Creating room on Kerry's Mount Rushmore: From Mikey to Maurice to Gooch to Clifford

Of course, he’s not. No-one is saying David Clifford is ready for Kerry’s Mount Rushmore yet. There’s a fourth position there for him, but in its own time. A pair of All-Stars in his first two seasons is something to behold, but it only franks what we’ve all seen in two bedazzled campaigns. Incontrovertible evidence.

Creating room on Kerry's Mount Rushmore: From Mikey to Maurice to Gooch to Clifford

Work colleagues of mine who protest of a passing interest in football look up at the office television when his surname is mentioned. He has already re-embodied what we anticipate from a breakthrough talent and he is still some way shy of his physiological peak. All the key markers are there.

There’s no All-Ireland medal yet of course, least not a senior one, and in Kerry that’s the only legal tender.

But he’s not 21 until January and Maurice Fitzgerald toiled for nine seasons before he finally landed his September due. Clifford hasn’t even got around to winning a county senior medal with East Kerry but tomorrow in Tralee, he has a cut at it against four-in-a-row- chasing Dr Crokes.

Before and above him in the Kerry pantheon, a trio of attacking stars — for aren’t they each guiding lights, already laminated into legend — who earned preeminent status over four decades in their own ineffable way. From Mikey Sheehy in the 1970s and 80s, to Maurice Fitzgerald in the 80s and 90s, to Colm Cooper in the noughties and teens.

Gone, but never forgotten. They brought what David Foster Wallace called Federer Moments in his forensic 2006 study of the tennis legend: “These are times, as you watch (him) play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re ok.”

Ready and willing to pass the baton onto a young man — a boy king really — with the gait, the kicking style of Maurice, the big-game temperament and finishing of Gooch, and the spatial intelligence of Sheehy.

Imagine that sublime, orchestral quartet (never mind full-forward line), because imagine it we must. They never shared the same geansaí but have informed one another’s style and approach to the game of Gaelic football. Clifford models his game on Cooper, Gooch learned off Maurice and Fitzgerald studied Sheehy in Con Keating Park in Caherciveen, his backyard. A masterclass, he calls that day in 1986.

Is it coincidence or fateful that Sheehy’s anterior and posterior cruciate ligament collapsed underneath him in a County League game on Easter Sunday in Connolly Park, Tralee in 1988 — the same summer Maurice Fitzgerald (only two weeks too old for minor) debuted for Kerry with 10 points in a Munster final?

Or that Maurice would call time on Kerry in the spring of 2002, just as Colm Cooper — a bag of bones, looking like a waif in a green and gold jersey — made his Kingdom debut? Or that Gooch would cash in his chips in 2017 just before the emergence of this wunderkind from out the road in Fossa?

Stellar careers necklacing their way across four decades though never intersecting. Like a parent holding back a second treat from a child for fear the first would go underappreciated. That one was plenty to salivate over. Two was too many. Perhaps.

“I lamented the fact I neither got to start with Mikey or finish with Colm,” Maurice Fitzgerald, who turns 50 next month, says. “In both instances, they are the sort of player you’d like to be on the same forward line with. The level of understanding, the appreciation of movement, just being able to share that kind of space would be something I would have liked — and look back on with regret now.”

The most excruciating football tease is asking your friend which of the four they’d like for his or her team. Just the one, mind.

I’d pick Maurice, says one. He gives you everything from midfield to centre-forward to the wing and anywhere you like in the full-forward line. He carried teams, bog-average teams, on his back. Plus, he’d never miss a free.

Gooch, protests another. He can do everything the others can, but he can run the table better than anybody else. Ever. He can pick up the pace or slow down the pace, whichever suits. And he’s a finisher.

Crowd’s getting loud now. DAVID CLIFFORD all day (from the back of the car!) Because he guarantees the scores. And the win. And he’s about as unmarkable as unmarkable is.

It helps that the 20-year-old has seen and savoured their purest theatre.

His dad Dermot is of Derrynane, kicked ball with Fitzgerald. Weaned his young lad on drives down to south Kerry to watch Maurice and got no puss about it either. Clifford and Cooper aren’t phone favourites even though they live close enough. Gooch is Killarney’s goldfish in a bowl since his teens. He’s met David for a quiet coffee here and there, but he prefers to keep a respectful distance.

How cool would it have been though if Dr Crokes had drafted Cooper back into their senior squad to face Clifford tomorrow? (With their attacking injury concerns, it would hardly be a surprise if they’d tried).

Anyone who has savoured thedelights of young Clifford this past few summers will understand that frisson we all experience from aFederer moment of his, when something beautiful is created in sport, not by chance but by design.

The feint. The flick. The finish.

We pretend for a little moment we’re the only one savvy enough to have noticed it, but the subterfuge doesn’t last. There aren’t many players who can do that nowadays. I’m not sure there’s been too many that have. Mikey, Maurice, Gooch, Clifford — antidotes to the mano a mano culture of team sport today,individual expressors of footballing joie de vivre.

Sheehy is the ‘elder lemon’, as he says. Mount Rushmore’s George Washington. Happily volunteering to be odd man out of this blissfulfull-forward line because that is his way. Seldom has a folk herobeen so conscious of so few inadequacies.

“I’d be happy with 20 minutes at the end, Egan or myself.”

Mikey Sheehy, Maurice Fitzgerald and Colm Cooper on passing the torch to each other

Creating room on Kerry's Mount Rushmore: From Mikey to Maurice to Gooch to Clifford

Mikey Sheehy - ‘Gooch might do it 20 times before he’d miss one’

Mikey on Colm Cooper

Gooch was such a perfectionist. I’d watch him in training and the in-house games (Sheehy was a selector from 2013 under Éamonn Fitzmaurice), and he’d blow a head gasket if any fella was taking the piss or not taking it seriously.

Like, he could do something outrageous that was bound to have fellas gasping, and Gooch would nearly bark back for giving him credit. It was just an expectation he had because he was so good. It was not an ego, because he had not an ounce of arrogance. His attention to detail on the small little things was ridiculous.

If he missed a free in the last game, he was in that position, recreating that angle the following night in training. Like he might do it 20 times before he’d miss one. I saw him getting a goal at an Amendoeira resort training camp in Portugal. He chipped the keeper, I think it was Brian Kelly.

The legendary Mikey Sheehy at home in Tralee. On a Colm Cooper piece of magic, Mikey says: ‘Everybody gave a bit of an ‘oooh‘ out of them, but it was matter of fact for him. And again, not in a cocky way. More ‘right, what’s next’. Picture: Domnick Walsh
The legendary Mikey Sheehy at home in Tralee. On a Colm Cooper piece of magic, Mikey says: ‘Everybody gave a bit of an ‘oooh‘ out of them, but it was matter of fact for him. And again, not in a cocky way. More ‘right, what’s next’. Picture: Domnick Walsh

Everybody gave a bit of an ‘oooh‘ out of them, but it was matter of fact for him. And again, not in a cocky way. More ‘right, what’s next’. He was shocked by their reaction, but they were just in shock and awe at how good the goal was.

Of course, there were huge levels of natural ability there. But he worked so hard.

The day after his poor mam Maureen was buried in 2014, Gooch arrives up to Kerry training. I suppose he wanted to get back into the routine he was comfortable with.

We didn’t expect him to show up. Éamonn just said to take it handy. He just wanted to be left on his own, and he was down the dressing room end of the pitch and the rest were warming up at the top end.

He went over to the terrace side. He didn’t even know I was watching him.

I’m not exaggerating, he took 10 straight kicks, he might have missed on the 11th go. Out around 35 yards, from the sideline, on his ‘wrong’ side. Pinged them all over the black spot. Murph (selector, Diarmuid Murphy) was there. I drew his attention to down below. Watch this.

Mikey on Maurice Fitzgerald

Could you imagine Gooch and Maurice Fitzgerald in the same forward line? The first time I saw Maurice, he played against Austin Stacks for South Kerry in the County Championship. He was about 17, but it didn’t take long to see he was a special sort.

He played a bit at wing-forward, but he was always suited to a central position. He was able to dominate a game. A quarterback, like Colm. Both of them could slip out the field and just take hold of a game. Just take it over.

I would have done nearly anything to get back and play with Maurice in 1988. You are only wasting your time, the specialist in Tralee said.

The knee was banjaxed. If it was a year or two earlier … people talk about natural ability, but natural ability does not get you behind the Artane Boys’ band on All-Ireland final day. He worked. And worked more.

Creating room on Kerry's Mount Rushmore: From Mikey to Maurice to Gooch to Clifford

Maurice came in with us as a selector for the last two years, 2017 and 2018, and you could see him kicking with the boys. Mother of God, his left and his right, and he’d have you thinking, if this fella was even a couple of years younger … like he was 47 at that stage.

He mightn’t have touched a ball for months.

That’s just nature, isn’t it? A born gift.

Darragh Ó Se mentioned to me when he packed it in with Kerry and played on with the Gaeltacht for a bit, his kicking distance gave out on him.

Maurice was an outlier. Like which was his weaker leg? Similar enough to Gooch and David Clifford.

I’d only seen Tony McTague before him kick frees off the ground with left and right. That one from Maurice in the first half of the 1997 final against Mayo, under the Hogan Stand. Mother of God that was outrageous.

Mikey on David Clifford

I got my first proper insight last year as a selector when he came in. We said: ‘How long would it take for him to get up to speed?’ And then in his first training session, he got a goal, a proper one. And we just looked at each other, smiling.

He’s very grounded and from good stock. That is huge in his development. Once he keeps his feet on the ground, he has every other attribute. You’ll be judging him down the road, but it’s incredible he has a pair of All-Stars from his first two seasons.

I know I didn’t do that, and I’m not sure if Maurice or Gooch did. He will be saying to himself, ‘I have no All-Ireland medal yet’. But that will happen.

Is he quick? I wasn’t fast. I used to go to Banna (beach) running downhill and down dunes trying to improve my speed. Micko was deadly on pace. He’d put the respective lines against each other for sprints and our full-back line was lightning quick.

You’d hate to be shown up. Was Maurice or Gooch the fastest either?

If your brain works a bit quicker, that makes it harder for people to read you. It’s like not thinking in straight lines, not being predictable. Anticipating breaking ball, taking a chance, stepping inside your man, drifting almost without moving — Gooch was brilliant at that. Finding himself in space but hardly moving.

David actually has the potential to be better than Gooch and Maurice, and the reason I am saying that is that I’ve been watching him at close quarters. He carries himself like Maurice, the same languid style. He has Gooch’s brain.

The potential is there to be the best ever but how much of that is down to Maurice and Gooch because they set such ridiculous standards? They are the mark for so many young lads in Kerry from year to year.

I meet Fr John Ahern from time to time and he goes to all the colleges and under-age matches. He says there’s a few more coming up — but not like Clifford.

Maurice Fitzgerald - Mikey was in my backyard kicking points for fun like he owned the place

The principal: Kingdom legend Maurice Fitzgerald in the grounds of Coláiste na Sceilge in Caherciveen, where he is now in charge of over 500 students. Picture: Alan Landers.
The principal: Kingdom legend Maurice Fitzgerald in the grounds of Coláiste na Sceilge in Caherciveen, where he is now in charge of over 500 students. Picture: Alan Landers.

Maurice on Mikey Sheehy

How do I remember that South Kerry-Stacks Championship first round in 1986?

Mikey was coming to the end, and I was probably around minor stage, maybe 17. I was brought into the South Kerry set up, and we drew with Stacks above in Tralee, ten points apiece. The replay was at Con Keating Park in Caherciveen the following week. I started corner-forward in the drawn game and again in the replay, and I would have been withdrawn after seven or eight minutes of the second game.

I was trying to do my thing, catch balls in front of the full-forward and they said: ‘get this lad out of here’. (Sheehy has no such recollection of Maurice being withdrawn, by the way, but Maurice insists: ‘I was. I was pulled ashore and it was a good pulling ashore, because it gave me a chance to sit down and appreciate the qualities of the man’).

Mikey was my influence. Himself and Matt Connor were two icons of football. To say I would have modelled myself on Mikey and his kicking would be absolutely true, I studied him very closely. On that particular day, he gave an exhibition of kicking in my home pitch, and I was in the dugout. He took South Kerry apart.

To see him do this in the twilight of his career, in Caherciveen, was mesmerising for me. That’s a big thing: his commitment to the club, his hunger and the manner in which he carried himself with seeming ease even though I knew in our dressing room, he’d been the sole focus, as in ‘we have to try and contain this fella’.

But he seemed to be able to manoeuvre himself around with very light feet even if the body mightn’t have been as nimble at that stage.

But he belied all that and gave the most complete, polished performance, an exhibition of kicking that stuck with me afterwards. Did they win the county championship after that? (They did, beating Killarney, a combination of Spa and Legion in the final, Sheehy man of the match again with 1-4).

That game had a big impact on me. We were fully set up to be tight and aggressive but effortlessly and nonchalantly, he danced his way around tackles, spraying the ball around. His kicking though, that was the thing. I was living in the town, my back door went out onto the pitch at Con Keating Park and Mikey Sheehy was in my backyard kicking points for fun like he owned the place.

Maurice on Colm Cooper

In 2002 it was very evident to me, and to everybody, that Colm was poles apart from anything else coming into the Kerry set-up. What do you call someone being in the right place at the right time all of the time? That sense of positioning.

You’d see the scores and the shimmy, and the accuracy was very natural. But great pair of hands too, he had good fielding ability over his head. He needed to be strong mentally, because he was tested a lot. But that was effortless in itself, there was nothing showy or demonstrative about his mental bravery, no roaring.

Colm was different because he understood the movement of the game, You could play him up or down, inside or outside, he just had a greater understanding of the whole mechanics of football.

I did play against him in county championship and it’s one thing that cannot be overlooked with both Mikey and Colm — the goals, the Croke Park moments, are there for everybody, and they are outstanding Kerry representatives — but they were also hugely committed club players.

Creating room on Kerry's Mount Rushmore: From Mikey to Maurice to Gooch to Clifford

That’s the one thing that’s a standout. When we recognise them nationally with Kerry we talk about tradition, but the real tradition is where they came from and their commitment to the jersey.

I grew up in an era where St Mary’s had Jacko and he was as proud of his club as we were of him. We must never lose sight of the work that goes on in clubs and the support of the local community. Yes, Mikey and Gooch were exceptionally talented players but those talents were honed — and they would say the same — by their clubs.

Maurice on David Clifford

He just needs to be David Clifford. Nobody else. He has everything you want, but he has a natural joy of expression and a want to play that is beautiful to observe.

He has a mischievous grin. I wouldn’t like to be managing a team playing against him. It’s a boyishness, the excitement and energy of a young fella out having a kick about. And he has already brought that to the biggest stage, he handles all of that so well.

David is comfortable in that space because he loves the game. As long as he is able to keep healthy, his star is going to keep on rising.

He is strong in all aspects of the game — as long as he continues to search for that improvement, he’s fine. He is loving what he is doing. What we will hopefully have for many years is watching him doing what he does, seeing where that is going to take him.

There are many, many bright days ahead for David Clifford. Down here, when any football neutral sets off on county final day, all they are looking for is an exhibition of the best of the traditions of Kerry football. In that regard, he is already right up there.

Colm Cooper - Clifford can be the greatest Kerry player of them all?

Colm Cooper: ‘There are plenty of footballers who are the next big thing until they step up to the highest level of inter-county ... David Clifford has made it seamlessly.’ Picture: Domnick Walsh.
Colm Cooper: ‘There are plenty of footballers who are the next big thing until they step up to the highest level of inter-county ... David Clifford has made it seamlessly.’ Picture: Domnick Walsh.

Gooch on Mikey Sheehy

My first connection with Mikey was when he was a Kerry minor selector under Charlie Nelligan in 2000.

It was a big thing when you heard a Kerry minor selector was coming to watch you for the club but when that was Charlie or Mikey, it was a bigger deal still. Mikey was a hero in my head from just watching the Kerry Golden Years tapes.

That stuff fired my football imagination. A lot of that Kerry team were raw-boned strength, with power and skill — the likes of Jacko and Tim Kennelly — but Mikey was all finesse and touch, feel and vision.

That was very much what I modelled my game on.

I sort of came out of nowhere to make the Kerry minors the first year, so it was really in Year Two that I got to tap into his knowledge a bit better. I was playing senior championship with the Dr Crokes at that stage, so I was an experienced enough 18-year-old.

Along with Declan O’Sullivan, I was probably one of the more settled fellas on that team. To be hearing from himself that Mikey Sheehy was impressed by what I was doing gave me greatconfidence. Of course it did. Like ‘I belong at this level’.

I was born in 1983. In our house, it was a fairly big thing to have a video recorder and the thing was worn out when we got a copy of those Golden Years highlights. We copied thecommentary and the flicks outside, thinking you were Mikey Sheehy in it. Imagine how that status surged when you actually met him as an 18-year-old?

And he’s telling you how good you can become, and where he saw you developing. He was basically telling me, when I look back now, that I had the stuff to be the real deal.

Mikey is more reserved than anyone you could ever meet. But I got to know him on a whole other level when he was a senior selector, because you can have deeper football conversations. We were partly steering the ship at that stage but those little nuggets from Mikey — and that’s all he’d sprinkle — to the effect of ‘this guy isn’t great on his left side’, or ‘go after this fella, we have too much offensive options for this full-back line’. Just getting his insight into other players.

Irrespective of how much experience you have, when you are getting it from players, legends who have gone before, with no sense of ego or entitlement, they are pearls. It’s a relationship that just blossomed over the years — a game of golf, a beer on a team holiday, shooting the breeze.

Fr John Aherne sorted the Bag (Patrick O’Sullivan), Mikey, and myself for Old Trafford for a United-Liverpool game a couple of years ago and we put down one of the best weekends ever with the craic and the banter. He’s black United, I’m black Liverpool but you couldn’t pin him down or best him. He had that drop of the shoulder.

He needed it. As a player, he used that peripheral vision to avoid stuff. Mikey had that, probably a yard or two ahead of people. That might be half a second, but it’s seeing things before they’ve actually happened. That’s what a lot of great players do.

Gooch on Maurice Fitzgerald

1997 All-Ireland final. Nally Stand with a few of the Killarney lads. The ‘effortless Maurice’ we called him. Outside of the right boot, curled it over with the left. Which would you prefer? Which was his stronger side? Catching ball in midfield, dummy solos. All of us get flustered, but Maurice never looked rattled.

I met him in Killarney a couple of weeks ago. Beyond the easy smile, there’s that inner steel about him that only those inside his tight circle got to see. He was a hard, hard competitor, and I’m not saying he never got credit for it, but only those really close to him fully understood and appreciated it. Interviews weren’t his style, so it was never on show.

Getting to know the real Maurice would always be a very rewarding thing for a footballer or a sportsperson. I’d love to be a kid now in Coláiste na Sceilge, under his wing.

The disappointing thing is when I came into the Kerry squad in 2002, he was just gone in the spring of that year. And when I retired in 2016, he came in the year after as a Kerry selector. Ships passing in the night.

There’s something of Maurice in David Clifford’s kicking. Effortless. Before him Mick O’Connell, then Bryan Sheehan. Beautiful strikers of the ball, like a three-wood off the tee with a gentle draw — it just sails out there.

Against him in Championship with South Kerry and in County League against St Mary’s, you always had that momentary thought on the drive down: Is Maurice going to decorate us today? And age would have been against him at that stage. Even in his mid-thirties, if he wanted to turn it on, he might do anything. He could bury a goal, win a kick out or ping a pass.

Think of that 1997 All-Ireland semi against Cavan — the catch in midfield, the flick with the outside of the right to Mike Frank for the crucial goal. Just, just, just enough on it to beat the defender and cushion it into the Russell’s hands. Game over.

Did it too against Galway in the replay in 2000, under the Cusack Stand, has Darragh Ó Sé outside him, no — no need, I’ll just pop this over.

That sense of ‘this is grand, I have it’.

Gooch on David Clifford

I went to watch the county semi-final last month between East Kerry and St Brendan’s.

Nine points from nine attempts for him. One of the points he kicked over his shoulder and you smiled the smile of Guardiola back at the Camp Nou watching Messi.

The flourishing of outrageous talent. Like look how this kid is all grown up. There are plenty of Gaelic footballers who are the next big thing until they step up to the highest level of inter-county.

And they suffer the same sinking realisation that the gap between where they’ve come from and where they need to get to is beyond them.

Unimaginably large. Very few take the step-up in their stride. Sean Cavanagh did. David Clifford has made it seamlessly.

The thrilling part watching him is the realisation that there’s more to come. There are a lot of 20-year-olds who don’t have a lot of scope for improvement.

David has. If he continues this trajectory, what will he be like at 23, or even 26?

Creating room on Kerry's Mount Rushmore: From Mikey to Maurice to Gooch to Clifford

He has had opportunities, he didn’t want to be a Sydney Swan — he wanted to be a Kerry footballer. With that will come its own unique pressures.

He will have to deal with Killarney as a tourist town and Kerry as a county people like to visit, Irish people who won’t just know this is where David Clifford lives, but they’ll actually want to know where David Clifford lives. Like where is his house please?

He is very good like that, grounded, and that will be a help. He comes from a good family, I know Dermot.

The Cliffords are well grounded. Already he a leader on this Kerry team. Perhaps that is the challenge for him. I was never allowed get ahead of myself, I had Seamus Moynihan and Darragh Ó Se to keep me settled. I had a really good support structure in there.

Is he going to be the greatest Kerry player of all time? None of us know that. It’s impossible because we have no idea how fit and healthy he’ll be, but he has the potential to be.

When you reflect on who’s gone before, that’s the biggest compliment I can pay him.

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