Tuesday 12 December 2017

Rathmore's slow train coming after triumphant victory

Aidan O'Mahony and Paul Murphy reached a destination together

Paul Murphy has been used to career set-backs, and rejection, which made the achievement of winning an All-Ireland, and being recognised as man of the match, all the more laudable. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Paul Murphy has been used to career set-backs, and rejection, which made the achievement of winning an All-Ireland, and being recognised as man of the match, all the more laudable. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Dermot Crowe

Early on Monday morning last Donal Murphy left the Kerry team hotel in Dublin and drove the long road home. Being chairman of Rathmore GAA club, he had important work to attend to.

Later that day the Kerry train would be stopping in his home town on its triumphant return journey. Three locals would be among those disembarking, one of them his son, Paul, along with Aidan O'Mahony and the minor goalkeeper Shane Ryan. Rathmore needed to be ready.

Murphy is on his third spin in the chair and how he came to be there is typical of the challenge many clubs face. When the agm failed to find new officers, they formed a four-man committee to search for replacements. But the task proved beyond them, hard as they tried, so the same four men assumed the positions. Murphy became chairman a third time. Shane Ryan's father, Seán, is the vice-chairman.

Murphy was a boy when the train carrying the Kerry team that won the 1969 All-Ireland stalled at Rathmore - "half-frightened" by the crowds and the general chaos that greeted their arrival. The players stood on the footbridge over the track and he recalls the noise and crush of bodies, sods of turf pitched on forks ablaze and lighting up the night sky.

Out stepped Din Joe Crowley, a local player, to a rapturous cheer. Crowley was man of the match in the final and 23 years old, having played in the middle of the field with Mick O'Connell. On Sunday last, the man of the match was a Rathmore player, also 23, in his first year with the county senior team.

The other Rathmore player is 11 years older and has, like Paul Murphy and Kerry in general, defied expectation by helping the county win a 37th All-Ireland. There are many who felt Aidan O'Mahony was washed up two or three years ago and who would not have been at all surprised had he faded into retirement with his four All-Ireland medals. But in Rathmore they know the stuff he is made of.

Donal Murphy tells the story of the 2011 Kerry club final in which Rathmore defeated Laune Rangers by two points. "We won the club championship in Kerry and he broke his fibula during the final and played on. They put him in full forward and he scored two points. He scored one with the left and one with the right, and for a finish, when he literally could not walk, he was taken off. That will tell you all you need to know about Aidan O'Mahony."

O'Mahony was man of the match in the 2006 All-Ireland final win over Mayo and three years later Tom O'Sullivan from Rathmore won the same accolade when Kerry overcame Cork to win their 36th title, O'Mahony coming on a minute from the end to win his fourth medal. "He is a fiercely dedicated man," Donal Murphy says of the veteran defender, who at 34, joins Marc ó Sé at the higher end of the age scale.

"If you think that last year he was flying, he was coming on as a sub in '09. So I'd say, not for a minute did he think he was finished. There is a pride there. He was in great shape last year and broke his elbow before the Munster final and came on with a few minutes to go against Dublin. That is not the way he wanted to finish. We were hearing if from all over the county that Aidan was finished."

Knowing what was to come, Donal Murphy made sure they had a reception fitting the occasion. They hired a truck to parade the players on and drew on the local volunteers to provide stewarding. "It was dream-come-true stuff," says Murphy, "it's not something you can plan in advance. We knew we were going to have half an hour, but if you had half an hour where both teams were defeated it is a fair ordeal. If the minors won and seniors lost there wouldn't be the same interest in it. But to have the two together was special.

"Declan O'Keeffe, from Rathmore, won two All-Ireland medals, but he did not have the pleasure of stopping, they were flying that time. I think in 2007 the train passed Rathmore but did not stop, they held the cup out the window. This time we had them for half an hour. You had to cut speeches to the minimum. No one wants to listen to oul fellas talking raimeis. They want to hear the players. I left Dublin very early, around 7.45 on Monday morning. This was too big."

The train arrived late afternoon around a half hour after schedule, before heading on to Tralee. "Like, the sun was shining, it was brilliant weather," says Murphy. "I would say it was the biggest crowd we ever had in Rathmore."

His own son's progress has been remarkable and much has been made of how he didn't make the county minors. But the same was true of Crowley. And O'Sullivan. Paul Murphy has been used to career set-backs, and rejection, which made the achievement of winning an All-Ireland, and being recognised as man of the match, all the more laudable.

"He had trials for south Kerry under 16s, I was at a lot of them," says his father. "We had three others who made it and he didn't. Sport is very cruel. It can be extremely cruel. I would always have said to him, if there are ten better backs in Kerry than you, they must be good.

"It can break some guys and make other guys. We have seen fellas who are stars under age and then they can't deal with adversity when it comes later. Stephen O'Brien never played Kerry minor, Michael Geaney never played. I don't want to be critical of the Kerry minor selectors, but who tends to get picked are the fellas with the big names. Paul was considered not (physically) big enough. And sometimes, as well, the fella who is keeping his man quiet isn't noticed, whereas the fella who shoots up the field and kicks a few points gets noticed and there is an element of that.

"The way the development squads used to be in Kerry, once you got on at 14 you were there till 18. It is much more fluid now. The fellas in charge will ring the clubs and will be asking for names and if there is one guy who the clubs know should be on they'll know. Everyone is seen. Very few are slipping through the cracks."

If you were informed before last Sunday's final that the man of the match would be named Murphy, then you'd wager on it being Michael, rather than Paul. Much credit for that goes to O'Mahony's policing job on the Donegal danger-man, who was limited to one point from play, a beautiful kick that put his team ahead for the first and only time early in the second half. Tomás ó Sé, having soldiered with O'Mahony for years, isn't surprised by his form and contributions all year. "He keeps himself in great shape anyway and he would try to train night and day if he could. Maybe he did too much weights training or trained too hard or ran himself into the ground the last few years. He was half injured at times. He is an animal of a man for training. He lives for it basically. He got the run of it this year.

"A genuine guy and a loyal guy, one of the fellas who takes Kerry football really serious. I think it was a brave decision for him to stay on. I had my time of it. It was a tough decision. A lot of fellas thought that Kerry would have been hitting the wilderness so it was a brave move to stay on. He gave it one year. I'd say he basically dedicated his life to it."

O'Mahony's leaner physical condition is striking. He looked a more laboured player two years ago. "Sure any chance he gets he takes the top off," ó Sé says, breaking into laughter. "I say that in a good way. He has the tan to go with it as well. Nobody could say they have worked harder."

ó Sé says Paul Murphy's story also says a lot about his resilience. "What you see is what you get; he's tenacious, he's hungry, he's driven. Every defender Eamonn (Fitzmaurice) has picked has a role and they play it perfectly. He is a breath of fresh air, exactly what you want. A lot say he is baby-faced but he gave a performance the last day a seasoned campaigner would have been proud of. He looked like a fella who did not even think about it being an All-Ireland final.

"Coming through as he did shows you what kind of character he is, he is strong, and tough-minded, a fella knocked back at 16s and minor, sure that is fairytale stuff. That is obviously what makes him tick. I have always great admiration for fellas who come like that. It was easier where we came from, with the family tradition, we had guys before us, but fellas who come from a family where there's no tradition, that is all the more admirable."

Murphy first played senior for Kerry in the McGrath Cup this year and his league debut was against Dublin in early February. In his first championship game against Clare he roamed up the field to score a crucial goal, having been deployed as a man-marker on Podge Collins. He filled a similar role on Ryan McHugh last Sunday. In club football he has experience of marking some of the game's best forwards, like James O'Donoghue and Colm Cooper. Last Sunday his 24 possessions left him just five adrift of James O'Donoghue, who had more than any other Kerry player with 29. Aidan O'Mahony, when not attempting to disrupt Michael Murphy, managed 26, second only to O'Donoghue and leaving him a contender for man of the match.

That is not the form of a man simply 'hanging on' for a medal. "I don't know did he overdo the weights for a while," says Donal Murphy. "He is a different specimen now to what he was. I would say he is a bit lighter. He could go for Mister World or is it Mr Atlas? It isn't a six-pack he has at all but a 12 or 18-pack. He is in super shape and he's had a lot of injuries to deal with. He has made a huge effort to be right for this. I know how disappointed he was last year."

O'Mahony had been paying regular visits to Dublin to receive relief injections for an ankle injury which was giving him discomfort, but if a broken leg didn't subdue him, a sore ankle wasn't likely to. When O'Mahony won his first of five All-Ireland medals in 2004, Paul Murphy was a small boy of 13 with big dreams. On Sunday those two journeys merged in the Kerry football continuum. It reminds Donal Murphy of the first final he went to see, the 1975 win over Dublin.

"They were all bachelors, all very young; this is similar, a new team. The general feeling in Kerry all through the year was that Kerry were going nowhere. Even people, I remember, would have said it to Paul, 'you are playing well but sure you are going nowhere.'"

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