The journey from Strand Road to Austin Stack Park

Austin Stack Park in Tralee was the only place to be last weekend, providing the timely shot in the arm Gaelic football so desperately needed. It was the very best the game has to offer.

Long before throw-in, Liam O’Connor had the crowd on their feet with his accordion repertoire. There was a very real sense of this being an event more so than just another game.

It was like the day of a first communion in the house, everything must be scrubbed, polished, or painted in preparation for the big day. The Kerry County Board did something similar for the thousands of visiting Dubs and TV cameras on Saturday night. The pitch and ground were in great shape and they christened the newly covered terrace behind the old Mitchels goal, which was turned into a travelling Hill 16.

Once the game itself threw in, it quickly surpassed expectations. Two excellent teams playing the game the way everybody loves to see it played. It was fast-paced, north–south football, with little to no lateral hand-passing over and back across the field. There was some brilliant fielding, a great range of kick passing, big tackles, and some sublime score-taking in the 70-something action-packed minutes.

Kerry's Gavin O'Brien tackled by Brian Fenton and Michael Fitzsimons of Dublin Picture: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan
Kerry's Gavin O'Brien tackled by Brian Fenton and Michael Fitzsimons of Dublin Picture: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

The game was gripping enough, but as it wore on, I found myself being taken by two players in particular. Both Gavin O’Brien and Tommy Walsh played well on the night, but it wasn’t so much their performance as much as the different journeys they took to get there that got me thinking.

In the interest of full disclosure, all three of us are members of the Kerins O’Rahillys club in Tralee, and I’m their manager at that level. But permit me a little indulgence.

Gavin is an interesting individual. I won a county championship with his father ‘Mush’ back in 2002. Mush Snr happened to have one of those rare day of days in that county final and walked away with the man-of-the-match award. Allegedly, he still carries around the photo in his wallet of the trophy presentation.

The only time I’ve seen him prouder than that day was when he walked into Benners Hotel after the game Saturday night. His young lad is only 22 and Saturday was the first time he’s started a game for Kerry at any level. Playing Dublin in front of a sell-out crowd in your home town isn’t a bad way to debut.

He was never a member of a Kerry development squad or county team all the way up, and the only time he wore a Kerry jersey before this season was if he was standing on the terraces. In reality, he’s after making the jump to senior inter-county off the back of his first real year of playing senior club football in 2018. The previous season he would have been more off than on the club team.

You see the size and fielding ability and you can get fooled into thinking that’s all there is, but unusually for a guy his height, he has that extra inter-county gear that makes him a dangerous package for any half-back in the country. You need a guy big enough to compete with him in the air, but also quick enough to run with him on the ground, and there aren’t too many more James McCarthys floating about.

Obviously, there’s nobody getting carried away after a handful of national league games at the start of the year, and exceptions may well prove nothing, but I just find his route to senior inter-county football a really fascinating one.

Given the over-emphasis placed on winning at underage in the majority clubs and counties, his story is one that should give real encouragement and hope to every young person who’s struggling with their club or school team or didn’t make a development squad, or county minors.

Tempers flare at the final whistle. Picture: ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan
Tempers flare at the final whistle. Picture: ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

It wasn’t as if Gavin O’Brien slipped through the net at Under 16, 18, or 20; he just wasn’t ready yet, and that happens.

But if you are brave enough to challenge yourself to being as good as you can be, it’s never too late to go after something you want. And after his contributions against Tyrone, Cavan, and Dublin, he looks likely to be a real player of consequence for Kerry as we head towards the rest of the league and into the summer.

Similarly, Tommy Walsh’s appearance as a half-time substitute was a very welcome sight for every Kerry supporter in Austin Stack Park, but his route back to inter-county football has been a stuttering one since his return from the AFL.

In truth, it looked to be over for him a couple of years ago. He made no real impression after his return and couldn’t force his way into Eamon Fitzmaurice’s plans and eventually walked away frustrated and disappointed that things hadn’t worked out.

Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect the 2009 version of Tommy, given he was coming off the back of the horrific hamstring injury that finished the likes of Paul O’Connell. In 2017 he played only with his club and was dogged by persistent injuries. He must surely have thought long and hard about packing it in to save himself the hassle. Thankfully, he persevered and last year missed none of the 25 games the club played and got back to really enjoying the game again. He played some brilliant football throughout the season, without doubt the best since he’s returned to these shores.

Peter Keane’s November phone call was an unexpected one, but too good an opportunity to turn down for a guy who has been involved with various Kerry teams since he was 14 years of age and would probably like to write his own final chapter of the story.

On Saturday night, in a game played at break-neck speed, he was out in front of his marker every time and showed the kind of impact he can undoubtedly still make at the top level.

Call it a shot at redemption. Call it closure. Call it whatever you want, but the reality of the situation is he’s back in there because he can offer Kerry a very different option to everybody else, and that can only be a good thing for the squad moving forward.

Walsh and Gavin O’Brien have travelled very different paths to this point, one who never played with Kerry, another for whom playing with Kerry was all he knew. Both have found themselves answering a call that neither was sure would ever come.

Their stories show the value of perseverance and believing in yourself.

There’s a lesson in that for each of us.

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