Kennelly's Kingdom comeback
Donnchadh Boyle takes the long road south to quiz Kerry's 'Lazarus' on his AFL academy role in Ireland and whether he will line out for Kerry next year
GO to Kerry they said. Go and see the 40 shades of green on your way to a North Kerry championship match where there'll be seven shades of something else.
The clash of Finuge and Listowel Emmets in the North Kerry championship semi-final normally doesn't warrant such attention, but yesterday's game in a wet but scenic Tarbert was different. North Kerry football, it is widely accepted, has its own unique appeal. It's tribal and dogged and despite being played in winter, tempers bubbled throughout.
But among other things, yesterday pitted the main characters of Kerry's 2009 All-Ireland win (Paul Galvin and Tadhg Kennelly) against each other -- and they are also the men who could hold the key to Kerry's next success.
The conclusion of the '09 campaign represented a significant watershed in terms of personnel. Less than 12 months later when the Kingdom were shocked by Down in the All-Ireland quarter-final, they were without six of the team that started the '09 final.
Tomas O Se and Galvin were still involved but out of commission. Darragh O Se and Diarmuid Murphy had retired, while Kennelly and Tommy Walsh had headed Down Under.
From the outside, the Kerry team that contested eight All-Ireland finals going back to 2000, winning five of them by an aggregate score of plus-31 points, had started to break up.
If Galvin was the man of that championship campaign then Kennelly was the story. Galvin was brilliant as he refused to let his county perish in the qualifiers, going on to the win Player of the Year and complete his redemption after the annus horribilis that was 2008.
Kennelly put a professional career on hold and maybe even in jeopardy to come home and win an All-Ireland medal like his brother Noel and father Tim, and after calling time on his AFL career this year, Kerry's Lazarus could be set for a second coming.
Home to help open a roundabout renamed in honour of his late, great father, who won five Celtic Crosses, Kennelly lined out for Listowel despite the jetlag. By the time he was introduced at the interval, his body clock was on Sydney time where it was just after 2am.
Finuge ran out two-point winners (1-6 to 0-7) in a typically claustrophobic game, with Kerry U-21 manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice getting the crucial goal after an amazing one-handed catch.
Kennelly's first act was to over-run a pass, much to the delight of the Finuge crowd. Later he ploughed through a mass of bodies for a kick-out, but Galvin had the last word as he kicked the insurance point from a tight angle to see his side through.
Afterwards, Kennelly confirmed reports he has accepted a new role with the AFL that will see him help develop young international players for Australian Rules, with an academy to be set up in Ireland.
"They (AFL) are pushing big internationally -- they are trying to get players in from China and other places," he said.
"They asked me would I get involved and basically set up an academy here. They are all on board with the GAA, they have been talking to (director general) Paraic Duffy and they are all agreed to it.
"More than anything else it's to stop player agents recruiting (for the AFL) the wrong way. It's about doing it the right way and it's a cleaner and better way of doing it. It's more like what rugby and soccer do.
"And it's only right. People going behind people's backs and offering 15- and 16-year-olds money so that they don't sign for anyone else... that stuff went on 20 years ago and you don't want that.
"It's a great way of doing it because it keeps it legit but, as far as taking players, some of that is going to happen anyway so it's just about keeping it right."
In some ways, it's a formalisation of the role Kennelly has unofficially held for the last 10 years, when he was the first port of call for any Irish youngster even considering a move Down Under.
The academy also represents an official and constant AFL presence on these shores for the first time, but Kennelly warned against the scare-mongering that persisted when agent Ricky Nixon first pitched up here.
"That's why I was happy to put my name to it and get involved. As long as people don't see it the wrong way and think that I'm here to steal players," he said.
"Players are going to go anyway, but what the AFL are trying to do is to make it proper and give them the right opportunities and the right development and that they are not coming back here after a couple of years and they don't know what they have done or what they are going to do with themselves."
Crucially though, the job doesn't mean he'll be based in Australia and he left the door open to play with Kerry in 2012. It also means he won't have to find employment should he stay, as was the case in 2009 when he worked as a coach.
"I haven't closed the door on Kerry and I never will. The main reason I stopped over there was it is 120 minutes, so I suppose 70 minutes should be a breeze," he joked.
"I'd get to 100 minutes in the AFL and everything is fine but the next 20 minutes is hard on the body. The 120 minute game is insane. I just can't keep up with those young fellas for that long."
His immediate plans remain sketchy. He recently got engaged and there's a trip back to Australia planned early in the new year. Maybe then, he and Jack O'Connor will get in touch but nothing has happened on that front yet.
"I haven't spoken to Jack. I haven't really spoken to anyone. I spent the last few weeks travelling in Australia and seeing a bit of the country for the first time. I'm home for a while, I'm not sure for how long. There are a couple of awards things I have to go back for in the new year so I'll see (what happens)."
Any return would be welcome. When the Kingdom looked to the bench last September, their options had diminished considerably -- with the notable exception of Galvin.
Dublin had the game-breaker in Kevin McManamon as Kerry lost an All-Ireland final in a way almost unimaginable to them.
There is unfinished business. Galvin looked sharp too and even on a bad day for football on Saturday, everything he did was laced with class -- and he didn't look out of place when playing in a two-man full-forward line with Fitzmaurice.
At the same time, Dr Crokes were busy winning a Munster club title where some of Kerry's next generation of players were furthering their education. But there's still life in Kennelly and Galvin.