Bursting with pride, just one hour from Croker
The Croke Park turf used to be the preserve of the GAA's elite athletes. But two small clubs from the rural heartlands are one hour away from turning an impossible dream into reality. Graham Clifford reports
Until 2002, the chances of lining out at Croke Park in an All-Ireland final were limited to the very best – those twinkle-toed deities blessed with stores of skill and athleticism. But the introduction of the All-Ireland junior and intermediate football and hurling championships changed everything.
Those in the smallest of clubs could finally dream of going all the way to Croke Park. And for two rural clubs, the realisation of that dream is just an hour away.
Kerry's Keel will take on Fuerty from Roscommon in the All-Ireland junior football semi-final in Limerick tomorrow. Both areas are gripped with excitement and nervous tension.
After you cross the bridge at Castlemaine and head west, you quickly arrive into the 'half' parish of Keel.
A sign welcoming you to the Dingle Peninsula is draped in blue and yellow colours, as is the small village of Boolteens. Nestled between the stunning Slieve Mish Mountains on one side and Castlemaine harbour on the other, it's hard to see how this area could produce enough footballers to have All-Ireland winning ambitions.
But as local TD Brendan Griffin explains, looks can be deceiving.
"We'd have around 1,200 people in the Castlemaine/Keel parish. It's only when you go up the by-roads you find a lot of houses here and there. It's a great old spot to live in."
In the local GAA field, I find nearly 30 young children decked out in Keel colours, kicking points. The interest amongst the youngest in the community has exploded.
"You know the way a lot of children say they want to be like Beckham or some major soccer player when they grow up? Well my seven-year-old told me he wants to be like Gary Sayers!" says local woman Margaret O'Reilly.
Sayers is one of Keel's stand-out players. Another local star is captain Martin Burke (25), a butcher in Castlemaine village.
"The children come into the shop and are kind of awe-struck, sure we're not used to it at all," he said.
Club chairman William O'Shea explains how everyone in the parish has put their shoulder to the wheel.
"We were here the other night and couldn't find enough jobs for the people – it's a wonderful problem to have. Everyone is bursting with pride."
With no industry to speak of, emigration has been the norm rather than the exception here. Of the side which won the 2007 Kerry junior championship, seven players have left the panel.
"On the day Keel lost the 2010 Mid-Kerry championship final, my brother Donal left the pitch in tears and went straight to Farranfore airport. He headed for London and then moved on to Darwin," says Eoin O'Neill.
Eoin, a school teacher in Limerick, explained what this run means to the local community.
"After we won the Munster final, we walked over the bridge into Castlemaine led by a bagpipe player. We couldn't believe the crowds of people. There were bonfires everywhere."
In the clubhouse over tea some of the club's legends explain how Keel has always punched above its weight – even in the hardest of times.
"This club has always had a good heart, a good fighting spirit," explains Pat Foley, who lined out for Kerry at minor and under-21 level.
Timmy Hannifin adds: "The atmosphere at matches has been something else."
This year the club celebrates its 125th anniversary. The side's manager P J Reidy is a 'blow-in' from Castleisland but he admits there's something special in the water around these parts.
"They're tough and resilient. They work hard and give 100pc commitment. That's why we're an hour away from an All-Ireland final," he says.
Just over 250km away in the Roscommon hamlet of Fuerty a mirror image can be found.
I stop to seek directions to the small village of Castlecoote (in the parish of Fuerty) and am told by a lady with a poodle: "Oh you can't miss it, it's the tidiest village in Ireland."
She isn't wrong. The Tidy Towns committee here beat the rest of Ireland to the crown in 2013. Can their footballers do the same?
There are approximately 230 houses in Fuerty and roughly the same amount in Athleague – the football club is open to both areas and to nearby Tremane.
At Fuerty primary school, with its 91 pupils, every window is now decorated in black and amber – the club colours.
Josh Reddington (8) tells me that his dad used to play for Fuerty and that he sells lottery tickets for the club. Clearly bursting with pride, he adds: "I went to the Connacht final in Galway, I was cheering the whole time, 'Come on Fuerty'."
Amie Lavin (6) described the home-coming after Fuerty were crowned Connacht junior champions: "The bonfires were huge and there were even disco lights in the team bus!"
For club chairman Padraig Cuddy these are the scenes that make all the hard work worthwhile.
"The levels of excitement are massive – especially for the children. The crest means everything to us and to have the chance to play at Croke Park is unreal."
And he says supporters will be jetting in from across the globe if Fuerty win tomorrow.
"I've a brother-in-law in San Francisco waiting to push a button if we reach the final. There are lots of people in that situation – some even in Australia."
Christy Devine never thought he'd see the day when his small rural club would be on the verge of reaching Jones' Road.
"When I was playing with Fuerty in the 1960s and 1970s, we had no place to train. Up in Athleague, you togged out under a hedge and left your clothes in a bundle. If you were lucky, it wouldn't rain during the match."
In 2006 Fuerty got its first dedicated home ground thanks to a charitable donation of land from Fuerty native Brian Mulhern, who lived in the USA. The grounds were to be dedicated to Brian's wife Margaret, who passed away at a young age.
Tragically, he too died before he could see the finished works.
For team captain Eamon Bannon (23), throw-in tomorrow can't come quickly enough.
"We just can't wait to get out there and give it our all. I try not to dream about Croke Park but it's very difficult not to.
"To captain a small country club like ours in that stadium would be sensational. This is what makes the GAA so special, so local and so unique."
Funding the dream
Success doesn't come cheaply in the GAA these days. Both Keel and Fuerty clubs have had to devise new ways of raising funds as unavoidable costs coincide with progress in the All-Ireland Championship.
"We give the players a cooked meal after every training session so that's at least twice a week. The cost of travel and food per game usually comes to around €2,000 all in. Then you have physio costs of nearly €300 a week. The Munster Council help out but there is a major shortfall," explains Keel Secretary Brian Prendergast.
Keel natives raised €8,500 recently by staging a race night in Buckley's Bar in Queensbury, North London.
It's been all hands on deck in Fuerty too.
"We've raised a lot and we've spent a lot over the last season," explains club chairman Padraig Cuddy.
"Our costs from 2012 to 2013 were probably up around 60pc. So we rolled up our sleeves and our club lottery, with a current jackpot of over €13,000, is a good little earner for us."