Wednesday 21 August 2019

Legion among leading lights in Killarney's Kingdom takeover

James O'Donoghue is one of Legion's new generation of star players
James O'Donoghue is one of Legion's new generation of star players

Christy O'Connor

At the Legion AGM last year, it was generally accepted that club policy had to change. Since their foundation in 1929, they never had an outside coach or manager. Locals always did the job.

They worked hard and tried hard but Legion still weren't delivering. It was time for change. 

The club approached Peter Keane. He was from a big footballing family in Cahirsiveen who had guided St Mary's to an All-Ireland Junior club title in 2011. He had a good track record but Keane had no loyalty or connection to anyone in the club. He was exactly what Legion needed.

Keane was organised and professional. Gradually, he began to change the culture. The club's talented crop of young players finally began to fulfil their potential. Legion were promoted from Division 2 of the county league in 2014. They reached the O'Donoghue Cup decider (East Kerry divisional final), which they lost to Rathmore after extra-time. After halting Dr Crokes' bid for five county titles in a row, Legion reached the county semi-final, which they lost to Dingle by one point. The corner had been turned. Keane was definitely the right man.


This year, they have gone to another level. On Sunday, Legion are seeking to win a first county title in 69 years. Only two members of that 1946 county-winning team - John Joe Sheehan and Micksie Palmer - are still alive but it has taken Legion a lifetime to arrive back at this point.

The road has been long, too long. A couple of years after the 1946 success, the team broke up and never regained that same foothold. They did win a couple of O'Donoghue Cups in the 1950s but for decades the only pathway available to Legion players to play county senior championship football was through the amalgamated teams of East Kerry and Killarney.

It took until 1993 to get back into senior grade, when Legion won Division One of the county league. Yet the team wasn't strong enough to survive and they were relegated back to intermediate again by the end of the decade.

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When they went back up senior again, after winning an intermediate title in 2005, nothing much had changed. They found themselves in a relegation final on two occasions. By the turn of the decade, a new generation of talented young players were coming through but Legion still couldn't crack the code. They were making incremental progress but their status as a club continued to be largely defined by underachievement. Yet that has radically changed in the last two years as this generation seek to create their own history.

Legion are also underlining how the balance of power in Kerry now has emphatically shifted to Killarney.

Legion are currently joint-second in Division One of the county league. If they finish second, they will play Dr Crokes in the league final.

For years, Killarney's magnetic lure, its varied distractions and sporting diversity highlighted how difficult it could be for Killarney's clubs to be successful, or for Killarney players to make it with Kerry. Now, Kerry teams are teeming with players from the town. Their clubs are now the standard everyone else has to match.

During Kerry's golden years between 1975-'86, there was scarcely a Killarney player on the scene. Paudie O'Mahony from Spa was goalkeeper for the 1975 and 1976 All-Ireland finals. James O'Donoghue's father Diarmuid won an All-Ireland in 1980 and was chosen as Kerry captain in the GAA's Centenary Year in 1984 when Killarney (an amalgamation of Dr Crokes and Legion) won the 1983 county final. He played in the Munster semi-final against Tipperary but when O'Donoghue was dropped for the Munster final, Kerry sailed on to win that Centenary All-Ireland without him on the team.

It was no surprise because Kerry did not necessarily expect to find an inter-county footballer in Killarney. "There was an assumption," once said Pat O'Shea, who managed Kerry to the 2007 All-Ireland title, "that people in Killarney concentrated on the tourist industry rather than their football skill. We were branded like that and we had to fight that assumption."

Now that perception has been emphatically turned on its head. There were eight Killarney players on the Kerry senior panel this year. It would have been nine but for an injury to Kieran O'Leary, who captained the team in 2014. It was Killarney's greatest representation since Kerry's first All-Ireland win of 1903.

In the beginning, Killarney had a huge impact on Kerry football. The first giant of Kerry GAA was Dick Fitzgerald from Dr Crokes. On the field he won five All Irelands, two as Kerry captain in 1913 and 1914. A brilliant tactician, he managed Kerry's transition from 17-a-side to 15-a-side and while he was still playing he wrote the first GAA coaching manual, 'How To Play Gaelic Football'. The stadium in Killarney is named after Fitzgerald.

Another clubman, Dr Eamon O'Sullivan, supervised the project but O'Sullivan is revered as the Godfather of Kerry managers. Along with writing his seminal book, 'The Art and Science of Gaelic Football', O'Sullivan led Kerry to eight All Irelands over five decades with a succession of different teams.

During that period, Killarney clubs often had a large representation on Kerry teams; six in the 1947 All-Ireland final; five in the 1953 final. Spa's Donie O'Sullivan captained Kerry to the 1970 All-Ireland title but the numbers had gradually reduced by then. Kerry's Golden Years was largely a wasteland for Killarney players. Even when they won the All-Ireland club in 1992, Connie Murphy was the only Crokes player who could claim a regular place on the Kerry team. Crokes finally halted that trend with four players on the successful Kerry 2006 squad - Colm Cooper, Eoin Brosnan, Kieran O'Leary and Kieran Cremin.

Crokes won a Munster club title that season before reaching an All-Ireland final the following March, which was the precursor to their modern success. Between 2010-'13, they won four successive Kerry titles, along with a three-in-a-row in Munster. Historically, Killarney clubs had never enjoyed that dominance.

Crokes went 77 years without a senior title. Apart from Crokes' haul, only three more county titles have come to Killarney. The modern boon has also been a direct by-product from intensive underage work in Crokes, Spa and Legion. Spa's Liam Kearney captained Kerry to last year's All-Ireland minor title. In September, Legion had their biggest All-Ireland final representation since 1955 (similar to 1953) with four on the full senior squad - O'Donoghue, Jonathan Lyne, Brian Kelly and Podge O'Connor

Legion's march to Sunday's county final is further proof that this is Killarney's time but Kerry and the Big Time has still always run through Killarney's history, especially Legion's.

The club has produced 17 All-Ireland senior winners, who have accumulated a haul of 30 All-Ireland medals.

On the current team, there are connections and links to the past everywhere. Seán and Conor Keane's grandfather Tim Healy captained Killarney to the 1949 county title.

Their great grandfather, Con Murphy, won All-Irelands with Kerry in 1913 and 1914.

Jonathan Lyne's lineage runs even deeper. Lyne's grandfather Denny captained Kerry in the Polo Grounds in 1947. His brother, Jackie, won All-Irelands in 1946 and 1953 before guiding Kerry to All-Irelands in 1969 and 1970.

Another brother, Canon Mickey Lyne, won an All-Ireland in 1937 before later serving as chaplain to Glasgow Celtic FC.

A sister, Maura, married Tom Spillane and their sons won 18 All-Ireland senior medals.

Killarney football always had huge history. The book was just closed for a long time.

Now, the current generation are writing a whole new chapter. Especially Legion.

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