In a town like Tralee and a county like Kerry, mention or sight of a football is never far away. As I queued with my two children outside the Tralee Sports Complex last Sunday over two hours before the tip-off of the game that would decide the men’s Superleague basketball title, a couple of other kids temporarily took leave of the lengthy line to go kick a ball on the adjoining green.
That their ball happened to be of the orange variety was a measure of the hold that hoops and the Garvey’s Tralee Warriors has had on the locality the past few weeks and even years, but that they were exchanging it by foot rather than by hand was another reminder of how football will never lose its grip in these parts.
And yet, such is the phenomenon that is the Warriors and the astonishing scenes that would unfold once those doors opened, on Monday morning even football had to recognise its temporary place in the scheme of things.
One of the most satisfying, pinch-me moments for Warriors captain Darren O’Sullivan was not just waking up with the Superleague trophy by his bed, but switching on Radio Kerry and hearing their sports bulletin led with the Warriors. Kerry had won up in Roscommon to qualify for the national league final but they hadn’t yet won the league. Whereas the Warriors had, trumping defending champions UCD Marian for the second time in 24 hours in front of another full house. He and his buddies just had to be the top item; David Clifford’s return and latest scoring spree, having to settle for second.
Clifford certainly won’t have taken offence. If it wasn’t for that game up in Hyde Park, he’d have been in the Complex himself, just like he’s been a fixture there all winter, so enraptured has he become in the latest adventure of his one-year team-mate but forever-inspiration that knocked that ball down to him for that goal above in Clones last summer.
Watching Kieran Donaghy and Co in the flesh last Sunday were several other former Kerry colleagues of his. Marc Ó Sé more than once smilingly shook his head in a seat near the Warriors bench, marvelling at Donaghy’s still clawing for everything a fortnight after marking his 36th birthday, as well as the three-point daggers from one of their favourite barmen in the world, O’Sullivan’s cousin, team-mate and Castle Bar workmate, Fergal.
Ó Sé did well to secure the seat he did. Watching and standing on from the crammed balcony, not quite hanging from the rafters but holding onto them, was Jimmy Deenihan, a five-time All-Ireland winner as well, and a local TD for quarter of a century. He wasn’t complaining. For the three seasons they’ve been in the league and brought Saturday night lights back to the town, almost every home Warriors game has been standing room only, a be-there-or-be-square event.
This season in particular was dramatic from the off. Their opening game was a local derby, against newly-promoted Killorglin.
Pat Price, their shrewd appointment as new head coach, had only flown back in a few hours before tip-off from burying his father, Joe, in Carbondale, Pennsylvania. Donaghy only got to the Complex at half-time, dashing from a championship quarter-final defeat with Austin Stacks. Donaghy ended up losing a second match in the space of a few hours; in a game as frantic as his and Price’s day, Killorglin edged it, 89-86.
By early January, the team seemed nicely positioned, claiming the Castleisland Christmas blitz in another one of Kerry’s Indiana-like hoops barnhouses, winning their way through to the semi-finals of the big show that is the National Cup and were just one game off the top of the league. Under the surface though, a few things were off. Their first American signing of the season, Jordan Evans, entered the cup
semi-final against Killester with some form of knee injury. He’d play through it to score a dozen points, but after his team couldn’t cope with Ciaran Roe’s 30-point masterclass, Evans was diagnosed as having done both his anterior and medial cruciate ligament.
The same weekend he was flying home to Houston, the Warriors squandered a double-digit lead at home to UCC Demons. The Cork club, though in decline, have still won more national silverware than any other this decade, and after blowing a big lead themselves in the Complex in the cup quarter-final a month earlier, a proud group of champions took delight in avenging that cup defeat and compounding Tralee’s own post-Cup blues.
“The dressing rooms in the Complex, they aren’t exactly state of the art, so we could hear them banging on the walls, basically laughing at us,” says team captain Darren O’Sullivan. But after the hollering in the away room subsided, the straight talking in the home one began.
Price was more than happy to allow and facilitate such candour. “One of Pat’s best traits is his ability to listen,” says O’Sullivan. “A lot of fellas might have something to say but never say it because they’re afraid it will be taken the wrong way but Pat took on board everything everyone said.”
Training became more intense, game-related. Instead of half-court, they ran up and down more. The clock and scoreboard was brought in, scenarios posed, played out, then reviewed and improved on. They began to communicate more, especially after the exuberant Kendall Williams came in as Evans’s replacement. Last Sunday night in the Greyhound Bar as they looked back on the video of their back-to-back wins over Marian, they took pride in how many huddles they called between plays, just as they’d revel in seeing how they were still diving for loose balls when they were up 20 during Sunday’s fourth quarter.
There’s something endearingly old school about their ways. The night before a game they all eat out together, and not chicken and pasta either; usually they head to some local chipper, or as was the case before big wins over Star of the Sea and Marian on the road, Five guys. After a home game on a Saturday, they’ll drink together and with the locals in one of the pubs sponsoring the game. The way O’Sullivan sees it, basketball is a hobby, not a job, and all those get-togethers do is make the team closer.
They’re not getting ahead of themselves though. Donaghy and O’Sullivan are conscious that the town has seen Superleague titles come to the town before, only for there to be no team in the league just a couple of years later. The
Warriors though, they feel, are built to last. Although Neptune’s talent drain has been well advertised, O’Sullivan points out Tralee have lost 7’2 Cian O’Sullivan and Ryan Leonard to the States, a path last weekend’s Next Man Up, 17-year-old sensation Rapolas ‘Rap’ Buivydas, might follow. But if he goes, there’ll be another next man or kid up. With a whole town wanting to get behind and support them.
“It’s here to stay,” says Donaghy. “I see it only getting stronger and stronger. It’s the best show in town on a Saturday night and for players it’s a joy to play in front of that crowd.”
Sometimes it isn’t for the opposition. Last Sunday, Marian’s brilliant but volatile coach Ionnais Liapakis protested that the music over the PA was too loud for him and his players to hear each other in timeouts. What did the DJ play during their next conclave? Welcome To The Jungle. Full blast.
Should Marian beat Star of the Sea on Saturday, they’ll face Tralee for a third time in eight days in the semi-final of the Champions Trophy, an end-of-season competition Tralee have won every year they’ve been back in the league. It’ll hardly lead the local sports bulletin this time, with Kerry playing Mayo later that day, but chalk it down there’ll be another long queue and full house, craving to welcome some prey to the Jungle.