Level 6 of the Hogan. A Corporate Box. The Joe McDonagh trophy in the corner. Polished. The big stage awaits for Saturday’s final between Kerry and Antrim. Part one of the Croke Park double-bill which sees Kilkenny play Galway in the Leinster SHC decider.
Kerry’s Eric Leen looks down on the turf. And the childhood memories return. “I played here in a primary game. It was half-time in a Tipp and Waterford game. Tipp went on to win the All-Ireland that year, was it 2010?
“I remember being up in the stand with my mother and father – and thinking it was good to play on the half pitch, but would I ever get to play on the full pitch in a competitive game?
“It’s good to tick that box and be doing it again on Saturday.”
Leen works as a teacher in Lusk in North County Dublin, he keeps himself fit in Dublin during the week.
“I tried a couple of times to go down to Kerry, but they felt it was doing me more harm than good, going down and possibly picking up an injury after a long drive. So it’s just weekends – Friday, Saturday, Sunday.”
He feels positive strides are being made in the Kingdom. “There’s good work going on in the under-age structures. The school hurling teams are starting to improve now as well, which is great to see.
“The tradition was there with only seven or eight clubs and that was it, and that any club outside that were just football clubs. But now – with the likes of Parnells, Crokes building – there’s a couple of teams in Kenmare and Kilgarvan.
“Even to see a few players filtering into Kerry development teams is a boost. And then we’ve a good group of those fellas on the senior team. There’s five or six from Parnells, one from Kenmare, two from Crokes. It’s definitely going to help in the future.”
Leen states that Saturday is all about producing a performance.
“Antrim are a serious team. Since they beat us here two years ago they’ve come on leaps and bounds. And it’s great to see them performing in Division 1, where they deserve to be.
“It gives us a bit of hope that we’re not far off it, and if we could just break a few barriers that we could be right up there in contention in the championship and in Division 1.”
Kerry beat them in Corrigan Park two weeks ago. “They’ll be a different outfit to what they were two weeks ago. We know that, and just have to be ready for that.”
He’s hoping that the team can turn past experiences of the 2020 and 2021 finals to gold. Green and gold.
“Yeah, we were right there in 2020 against Antrim, and we were in it last year too against Westmeath. I suppose the first one there were a lot of fellas on the team that wouldn’t have had the experience of playing in Croke Park.
“Maybe the occasion might have got the better of a few of us. In the last two years we haven’t performed. We just didn’t perform.”