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Kennelly brothers so aware of stark contrasts

Kevin Kimmage listened to two of Listowel's most famous footballing family talk of their chosen paths.

ASK Tadhg Kennelly about the perks of playing a professional code and he tells you about a deal one of his fellow Sydney Swans negotiated before the International Rules Series against Ireland last October. Stewart Maxwell was his name. For each game played, Asics handed him $2,000 for wearing their boots. A lucrative deal, but strictly temporary. For his regular season and Australian rules activities, Maxwell is contracted to Puma.

As Kennelly talks, you are reminded of a story once told by former Derry footballer, Joe Brolly, which illustrates how different things are in the code Kennelly grew up with. In the lead up to a big game, not so long ago, Brolly was approached by a sportswear supplier and offered a new pair of branded boots. The player asked what would he receive for wearing the boots and the supplier - with a face evidently far straighter than Brolly's as he delivers the punch line - replied: "the boots."

WELCOME to Listowel on the second evening of the new year. You join us in the kitchen of the Kennelly home. Around the table sit Noel and Tadhg, brothers separated in age by 18 months, who grew up together, kicking a ball against the wall of the family pub, in the shadow of a legend, their father, Tim.

From the time they could walk, locals say, you wouldn't see either of them without a football in the hand. They tell you they grew tall with dreams of wearing the green and gold, and, ultimately winning an All-Ireland. For one, the dream came true, and lives on. On Thursday, the day after we spoke, Noel Kennelly flew to New York with the Kerry senior footballers for a five day holiday. The precursor to a new season in search of Sam.

If fate had taken the shorter route, Tadhg would have been travelling with him. A Kerry minor at 15, under 21 at 18, his progression to senior ranks was considered as certain as night follows day. But the gods had a different plan. Two years ago, the Sydney Swans brought the younger Kennelly across the globe: the lure, a professional contract.

The offer was a two year crash course in Australian Rules football and a third level education in case things didn't work out. He's still receiving the education, and although a little learning never goes amiss, it looks as if it won't be necessary. Last July, Kennelly shattered the most optimistic predictions by making his premier league debut for the Sydney club. He has played eight times since for the first team.

The goal this year is to establish himself as a regular first team player. 24 hours after his brother flew to New York, Tadhg's Christmas holidays ended with his departure for Sydney. The physical requirements of the Australian game are daunting. After an eight week rest period (negotiated for every club by the players' union) at the end of last season, the club returned to pre-season training in November. It comprised of two sessions (five hours) per day (mainly running and physical training in the mornings, ball work in the afternoons), five and a half days a week for seven weeks and a similar regime awaits for five of the six weeks leading up to their first pre-season game in mid February.

"You train early in the morning, around eight or nine so you're out of the sun by eleven. Afterwards, you're so tired, you go home and sleep, then get up, have lunch and go back training again between two and three. This is the hardest time of the year. No media around, no people watching, no atmosphere. Nothing to look forward to only training and bursting your ass."

The rewards make it worthwhile. Still six months short of his 21st birthday, Kennelly can command a salary between 30,000 and 63,000. If he makes it as a solid, journeyman pro, he can average 200,000 per year. Should he become a star, the sky is the limit.

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Back home, meanwhile, his older brother, left half forward on the All Ireland winning team in 2000, can only dream of what it would be like to be able to dream in between midweek training sessions. When the panel return from New York, training proper will begin the following weekend. Two nights per week to start with; by April, with the championship looming, they will be required to attend four nights, and weekends. "As Seamus Moynihan once put it, 'we live like monks"' says Noel. "And we do.

"When I was working in the bank last year, I was leaving the house at half eight in the morning and not getting home until eleven, because training was in Killarney, an hour's drive from Listowel. Your regime is get up: go to work, go training and go to bed. We have no social life."

His brother shakes his head in sympathy. "I've had more of a social life in the past two years than I had when I was playing with the Kerry minors and under 21s," says Tadhg. "A lot more. You'd think the opposite should be the case, when you're professional, but it's not. Because, once the Australian season starts (March), you're playing one game every week and you only have one hard training session in between (Wednesdays). So you have a lot more time on your hands. Its easier to socialise, play golf, meet your friends."

And yet, in Gaelic football terms, Noel Kennelly doesn't have it bad. A representative with Cadbury's (he changed jobs last year), the hours are flexible when required, he has the use of a company car and, being based in north Kerry, means that travelling from work to training doesn't involve heavy mileage.

On the field, he is looked after comparatively well. The county board has long been recognised as the most player-friendly in the country. The New York holiday, for example, was funded by an amalgam of the county board, supporters' club and sponsors. The get as much equipment as any other county (track suit, two pairs of boots (Adidas), a few jerseys, the odd training top, t-shirt and polo shirt).

AS tangible rewards go, however, the holiday is about as good as it gets. Despite the fact that the GAA appointed Murray Consultants as players' agent and announced a high profile players' endorsement scheme 15 months ago, Kennelly has never earned a penny of corporate money.

In Australia, surprise, surprise, things are different. "The hidden perks are enormous," says Tadhg. "Nobody is going to walk in off the street to a player's house and see what brand of television he watches, but the companies will give you free electrical goods. Anything you want. Same with clothing or footwear.

"When I first arrived in Australia I bought a car. From the company's point of view I was a nobody, but they still gave me a few grand off the price. The established players get a free Nissan Pulsar from the club's corporate sponsor which they are entitled to change every ten thousand kilometres."

How many Kerry footballers are driving around in courtesy cars? "None that I know of," says Noel. "I remember having a conversation about this with (team mate) Eamonn Fitzmaurice. He made the point that there are so many fellows walking around Kerry with five or six All Ireland medals in their arse pocket. We come along, we've only got one. So why would anybody want to sponsor us with a car, when he could sponsor Bomber Liston or Mikey Sheehy?"

It goes without saying that any comparison between the Kennelly brothers' lifestyles is dominated by the obvious fact that the Australian game is professional. But there can hardly be a manager in the country averse to advice on how to improve team performances. In this regard, every possible facet is examined in Australia. And there is much to be learned from their approach.

When Tadgh left home two years ago, he had been suffering from recurring stress fractures in his back. The Swans' medical staff examined his running style and concluded that his posture was wrong. He was too crouched. The physiotherapists straightened his running style and elevated the heel of all his footwear.

For every training session there is a back room team of 20 on hand. "In Ireland, you have four or five selectors looking after an entire squad", says Tadhg. "Inevitably, you'll have one man trying to do a load of jobs, and forgetting half of them. In Australia they employ 20 people, each with a specific job. They are expected to do that job well."

In a season where the National League has been condensed into the spring months, county players will be lining out every week, and the need for them to avoid injury is greater than ever. That requirement has long been recognised in Australia. On the day of a game, the Sydney Swans employ 10 to 12 masseurs for a 22-man panel. How many masseurs did the Kerry team have for their 24 man panel last year? "One," says Noel.

Perhaps the most deficient area in Gaelic games is technical coaching. "When I went to Australia they put a camera on me when I was kicking the ball. They then examined it, as a golfing coach studies a players swing," says Tadgh. "They showed it to me afterwards and you could see a big hook in my kick. They worked me on it and filmed me again recently. You could see how much straighter I was. There is a huge emphasis on the technique of kicking the ball."

So how often has his older brother's kicking style been monitored by the Kerry selectors?

"Never," says Noel. "But I'd say you could pick 15 from any county, ask them were they ever taught how to kick the ball properly when they were 17 or 18 and nearly every one would say 'no'. You develop your own technique and that's it for the rest of your life."

For counties seeking a way forward, there is much to learn from Tadhg Kennelly's experience. The first lesson is that professionalism isn't just about pay-for-play.


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