Saturday 20 January 2018

Green and gold in their hearts

The call of Kerry is as strong on the other side of the globe

Tommy Walsh, Sam Maguire and Tadhg Kennelly soak up the sun on Bondi Beach - only an indigenous All Stars team will be sent this year
Tommy Walsh, Sam Maguire and Tadhg Kennelly soak up the sun on Bondi Beach - only an indigenous All Stars team will be sent this year

Elaine Byrne

'It takes a good man to take his beating, but it takes a better man who's a winner to keep it inside and to hold his head."

The Westmeath men of 2004 were drowning in the maroon mist of euphoria that came with winning the county's first Leinster championship. But in the dressing room, you'll find the clip on YouTube, the late, great Páidí Ó Sé reminded them that they were not just footballers, they were men.

The interview with Tadhg Kennelly (31) and Tommy Walsh (25) was meant to be about Gaelic football. Their four-point win over Cork in the 2009 All-Ireland. The 13 All-Ireland titles earned by their fathers, Tim Kennelly and Seán Walsh.

Instead I met two sporting brothers born in the fields of Listowel and Tralee who finished one another's sentences and peppered their words with the phrases, "like Tommy's dad . . ." and "Tadhg's dad did this . . ."

Mutual respect born a generation ago and forged in the green and yellow of Kerry and the red and white of the Sydney Swans. Pioneers of the fabled 'Irish experiment'. When Tadhg retired from the AFL, Tommy inherited his number 17 jersey. Kerry footballers staking their claim.

We met at the Bondi Beach RSL, a social club for those who have served or are serving in the Australian Defence Forces. Donegal have brought the Sam Maguire on its first visit to Australia as part of a fund-raising drive. Cieran Kelly, the Finance Officer for Donegal GAA, perched Sam on the table, against a backdrop of surfers riding the Tasman waves and under a portrait of the Queen.

This did not seem out of place. Sam is at home in the land of Irish exiles. The Dunmanway emigrant captained the successful London Hibernian Gaelic football team to three All-Ireland finals between 1900 and 1904.

"The excitement in the faces" of the young Irish emigrants at the CocknBull pub in Bondi Junction meant everything to Tommy. The GAA, he believes, should be touring Sam more regularly because of the explosion of emigration. "It warms their hearts when they see it and reminds them of home."

Australian Rules has nothing like the Sam Maguire. A new Premiership cup, it doesn't even have a title, stays permanently with the championship-winning team. Tadhg contrasts that with "how great we are in Ireland at creating our own history. There isn't a person in Ireland who doesn't know what the Sam Maguire is."

With 197 games under his belt, Tadhg is only second to the mythical Jim Stynes in the Irish AFL stakes. After he retired in 2011, the Listowel Emmets man plied his trade as a professional AFL scout. 'Tig', his nickname with the Swans, returns to Ireland in October as an assistant coach to the All-Star Indigenous Australian Rules squad.

Tadhg "idolised" his father Tim, a centre-back and better known as 'Horse'. "Sometimes he could be a pain in the ass you know, your father always on your case trying to make you a better footballer. It was never overbearing. The pressure of him having winning All-Ireland medals, it was just the way it was."

On his decision to become a professional footballer, Tadhg talks of how his father was "pushing me out the door. He was telling me in front of my mum not to do it but behind my mum's back he was telling me to go for it. I think he knew in his own mind that I would want to come home and try to win an All-Ireland at some time." Sadly, his father died suddenly in 2005 and never got to see Tadhg do his famous jig when he lifted Sam four years later. If Cork had beaten Kerry that year, Tadhg says he would have stayed in Ireland until he emulated his father and won an All-Ireland "or tried my hardest until my body couldn't do it anymore."

He remains the only Irishman to have won the highest honours in AFL and GAA, the Premiership medallion and a senior All-Ireland championship medal. In a thick Kerry accent, unaffected by the Sydney drawl, Tadhg describes how both final match days were "very similar". The traditions of the two codes are comparable, particularly the emphasis on volunteerism that sustains both organisations. The only difference is that the high end of AFL is professional.

Emotionally though they were different. "I had a lot more built-in nerves and pressure for the All-Ireland. I always thought I would have won one by the time I was 28. For AFL, I learnt a totally different code, I was extremely homesick for years and years, I was out here on my own and I'd cracked a professional code that I knew nothing about. There was a lot of self pride."

Tommy is the quieter of the two and still on crutches after his operation a month ago to reattach hamstring tendons to the bone. He is out for the season just when his football was "starting to get going". Tommy drills the time-honoured response worn well by professional players. "That's sport and I just have to put my head down, work hard at the rehabilitation and give it time to repair."

Like Tadhg, his decision to come to Australia was tempered with the knowledge that he was leaving behind a massive footballing tradition. "I grew up loving Kerry football, always wanting to play for Kerry. To get the chance to do it in the end was great. My dad left the decision up to me ultimately. I spoke to Tadhg a lot about it as well. He saw that I wanted to go and I know he's glad I went."

Sport is all about that recognition that only family can give. "When you see your dad or your mum and they tell you you did well and tried hard, that's better than any medal, to me anyway." I wanted to hug Tommy then, for my mother and all the Irish mammys.

Both men have strong views about how AFL is perceived in Ireland. Tadhg has "no doubt" that "lots of players at home can make it" but making it is not all about skill. "The biggest thing is probably the character of the individual. You are leaving home at 18, it's a fucking hard thing to do. You need to have a strong mindset in your own ability and we've had lots of players go back because it's just too difficult. Not the game itself but coming out here on your own, playing a professional sport, getting yourself physically and mentally fit. It's a ruthless business."

When asked if they reckoned the Gooch, Tomás ó Sé or Paul Galvin could have made it, they reply, diplomatically, that "the smaller players don't make it here." Tadhg has no doubt that Kieran Donaghy "would have been an absolute superstar out here." He explains that "if you haven't grown up with the game, you need something different that stands out, you need to be tall and really quick. Tommy is not a huge man in AFL and you can see the size of him, he's 6'6" and 105 kilos. The game is just a physically bigger game, that's the difference."

Tommy says he makes up for his loss in height and weight with "certain tricks that you pick up along the way and try outmuscle the other fella."

"And that's what people at home don't understand," Tadhg interrupts. "They are not playing Gaelic football, it's going to take them years, they're playing a totally different sport. There are similarities in the way the game is played but you are playing with a ball you never held in your life and with fellas who played it their whole lives."

Playing with the oval ball for the first time for Tadhg "was scary, I had no idea what I was doing. No idea." Tommy was humbled by it. "Growing up in Gaelic football, I was always very confident and I felt I was a skilful Gaelic footballer and then to come into a game where you are one of the worst and they are laughing at you when you are trying to kick a ball."

The Kerins O'Rahillys forward has strong views on how the GAA can learn from the AFL and tires of "the attitude in Ireland to the AFL as, 'oh no they are coming here taking our players'.

"Even in terms of player welfare, and I'm not taking about paying players, I'm talking about education, retirement. What people don't understand is the amount of people's lives that GAA players give to the code."

Looking at this year's championship, I wonder how can the Donegal blanket defence be stopped.

It was called 'The Flood' when Tadhg was playing AFL. "If I was an inter-county manager, I'd come out here and spend six weeks with an AFL club learning how to stop the blanket defence. There are lots of tactical things that can be done in GAA from the AFL." A typical AFL head coach gets over Aus$1m a year to come up with new tactics. The level of professionalism "is hard for managers at home to do because they don't have the time and only have the players for a few hours on week nights".

Tommy agrees. "Gaelic football is getting more tactical. The days of going out and just trying to play football are gone. You have to have a really strong game-plan that differs from your opposition. It's getting more professional without it being professional. Like Dublin brought it to a new level, as did Armagh and Tyrone and now Donegal have done it again."

And who would they select as the ultimate Kerry forward? Pat Spillane or Maurice Fitzgerald?

Tadhg "idolised" Maurice growing up, recounting how he scored 11 points on his debut as an 18-year-old against Cork. Tommy talks of him as if he was a god. "Maurice was just one of the purest footballers you would ever see, being able to kick with both feet. He was smart, even up to two or three years ago he was still playing county championship games, you could still hear the crowd oohing and ahhing and stuff."

Will Tadhg run for Fine Gael whenever Jimmy Deenihan retires?

"Maybe, I might, but it's a tough game politics, a lot tougher than the AFL. I think you've got to be set on changing the world, you are impacting on the area you come from. I love Listowel. If I was to run I would be doing it for Listowel really." It's a very hypothetical maybe though. Tadhg is married and sees Sydney as his home.

Not so for Tommy who still has "a lot of things I'd like to do with my club and Kerry." But he will return a different man. The AFL has "definitely changed me as a person," he reveals. "For me, growing up in Tralee, I thought Dublin was massive. When we went to Dublin I couldn't believe how big it was. But in the scheme of things you realise how small Dublin is compared to cities like Sydney and Melbourne. It just opens your eyes to the world."

Two men on the other side of the planet, with hearts of green and gold.

Irish Independent

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