MAURICE LEAHY has been down this road before, many times. Since 1980 the Causeway native has managed Kerry hurling on five or six occasions and spent, he estimates, at least 14 years at the helm.
There have been some landmark days in the intervening 27 years, like the win over Waterford in the 1993 Munster championship, the day they toppled All-Ireland champions Clare in the 1995 League or the fright given to Limerick in an All-Ireland SHC qualifier before a thronged Austin Stack Park in 2003.
But those are lonely outposts of success against a gloomy landscape.
Last season was a perfect quick guide to the code in the county. The year started superbly with four wins and one draw in the National Hurling League before losing to Dublin in the Division Two decider at Semple Stadium.
But things started to go pear shaped during a torrid Christy Ring Cup campaign which almost ended in relegation to the Nicky Rackard Cup. In the midst came a very public spat between then manager Gerry Molyneaux and the Kilmoyley club which resulted in seven players opting out of the squad for a game against Wicklow.
When Molyneaux decided against returning to the role, Leahy, Kerry’s hurling promotion officer, was back to his old stomping ground. But why bother?
“A bit of madness I suppose! I love the game,” he explains.
“I love all gaelic games but hurling is my number one. No game compares to hurling. It is for me the best game in the world. We might fight and argue, in north Kerry in particular, but we have a love and talent for hurling that is unique. I am very proud that I am reared into that tradition and it is something that I will carry to the grave.”
Leahy, who had a spell with Newtownshandrum in Cork, is under no illusions about his task.
“Kerry have had bad seasons but I don’t want to dwell on those. They are over and in the past. Nothing can be gained from revisiting those times. The focus now is to look to the future.
“Kerry hurling’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t tend to build on the good days. If anything, we tend to slip back. The players are there but the unfortunate thing in the past is that they were not as committed to hurling as they were to football. Paul Galvin was one of the best hurlers in the county but when he was playing hurling, he was also involved in football and soccer. But now his total commitment is to football and look what he has achieved.
“That is the mindset that we are hoping to create. We want the lads on the panel to make hurling their number one sporting priority.”
That is not the only objective Leahy has set for the 2007 season.
Though keen to build on their opening day league victory over London, ahead of their trip to Mayo on Sunday, Leahy says his objectives are long term.
“We have one goal in 2007 and that is to be in Croke Park in the Christy Ring Cup Final on August 5. All the players are with me in that aim. I have a fantastic backroom team in Mike Hennessy and Mike Casey, John O’Keeffe and Ger Power. The experience of All-Ireland titles that Johno and Ger bring is amazing and it certainly has rubbed off on the players. Things have started off great but that has often happened before a fall. Hopefully we have learned from our mistakes.”
Leahy is certain that success in the Christy Ring is achievable but doubts if Kerry will soon be returning to Munster senior hurling championship action.
“Over the last six or seven years a big, big gap is after developing between the nine top counties and the rest of the country. A long way behind those guys are the likes of Antrim, Dublin and Laois, and then you have a little gap back to the Westmeaths and Kerrys. I think it is well and truly achievable for us to get into that second level.
“But narrowing the gap from there to the top nine is going to take years of hard, hard work as they have become so professional in their approach and everyone else is following a long, long way behind them.”
He adds: “People will tell you that the Kerry county championship is one of the most colourful and competitive anywhere in Ireland. I have people from places like Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny who can’t get over the passion and the skill. When you come to a county final in Kerry you see the tradition and the support — it is much more intense than anything you would witness in the football. But the problem with such great passion is that it all boils over now and again. But over the past couple of years the introduction of outside referees has worked fantastically. That is not a slight on the Kerry referees but the problem was that players knew them too well.”
He has praise too for the County Board: “While all the county board officers — bar two or three — would be football men, they have never held back on giving hurling what we asked for. I must say that in praise of Sean Walsh and the chairman who went before them, hurling has always been treated well and properly.”
Leahy isn’t alone in singing the praises of the Kingdom’s domestic hurling scene. Clare’s All-Ireland winning skipper Anthony Daly is the latest disciple to the cause, taking charge of Kilmoyley.
“Anthony’s arrival is great,” admits Leahy. “It is going to focus the clubs as he is going to have Kilmoyley flying and of course anything like that gets fellas’ backs up in the other clubs. They will be working harder and harder in an effort to match whatever that Kilmoyley will be doing. So it means that the standard of club hurling and fitness will improve and that will have an impact on the county team.”
New hurling co-ordinator Paudie Butler is also on Leahy’s speed-dial. “Paudie is a great fan of Kerry hurling and was even before he was appointed to his job. I was talking to him during the week and he is coming down again in a few weeks and will work a bit with the seniors and at underage level. There is great vibrancy from the bottom up. What we need to do is spread that base and build from there.”
Sunday: NHL Division 2A: Mayo v Kerry, Castlebar, 2.30pm.
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