciaran Carey managed the Lixnaw team that won the county championship two years ago and his coach, Mark Foley, succeeded him there as manager the following season.

Other Limerick hurlers of the past like Eamonn Cregan, Pat Heffernan and Brian Begley had spells with Kerry clubs and, in Heffernan's case, the county, while Clare donated Anthony Daly and Sean Stack. Last Sunday's win was preceded by good displays in the Munster Senior League against first-rank opposition, but people were surprised by the quality of Kerry's play, the 24 points scored, their first touch and their power in the air. They looked in good shape, well trained, smartly coached.

Whether they can find the grain of consistency needed to stay in this company remains to be seen. Leahy has been down this road before and seen similar victories not lead them far. John Meyler's fingerprints are on many of Kerry's most memorable feats, managing them in 1993 against Waterford and again in 1995 when they defeated reigning All-Ireland champions Clare in the National League. He returned to guide Kerry to a Christy Ring Cup win in 2011, the county having failed to make the semi-finals in the first four years of the competition after it replaced the All-Ireland B championship in 2005.

Meyler, a Wexford native, worked alongside other evangelical figures like Eddie Murphy, son of Willie 'Long Puck' Murphy from Cork, tapping into the tightly-knit community which adores hurling in the country's mostly successful Gaelic football dominion. Many of the current stream of players are young. Most are graduates of Causeway Comprehensive, which is a strong hurling school in the traditional hurling heartland with a good record in vocational schools hurling.

Carey comes up against his own county today well aware of the mammoth task awaiting his players. He has not found support wanting. "The Kerry County Board knows the work that needs to be put into Kerry hurling and they are backing the management 100 per cent," he says. "Hurling is trying to break through; it is not going to happen overnight, it is a process."

He is appreciative of the work of Foley as coach and Damien Ryall from Abbeydorney, the physical trainer. "I suppose the big thing for them (players) is not to be overawed in any game we play. I think everything we have done so far is new, we are trying to get them up to the speed of the game, the required standard. I was proud of their display last Sunday but we weren't tidy in relation to the two goals (conceded)."

Leahy has been a hurling coaching officer in the county for 27 years and he was player-manager the day in December 1980 that they drew with Kilkenny in the league at Tralee. Kilkenny weren't full strength but they had big names like Billy Fitzpatrick, Noel Skehan, Nicky Brennan and Ger Henderson and every hurler would have won more and played at higher levels than their Kerry opponents. Leahy marked an emerging Christy Heffernan.

The following year a committee including Fan Larkin and Pat Henderson was formed in Kilkenny in response to concerns about their league form. The draw with Kerry was cited as evidence of their plight. The month before Kerry drew with Kilkenny they were beaten 4-13 to 1-7 by Dublin at Ardfert. The point picked up against Kilkenny was their first from four matches. You couldn't say you saw it coming.

Kilkenny broke ranks by staying over, apparently the first time for a league match, to stimulate the side after a poor start to their campaign and relegation the previous spring when reigning All-Ireland champions. "After the match the rumours were that they (Kilkenny) enjoyed the night in Tralee before the match and that kind of thing," says Leahy. "That time the gap between Kerry and the rest wasn't as much, particularly during the winter. You could always get good results during the winter because teams mightn't be training. It was a big result for us. It's things like that that keeps the weaker, smaller counties going."

There has been no new winner of the MacCarthy Cup since Offaly broke through in 1981. Limerick haven't won since 1973, Waterford since 1959, Galway since 1988. Kerry's ambitions are a long way off those targets. In 1995, playing in Division 1 broke new ground but the top tier at the moment is beyond their limits. They withdrew from the MacCarthy Cup in 2001, rejoined in 2003 and spent 11 years in the Christy Ring until earning promotion back into the main championship race for this year. They will take part in the Leinster round robin series, with the top two rewarded with a quarter-final shot at Galway or Laois. Getting to the last eight, or four, in the province is a realistic goal now and would be a serious boost to the game in the county.

"There is a great oul tradition in the hurling areas in all those (weaker) counties and we are all basically fighting to close the gap," says Leahy. "But the gap is big now; I don't know will it ever be closed. When people ask why can't we close the gap I always mention Eamonn Fitzmaurice, whose first love was hurling, and if he had to pick his football team from eight clubs like we have to he certainly wouldn't be winning All-Irelands. He has 90 clubs to be picking from, we have eight; we do very well for the size of the pick we have."

When they put Waterford out of the Munster Championship in 1993 half a dozen players were from areas in south Kerry which now offer little throughput. The big towns don't contribute, although there are signs of juvenile hurling activity in Tralee and Killarney. Trying to keep them hurling into adulthood with football's popularity is the hard part.

Leahy has been manager for 15 years over different spells since 1980. During one of those terms, in 2003, they had Limerick in trouble in the qualifiers in Tralee but let them off the hook. "I can still remember before the game, when we were warming up, the JP McManus helicopter coming down, and everyone knowing who he was. We saw them going back to the dressing room and it was remarked how they were a very young Limerick team; except for a few we couldn't recognise most of them. That gave us a lift. And we were very unlucky that evening; Shane Brick ran through and the ball hit the helmet of the goalie. I remember the crowd giving us a standing ovation even though we were beaten."

Ironically, Ciaran Carey was left off the team, mainly plucked from successful under 21 teams from previous years, and he quit the county panel as a result. He rejoined later. But Kerry didn't kick on. The following year they shipped a 19-point defeat in Munster from Cork and pulled out of the qualifiers when as few as two senior players turned up for training sessions as they prepared with the under 21s.

"That can happen with Kerry hurling," says Leahy, "a result like last Sunday is vital. For me next Sunday (v Limerick) it is about the performance, not so much the result."

But for all the good days there have been innumerable bad ones when you felt like throwing your hat at it. Leahy remembers going to Carlow in the late 1970s and the Kerry reporter John Barry and team selector Michael Hickey having to hurl to make up the numbers. "We have had days like that. If you get a couple of bad results it can happen. That was the fear last Sunday. This was a new team for Kerry. The hope was that we would not get a trouncing from Laois or someone else and players would lose interest."

He had an inkling they would do well. On Christmas Eve he ran into Ciaran Carey in Tralee and a player later explained his presence was due to a training session they'd held that morning. "He said, 'he is after killing us'. Kerry are after doing massive work. They did not go up there last weekend unprepared."

After beating Clare in October 1995, in Tralee in Division 1 of the League, Kerry lost the rest of their six matches and were relegated, three teams going down under the system at the time. They were competitive and the experience should have strengthened them. Instead, the following season, they slumped with the league abandoning games before Christmas for good. They took one win from seven games in Division 2 and were relegated. London finished above them.

Jack Goulding, winner of an All-Ireland minor football medal in 2015, is one of their younger players, while Brandon Barrett, who played in the minor final win over Tipperary, may hurl once he is finished up with Jack O'Connor's under 21s. Faced with a straight choice between football and hurling most young fellas in Kerry would give the predictable response. But for some the buzz of hurling and competing at higher levels is narcotic.

In his day Maurice Leahy faced the pick of the game's full-forwards - Tony Doran, Joe McKenna, Padraig Horan - even if the old league might have allowed them carry a few extra pounds. That convergence was good to see then and it is good to see now.

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