Thursday 23 November 2017

Honouring our past masters

Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The scene is the Kerry dressing-room after the 1997 All-Ireland final. John Maughan, the Mayo manager, congratulates the victors. His very presence calls hush. "There's no baggage," he says, just above a whisper. "We were beaten by a better team." And he meant it.

John was in the Kerry dressing- room after the semi-final of 1996, when Mayo won easily. There was no insult intended in any way, but the topless Maughan opened with: "I seem to have a habit of coming into losing Kerry dressing-rooms."

This was a reference to his stewardship of Clare, four years earlier, when the Banner defeated Kerry in the Munster final.

Some of the Kerry players took this ice-breaking, throwaway remark very badly indeed.

We encouraged that sense of hurt and insult all through '97. You have to do whatever it takes to win. Football baggage must never be stowed in the hold.

Mayo have had three dressing- room visits from Kerry since then. It just has to have cut them deep. Some Mayo people see Kerry as overbearing victors.

When the after-match whooping is over, a genuine empathy remains, which of course will be interpreted, in some malign quarters, as patronising Kerry claptrap.

I sat next to an old Mayo man when the teams last met in an All-Ireland final. That game was over after 15 minutes. "I'll never live to see Mayo win an All-Ireland now," he said. The poor fella might well have fulfilled his own prophesy by now. Kerry people would not begrudge Mayo -- provided it's not at the expense of Kerry.

This time of the year when the visitors call they ask: "Have ye not got enough won? Ye are way too greedy down in Kerry."

It's as if we are some kind of property speculators who want to become rich overnight.

Success is hard earned.

My clubmate Stephen Stack gave a good few years with the county and he often sang "Rock 'n' Roll, I gave you all the best years of my life." In Stephen's parody, the words became "P O (Se), I gave you all the best years of my life."

I asked him would he have swapped lives. "No," was the answer. "But I missed those summer nights when the lads were living it up and I was drinking tea and dunkin' Mariettas."

He missed the dressing-room even more when retirement came, the insider whispers and laughs. Brotherhood too, for these young lads left home most evenings to study. Dalai Lamas, chosen ones, taken from their own to be moulded into Kerry footballers. This year's team, more than any other in my time, have been through so much together and they stick together, bound by the ties that bind.

The fans too might have a go at club games, but we unite under the green and gold. Football healed the savagery of the Civil War in Kerry. More than a game? Definitely. And Kerry is an equal-opportunity employer. Good luck to our ladies team this weekend.

The equality is not confined to gender. Kerry football gives a go at greatness to the lad from the small farm hanging off a cliff in the west, or a boy from a bog in the north or the kid who comes from the towns where the 'the field' could be covered by a tablecloth. More than a game.

There are great players from other counties who go through as much and more -- I know in Kerry, if you make it, there's a real chance of winning an All-Ireland. It makes it easier, for sure.

But I believe we take more pleasure out of actually playing the game than any other county.


Mick O'Connell, now in his seventies, has a few kicks most days. We get our kicks from kicks. Trying new tricks and copying the old masters. Drills should be kept for setting spuds in. Give the kids a ball and let them off. More than a game, but still a game.

The fun of it will always be there, but as you grow older you realise our race lives to honour our tradition, those who came before and those who left all too soon.

Sean Wight flew off for Oz in a big Jumbo jet when he was but a boy of 18 and became a star in the AFL after a short but glittering Gaelic football career.

Sean is coming home today in a small urn. He was only 45. For those of you who have lost loved ones, life is but a day. We'll live it up while it lasts and then we'll catch up with the departed. You have to believe the extra-time after the final whistle lasts forever, but today is so sad. Philosophy might soothe, but it will never completely cure a broken heart.

There's mass this morning for Sean Bawn, as we call him, in St Mary's Listowel at 10.30.

Maybe it's the age we're at but we seem to cry a lot over lost friends these days. Is it an epidemic or is this the way it's meant to be from now on?

We played beside Sean in that last game before he left. Today, we will tog out with him again in our good suits and our black and gold Emmets ties.

God speed you, Sean Bawn. And good luck to your successors in Croke Park tomorrow.

Irish Independent

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