Sunday 18 August 2019

Billy Keane: The 1997 Kerry reunion reaffirms forever friends

The late great Páidí Ó Sé celebrates with Stephen Stack after Kerry’s 1997 All Ireland victory. Photo: Sportsfile
The late great Páidí Ó Sé celebrates with Stephen Stack after Kerry’s 1997 All Ireland victory. Photo: Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The 1997 Kerry team met up in Paidi's and, within a few minutes, the players slipped back in to each others company as easily as a favourite fireside chair.

It was if they were sitting there in the dressing room in Killarney before training, slagging each other unmercifully but without anyone taking any offence. There's nothing like winning an All-Ireland to bring out the bro love.

So, on behalf of all of us in Kerry, I give thanks to you, the team of 1997, and the 'backer-uppers' who won an unlikely All-Ireland 20 years ago.

I wonder what would have happened had we been beaten back in 1997. Would there be calls for P Ó to go? And would the nucleus of that team have gone on to win several more All-Irelands?

Many will agree this was Kerry's most important win. I know some of you have been waiting all your lives but Kerry had gone 11 years since winning Sam.

That 11 could easily have gone on to 20. Look what happened to proud counties like Mayo and Cavan. The slippage is so hard to stop once it starts. Confidence always drains down hill.

P Ó stood there in the centre of the circle, surrounded by some of the greatest players of all time and he delivered a pre-All-Ireland masterclass in how that 1997 final against a very good Mayo team should be won. They listened. There was no joking or messing now.

I stood nearby. Paidi asked me to listen in. Another ear. An opinion.

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Looking back on it now, I think somehow he knew I would write about that 1997 All-Ireland some day, even though I wasn't writing in those days.

I often wondered what my job was in 1997. Dara Ó Cinnéide said I was P Ó's guru but the truth was I needed Kerry and P Ó a lot more than they needed me. I played a very small part.

Maybe P Ó wanted a chronicler. Maybe I did get on better than most with our goalkeeper Declan O'Keeffe who had a mighty year after a tough outing in Croke Park the year before.

I gave him a holy medal from Lourdes to put in his sock and he never put a foot wrong.

P Ó's message was simple. Every man must do his job. No man must break the chain. All for one, and one for all.

My friend was at his best that day. There was no shouting. He was calm and confident. A few hours later, Kerry won their first All-Ireland for 11 years.

The Romans would still be building temples if P Ó was emperor. There was no way he was going to lose that All-Ireland.

In his pilgrimage pub across the road from his home in the most famous crossroads in all of Gaeldom, we thanked Maire, Padraig Óg, Siun and Nassa for the welcomes.

Thanks to Stephen Stack, Seamus Moynihan, Dara Ó Cinnéide, Barry O'Shea and Killian Byrnes for organising the re-union. And to Kerry Group and Tomás Garvey of the Skellig Hotel.

We recalled some of the hairy moments like when the sandwiches were left in the open sun in a hotel on a very hot day in Limerick when we beat Clare in the Munster final.

There was a collective dose of diarrhoea that night. Some said they had never seen Dara Ó Sé run so fast. Stephen Stack was put on a drip for a week.

Most of all, we told P Ó stories - one of them about the day in 1997 we were in Cork Airport after a trip to the Canaries for winter training, which consisted of a couple of walks on the beach.

P Ó looked at the lads and said "they're paler now than when they went out."

One of the county board officials was quizzed on why the team who hadn't won an All-Ireland were sent on a holiday and he said "the bainsiteoir wanted them to have a bit of bondage."

But there was no-one tied up. The players were set free. It was the maddest week I ever put down and the team of young players bonded with the older lads. Friends forever.

The Mayo supporters cheered so loudly in the 1997 final that their supporters were heard in Gaelic Park, but somehow we came through.

We had a team of heroes that day but one man stood out - Maurice Fitzgerald shot the lights out. I saw him warm up that day in Blackrock College and he didn't miss a kick.

P Ó knew how to bring out the best in players. He always managed to find that second magpie or red head and soon enough the players would be told the omens were good.

But the win in 1997 had nothing to do with superstition. All of you who were in P Ó's on Saturday night knew what it was to be Kerry; every one of you knew that this old, holy game was more than a game; you knew football was part of who we are and where we come from.

You knew, too, there was glory to be found in an All-Ireland. You all trained so hard and every one of you did as you were asked without exception, all in the cause, and for the love of the game you played ever since you were small boys, wishing some day you too would win an All-Ireland.

Your team spanned that yawning chasm between 1986 and 1997 with a bridge made up of an unbreakable human chain.

It wasn't easy to follow on from gods of the game who won so much in the green and gold.

And this was your greatest achievement - we didn't mention the 'golden years' once. This was your day, your time and your All-Ireland. You wrote your own story,

We have lost a few lately but there will always be a Kerry.

There will always be a P Ó. His spirit is as forever present as the mighty Atlantic Ocean to the front of us and the old storied mountain of Sliabh An Iolar to the back of us.

Irish Independent

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