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JJ Barrett: Star Kerry player was the one that got away

I WAS leaving the Blackrock Clinic on April 28 last year when I met my great life-time friend Aengus Fanning.

He was digesting the shocking news he had just received and he looked shattered. Aengus told me he was worried at the result of some tests.

I had just received the best of news from my heart surgeon at my 10-week post by-pass check-up. He was very happy for me but I knew then that my old friend was in trouble.

A few phone conversations later that month and I knew he would struggle to fulfil his promise to come down to Kerry for a week or two "to harrow some ground" that we had ploughed down the years.

I even had a secret arrangement to have Aengus honoured by the famous Austin Stacks GAA club in Tralee, where we had both played minor and senior football in the early 1960s.

Together we formed the Kerry minor midfield partnership in the 1960 Munster football final, which we lost to Cork. Aengus had a smashing performance on that July day in the packed Cork Athletic Grounds.

He was a great loss to Kerry football. Aengus turned away from the game at a stage when he could have easily won a place on the senior team and gone on to win a few All-Ireland medals.

He explained that playing rugby for UCC and Tralee meant that free beer for young fellows after matches was a greater priority than hard-slog training with Kerry. There is no doubt in my mind that Aengus was one of the great "ones that got away".

Aengus's artistic father, Arnold, had no interest in any form of football. His passion was the stage and he produced innumerable plays and musicals in the Kerry theatres.

His lovely mother was from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, and she was a popular, friendly neighbour to the people of Tralee.

She took a keen interest in politics and Aengus once explained to me that her two favourite politicians were Ian Paisley and Martin Ferris, because they told the truth.

He brought that cultural background into his artistic lifestyle as editor of the largest-selling newspaper in Ireland.

Politically, Aengus was a pleasure to debate with, even to the extent of serious argument at times.

When I needed to get into journalism in the economically dreadful 1980s, Aengus gave me the break that contributed to 20 of the most enjoyable years of my life.

He was a true friend.

He and I were polar opposites in our political beliefs but this never interfered in our warm friendship -- although at times neither of us could appreciate the other's logic.

I often contacted him as a reader, objecting to the content of a political article. He would debate the point vigorously but always calmly. He was certainly no softie, on or off the field.

I remember a hard man in the Kerry football team once taking off for a safe haven, with Aengus in hot pursuit. The difference of opinion was sorted out there and then by the superbly built midfielder.

In 1960 a Kerry senior football team crossed the Border, for the first time ever, to play Fermanagh at the opening of a new pitch in Irvinestown.

Aengus, barely 17, was selected at right-half forward. It was a star-studded team which had won the All-Ireland in 1959. He had a blinder. I was on the bench. His brothers Paddy and Connell also gave great service to the Austin Stacks club.

On a lighter note, Aengus was amongst a number of my friends enjoying a meal at my home about 10 years ago. It was a Saturday night and Aengus arranged that a taxi would deliver a dozen 'Sunday Independents' at around 10.30pm, one for everyone in the audience.

We had a great night and for devilment nobody picked up a paper when leaving early in the morning. It was that kind of friendship one enjoyed with Aengus Fanning.

My thoughts go out to his family and to Anne especially.

Irish Independent