When the greatest honour becomes too heavy a load to bear

When the greatest honour becomes too heavy a load to bear

Three days after the 2014 All-Ireland final replay, Lester Ryan got a text with a link to a YouTube clip.

It was old, grainy footage of him as ten-year-old, alongside his two brothers Liam and Tom and their first cousin, Kevin Bolger.

Ryan was filmed making a mock All-Ireland winning captain’s speech in Irish.

Bolger couldn’t resist posting the clip online because the symmetry was too irresistible not to. The heading was perfect. ‘Lester Ryan practising his speech for Liam MacCarthy’.

It almost went viral.

The story went back to when Ryan was in fifth class in Clara NS. The National Féile na nGael was on in Kilkenny. As part of the celebrations, one student was chosen from each school to say a poem in Irish in Kilkenny CBS.

Ryan’s teacher, John Bolger, decided on a different approach. He wrote out an All-Ireland winning acceptance speech for his students and Ryan was selected.

Thousands of kids envisage, or act out, the same dreams every year but Ryan was just fortunate that his parents had recorded his destiny.

Like a host of Kilkenny players, Ryan had worked with the late, great Brother Damien Brennan, who had acted as a mentor and confidante to a host of Kilkenny players.

Ryan wasn’t a strong Irish speaker but the agreement he made with Brother Damien after the Leinster final was if Kilkenny won the All-Ireland, Ryan would deliver the speech in Irish.

Given his position, as a captain not starting, one core theme formed the central plank of what he wanted to say, which was borrowed from an old Irish seanfhocal.

Ryan’s words in that 2014 All-Ireland winning speech, “Tá mise lán cinnte gur bhuamar inniu mar creidimid gur ar scáth a chéile a mhaireanna na daoine,” translated into, “We live in each other’s shadow, we rely on each other.”

That is a deep-held sentiment for non-playing, or non-starting, captains everywhere, but it is especially relevant for Kerry captains.

Gavin White led the team out 13 days ago but it’s unknown if he will do so this evening. White’s status as captain isn’t under threat, especially if Kerry win.

The primacy of the squad is placed ahead of any one player, but a non-starting captain is a natural by-product when that honour is bestowed through a long-held tradition.

Over the last five years though, that tradition has almost become a curse. When Kerry won the 2014 All-Ireland, the captain Kieran O’Leary only came on in stoppage time.

The following year, Kieran Donaghy didn’t start the All-Ireland final as captain. The last five Kerry captains – Bryan Sheehan, Johnny Buckley, Fionn Fitzgerald, Shane Murphy and White – all spent a significant part of those seasons on the bench.

The circumstances around White’s captaincy last year weren’t ideal for him because he wore the armband along with Micheál Burns and Fionn Fitzgerald. Burns was handed the captaincy before he’d even played a championship match.

Murphy, in just his second championship start, captained the team to the Munster title. White assumed the role when Murphy was dropped during the Super 8s. His first match as captain was just his fourth ever game for Kerry.

“Gavin is still trying to establish himself on the Kerry team,” says Harry O’Neill former Dr Crokes manager.

So, the added pressure of the captaincy might not be the easiest of things for him at this moment.

Burns admitted as much last year when describing how the pressure had an adverse effect on his performance in the league against Galway.

In his autobiography, Jackie Tyrrell graphically detailed the load the captaincy placed on him when he was trying to establish himself on the Kilkenny team in 2006.

“The last thing I wanted, or needed, was more pressure,” wrote Tyrrell.

“I didn’t want the captaincy. It just heaped a burden on me that I carried around like an anchor.”

Most counties now have transferred the power of picking the captain to the management, but Kerry and Kilkenny refuse to budge from tradition.

Anytime the issue is raised at official level in Kerry, it is beaten down. At the county convention in December, Ger Carmody of Churchill argued against the rule.

“The individual who captains the Kerry team should be all about the leadership qualities they display,” he said. “And not the club for whom they play.”

Few other delegates though, shared that view. When Dr Crokes’ delegate Matt O’Neill spoke in favour of maintaining the status quo, he received rapturous applause.

“I have heard several times about Stephen Cluxton, with regard to this idea of [management] selecting a captain and how he is a great mentor,” said O’Neill.

“We are not Dublin, nor does Kerry ever want to be a Dublin. Let Dublin do what they want to do with their captaincy. And let us be Kerry and let us keep our traditions.”

Crokes have had that honour for seven years during this decade but Colm Cooper, who captained the side between 2011-’13, was the only nailed on starter.

“The captaincy issue has been frustrating for the club but it has nothing to do with the personality or the character of the guys who have been captains,” says Harry O’Neill.

“They are great leaders in their own right but timing and circumstances just hasn’t made it ideal for them.

I think the manager should pick the captain. When that happens, there is a bit more expected of you because that player is trusted with providing real leadership.

"It’s a different mindset, whereas if you are thrust into the role, you’re almost trying to do a job that you haven’t been developed for yet.”

Burns was so uncomfortable in the role that he said afterwards that it might be “time to look for the most experienced and well-placed person”.

Donaghy was far more experienced when he had the armband, but his opinion rhymed with Burns’. "I think the manager should pick his captain,” said Donaghy after he retired.


Dara Ó Cinnéide benefitted from the rule when captaining Kerry to the 2004 All-Ireland but he has a different view of the tradition now. “I was thrilled to have the honour 15 years ago,” says Ó Cinnéide.

“It wasn’t out of convenience for me, I just thought that the county champions deserved to have the captaincy. But I don’t agree with it now. There have just been too many examples of unfortunate captains.”

Ó Cinnéide was 29 when he was captain. He had a significant bank of experience and serial achievement built up to justify the status, but the early days of his captaincy wasn’t without controversy either.

When a club moved to change the rule at the 2003 Kerry convention, Ó Cinnéide felt that it was personal towards him. One local paper published letters which questioned Ó Cinnéide’s ability to lead the squad.

There were other occasions when the matter was far more complicated. The late, great Weeshie Fogarty once told a story about the 1953 All-Ireland final.

Paudie Sheehy was the Kerry captain and their top scorer; his father, Johnjo, was a selector.

At the selection meeting before the final, Johnjo excused himself from the room when they reached Paudie’s position; by the time he returned his son had been dropped.

When South Kerry won the 1981 county title, a long-protracted saga to decide who would have the honour of captaining Kerry in 1982 eventually came to a head at a South Kerry board meeting on the week of the 1982 league final; 15 pieces of paper were put into a hat, with the names of John Egan and Jack O’Shea written on the other two. The local Garda sergeant pulled out Egan’s name.

In 1995, Kerry had three different captains, from three different clubs. Austin Stacks were champions in 1994 but when Pa Laide got injured, Darren Aherne took over, captaining Kerry against Limerick in what was his only championship match.

When Aherne was dropped for the semi-final against Tipperary, Stacks transferred the honour to Anthony Gleeson of Mitchels. When Gleeson was benched for the Munster final, Morgan Nix from Kerins O Rahilly’s took the armband.

In 1997, Mike Hassett was injured for the All-Ireland semi-final and couldn’t reclaim his place for the final, so the captaincy reverted to his younger brother Liam.

Mike wasn’t included in the official squad of 21 so he didn’t get a medal. The Hassetts subsequently pulled out in 1998.

“It was a total screw-up,” says Ó Cinnéide.

“We lost to Kildare by one point in 1998. Would the Hassetts have made a one-point difference? Of course, they would. The recent history of the Kerry captaincy is destroyed by this rule. It’s been a mess too often.”

And yet, there is little or no appetite to do something about it. When Matt O’Neill from Crokes addressed last year’s convention, he spoke about tradition and the risk often attached to changing it.

“Once you throw tradition away,” he said, “it is very hard to get it back.”

In the entire history of Kerry football, 38 clubs have had the honour of the captaincy.

With so many more clubs around the county, many of whom never had power or prestige or a rich history of producing Kerry players, the chance to win a county title with their Divisional side could, one day, provide them with the golden ticket to the Kerry captaincy.

“Is tradition enough to sustain it?” asks O Cinneide.

I really do think the time has come to get rid of it. Tradition is our greatest strength in Kerry. But it can also be a weakness, as this issue proves.

For the player in question, especially if he is a non-starting captain, embracing the privilege is the only real way to make peace with the position.

“If you think back to that ten-year-old child making that speech, how much of a kick up the ass would you give yourself if you thought being Kilkenny captain down the line was going to be a burden?” asked Lester Ryan.

“If the captaincy is a burden, you’re in more bother than just not playing. I have to stand by what I said in the speech, that nobody is bigger than the panel, that we’re all in this together.”

The collective is always more important than the individual but that still doesn’t always make it easier on the captain. Especially in Kerry.

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