Monday 19 March 2018

Billy Keane: You're always assured a belter in a North Kerry final, as well I know

When I was manager of Listowel Emmets I always kept a blue marker with me to ensure we staked our claim to the best dressing-room. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
When I was manager of Listowel Emmets I always kept a blue marker with me to ensure we staked our claim to the best dressing-room. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

It's a December Sunday in 2014 and the winning team of a quarter of a century ago march on to the field in their low shoes.

There will be physical changes for sure. The heroes will take a deep breath when their name is called and pull in the tummy. And all that afternoon, the glory day of 2016 will be recalled with the clarity you find only when moments in time are stored indelibly in the classics library of the mind's eye.

Tomorrow is North Kerry final day. Our big day out.

There are whole years of my life that are condensed into no more than a passing thought. The secret to living longer is to keep a diary. Your past life never fades away in the haze and the old notes trigger the memory. Yet, for those of us hopelessly in thrall to the holy game, the recall of old glories is almost perfect. Our team who won 25 years ago will be honoured tomorrow at half- time in Listowel. I was the manager. A very young manager, I might add.

Ballydonoghue, who haven't won since 1992, and St Senan's who have never won, contest this year's final.

Senan's long wait isn't for the want of trying. Their club is so well run. Senan's won three minor titles in a row and now their team has reached a level of maturity needed to win a North Kerry championship. My wife is a Senan's woman.

Ballydonoghue are also a very young team. They beat us fair and square in the semi. My grandmother was from Ballydonoghue. We couldn't even blame the referee. Eddie Walsh was honest and got most calls right but I couldn't resist a smart remark as he was exiting the field of play. "Eddie," I called out, "is Santa bringing you a black card for Christmas?"

Yes, that is the tradition in North Kerry. There are fewer cards handed out than you'd get at a fugitives' seminar. We all sign up for that. You get tested in North Kerry.

The referee tomorrow is Stephen Mulvihill from Ballylongford and it is his first final after more than 25 years of refereeing. He is my cousin and an excellent baker. His mother Eileen makes the best Christmas cakes ever. The cakes are moist, yet firm. Hard enough to do. Usually I only eat the marzipan rim when no one is looking, but every bite of Eileen's cakes is a sensory delight.

I had my share of disagreements with officialdom over the years. Back 25 years ago I was calling out the names of our panel to a member of the North Kerry Board. I put in Seán Óg Nebuchadnezzar Junior in as number 26 for the sole purpose of causing trouble. "Can you spell that?" asked the boardman. "And what's it in Irish?" He broke his pencil and I refused to give him my blue marker as I needed to write 'Listowel' on the front of the our dressing-room door.

Our wise club chairman Tadhg Moriarty talked me out of it. Billy Enright retires as North Kerry Board chairman today after a long time in charge. We had a some disagreements but when I was toasting my toes by the fire, Billy was working away at meetings.

Now I don't want to sound like one of those old gobshites up at the bar counter going on about how football was harder in my day. The players are bigger now and so the hits are harder. But football was definitely dirtier long ago. Corner-forwards were victims. All we were entitled to was a Christian burial, with the unlucky number 13 jersey draped across the coffin.

Brawls were common enough and so was cage-fighting inside the wire needed to keep out the baying crowd. I was lighter than a Flat jockey back then. I had to perfect the art of brawl survival.

The secret is to pick the biggest player on the opposition team and throw a dig at him. He'll be in shock and if he does get you, well then there's more glory in getting lamped by a big lad than a man of your own size. Most big lads go easy on smaller players anyway. I boxed my good pal Patsy Galvin of Finuge from the other side of the Feale, and now the other side of the world in San Diego. Patsy slapped his own face, and screeched in a falsetto screech, "Oh my goodness, was that a fly?"

Ballydonoghue and St Senan's are footballing teams though, with several Kerry players togging out. The game will be played at a savage pace. Skill will flourish and there will be some ferocious hits. I hope our Kerry selectors turn up to have a look.

My barmen will be in opposition. Alan Kennelly, the fastest wing-back in the game, plays for Senan's. Ballydonoghue's Darragh Sheehy is a great man to fill a pint and a great man to kick one too. Listowel will host the biggest crowd at any sporting event in Ireland on the day that's in it.

That team I managed all those years ago will meet up tonight. Our win was the first in 15 years. We were 14/1 to win it out and I had a good bet on for the team. John O' Flaherty was our trainer and he deserves most of the credit. John was and is a footballing genius. He was our teacher and we all respected him. John Hartnett or 'Auld Stock' was a selector and he knew the game inside out. His son John, who played so well that day, is now club chairman. He is known as 'Young Stock'.

I'm so looking forward to meeting up with all the lads. Amazingly, only two are out of Ireland. Mike Wren is in New York and Tommy Kelly is near enough to the Arctic Circle.

Maurice Walsh is one of my closest friends. We were in the same class and played on the same teams. He was a calm selector and he kept me sane on the sideline.

Maurice always had your back. My friend was one of the toughest but he was never dirty. He is a profile in courage. A man who always does the decent thing. Maurice is in hospital today. He's tough, though.


Mam was in the Greenlawn Nursing Home in Church Street on a warm August day. She was giving birth to yours truly. Dr Johnny left the windows open to let in a bit of air. My mother could hear the cheers coming from the football field, just up the street. Listowel Emmets won the North Kerry Championship that very day.

It was 25 years ago this week and Maurice Walsh and myself brought the cup in to his pub in The Square. He had one ear and I had the other. Then we brought the cup to John B's, just as we did 15 years earlier when we were players together and won our first and only championship.

My Mam, who didn't waste tears, got a fit of crying when she saw the two of us. That's what it means to everyone down here.

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