This is a bold claim, but I am going to make it anyway. In today’s column, I am going to reveal the secret of Kerry football.
With 37 All-Ireland titles, Kerry is the most successful county in the land. Take Dublin (24 titles) out of the equation, and no other county else even comes near them.
Why are Kerry so good? Unlike some other counties, they don’t have ultra-successful senior club teams. Kerry’s record in the All-Ireland Club senior competition certainly doesn’t compare with their achievements at county level. The same is true of their county U21 and minor teams. And yet Kerry senior football teams continue to succeed.
How do they do it? Apart from an all-consuming football culture which has been developed over the past century, Kerry’s domination is based on two key factors.
1) They play more football than anyone else
2) They develop more county footballers from intermediate and junior teams.
Yes, it’s not rocket science. But before leaping to any conclusions, consider some of the evidence. Following all the debate that has been stoked up about the amount of weight training being conducted by Gaelic footballers, it’s worth highlighting the thoughts of Dan John.
As one of the most revered strength and conditioning trainers in America, it’s no surprise John believes almost all sportsmen and athletes will reap huge rewards from resistance based training.
However, in his book Intervention, John makes an interesting observation. He writes: “People often comment on the way I train athletes – my throwers throw. For the record, my jumpers jump and my sprinters sprint.”
John adheres to what he calls his ‘80:20 Rule’. If he’s coaching a thrower, 80% of their training will involve throwing. Only 20% of their time will be allocated to strength training.
The logic is simple. To perfect a particular skill, a person needs to practise that particular skill. So, the more often someone plays competitive football, the better they will become at playing competitive football.
And in Kerry, they play a serious amount of competitive football. In Ulster, most counties operate a county championship and a county league. A senior club player could typically expect about 14 to 16 League games per year, and a minimum of one championship game.
In Kerry, they have a county championship (which involves divisional teams) and a county league. They have also have a club championship (exclusively for clubs), a district league and a district championship. At the bare minimum, the average club footballer in Kerry will play 21 games per year. And that’s an absolute minimum.
It’s worth noting all the aforementioned competitions are replicated at U21 level. An U21 player, who is also on his club’s senior team will play at least 30 matches. And, let’s not forget the player who is on a strong team. If a player was on a club team that reached the club and county championship finals, he would also be playing more than 30 matches per year.
Not only does the Kerryman play more often, the structure of the county’s championship allows players from weaker clubs to compete on an equal footing. Is it any coincidence Kerry enjoys such incredible success at developing players from their intermediate, junior and novice clubs?
Cast your eyes over this veritable Hall of Fame: Mick O’Connell (Valentia), Jack O’Shea (St Mary’s Cahirciveen), Maurice Fitzgerald (St Mary’s Cahirciveen), Declan O’Sullivan (Dromid Pearses), Mick O’Dwyer (Waterville), and John Egan (Sneem). Everyone of those legends came from the lower divisions of Kerry football.
However, the divisional system enabled all those men to play for South Kerry, a consortium of St Mary’s Cahirciveen, Renard, St Michael’s/Foilmore, Skellig Rangers, Valentia, Derrynane, Dromid Pearses, Waterville and Sneem.
Before entering a county squad, the experience of playing for South Kerry informs talented players from junior clubs that they have no reason to feel inferior. Contrast that scenario with the experience faced by the junior footballer from an Ulster club who is called for a trial game with the county squad.
The Kerry team which won last year’s All-Ireland title provides further proof the structure of the county championship promotes the development of players from unheralded clubs. Six players from the starting team came from Rathmore, Renard, Duagh, Kenmare and Cromane.
All but two of Donegal’s starting line-up came from Division One clubs. The exceptions were Frank McGlynn (Glenfin) and Darach O’Connor (Buncrana).
Dr Crokes, Laune Rangers, Austin Stacks, and Kerins O’Rahilly’s might grab all the headlines, but it’s the intermediate and junior clubs which provide the bedrock of Kerry’s success.
Again, the evidence is staring us in the face. On the weekend when Austin Stacks failed to reach the St Patrick’s Day showpiece in Croke Park, Ardfert and Brosna secured the All-Ireland Intermediate and Junior titles.
Since the Intermediate and Junior All-Ireland competitions were started in 2004, Kerry clubs have enjoyed the most success. Ardfert (2007 and 2015), Milltown-Castlemaine and St Michael’s Foilmore have all won the All-Ireland Intermediate competition. Kerry clubs have won eight of the last 10 Munster Intermediate club championships.
The success of Kerry’s clubs is even more pronounced in the junior grade. Finuge (2005), Ardfert (2006), Skellig Rangers (2009), Castlegregory (2010) and Brosna (2015) have all won All-Ireland titles. And Kerry’s junior clubs have won nine of the last 10 Munster Championships.
With a total of 73 clubs, Kerry has less resources than Cork and Dublin.
With regard to Ulster, it’s best to let the figures speak for themselves. (see panel)
And yet, Kerry are often accused of being arrogant. But nothing could be further from the truth. When outfoxed by superior coaching methods or tactics, Kerry have been swift to absorb lessons and make the necessary changes.
In contrast, no-one copies Kerry. With 37 All-Ireland titles, they have a policy of playing more games than anyone else. And to accommodate their packed fixtures list they have a totally unique structure. Kerry insist on learning from others. Meanwhile, everyone else refuses to learn from Kerry. Who is being arrogant?