Anthony Daly: Kerry hurling should be helped build their own kingdom

All these years on, those cheeky boyos below in Lixnaw in north Kerry still can’t resist having a go at me.
Anthony Daly: Kerry hurling should be helped build their own kingdom
Kerry's James O’Connor, Patrick Kelly and Liam Twomey celebrate after a match. Pic: INPHO/Oisin Keniry
Kerry's James O’Connor, Patrick Kelly and Liam Twomey celebrate after a match. Pic: INPHO/Oisin Keniry
Kerry's James O’Connor, Patrick Kelly and Liam Twomey celebrate after a match. Pic: INPHO/Oisin Keniry

All these years on, those cheeky boyos below in Lixnaw in north Kerry still can’t resist having a go at me. When Éamonn Fitzmaurice was interviewed for a player profile by the club last week, one of the questions was to recall a funny story/incident while playing for Lixnaw.

“Anthony Daly’s shocked face after we beat Kilmoyley in the 2007 county final,” said Fitzmaurice.

As soon as the profile appeared on the club’s Twitter account, my Twitter handle was tagged to the post. I immediately knew where to fire the first shots back. “Seanie Flaherty is written all over this anyway,” I replied.

Seanie was always slagging me for not going to Lixnaw. His son James was a great corner forward for the club. They were both cut from the same cloth; small in stature but full of heart. Seanie was a great coursing man too. I’ve gone down and presented medals for him a few time. They’re great people in Lixnaw. They couldn’t do enough for you.

The first time I came across Lixnaw was when Clarecastle invited them to a tournament in 2003. There were some quality teams in the competition – Borris-Ileigh and Loughrea are two that come to mind – but we gave Player-of-the-Tournament to Paul Galvin, this tear-away, all-action wing-back. Galvin was an unreal hurler.

I still didn’t know enough about them before that 2007 county final and Fitzmaurice’s comment was probably dead right; I was shocked because the Kilmoyley boys didn’t really feel that a Lixnaw team would turn them over.

They were desperate wary of Causeway and Ballyduff, even Ardfert. When we beat Causeway and Ardfert in the 2008 and 2009 finals respectively, the tension beforehand was savage. The fact that there was no tension before the ‘07 final was one of the reasons we lost to Lixnaw.

Kilmoyley were flat but Lixnaw had great men; the Fitzmaurices and Galvins in particular. Éamonn was a rock solid centre-back. You wouldn’t be passing him easy. He had that cynicism too from the football, in that if you did get past him, Éamonn would haul you down.

He wouldn’t have been bothered by Shane Brick coming out on him either at centre-forward. Éamonn’s attitude would have been “Hi, you may be the best hurler in Kerry but I’ve a bag of All-Ireland football medals”.

Eamonn Cregan was over that Lixnaw team. Cregan would make out that he had no tactics but Lixnaw were the most football-orientated hurling team I ever saw. They’d no problem bringing everyone back behind the ball.

Lixnaw definitely had a hex on me. My last match as Kilmoyley manager in 2010 ended with a defeat to them. It was one of the strangest games I was ever involved in. Kilmoyley absolutely dominated the match but Lixnaw displayed all their fighting spirit and they just hung in.

Martin Stackpoole gave an exhibition in goal. We tattooed him with the ball but we couldn’t get it past Stackpoole. When I went in to congratulate Lixnaw in their dressingroom afterwards, the first thing I said to them was: “Ye f***ers!” I wouldn’t say Kilmoyley got caught again – especially when we dominated the game – but I just sensed that they didn’t have the same bile for Lixnaw that they had for other clubs.

Kilmoyley was in the middle of everywhere. They’re in the same parish as Ardfert. They’re only over the road from Causeway.

Any friction with Lixnaw seemed small-time stuff to me. The two clubs wore the same coloured jerseys and no-one would give in to change before the 2007 final. Coming up to that semi-final in 2010, we made a call and decided to wear the Clarecastle jerseys.

It was the first part of a double-header in Tralee and it was the only time in my four years in Kerry that I ever experienced any personal abuse or vitriol. “Go home Daly and bring your f***ing jerseys with you,” roared one fella from the terrace.

That day was the end of a remarkable journey for me. Kilmoyley started out as therapy. I was low after stepping away from Clare in 2006. I expected Kilmoyley to be a brief fling but it evolved into such a love affair that the club was my mistress for four years. Even when I was appointed Dublin manager in 2009, I couldn’t extricate myself from my relationship with Kilmoyley until the following year.

I fell madly in love with the place and its people. Their warmth and generosity towards me was unconditional. Their spirit crackled like electricity. It lit up my life.

I’ve always had a desperate grá for Kerry hurling because I respected their hurlers long before I landed in Kilmoyley. I’d seen up close how good they were. Clare lost a league playoff to Kerry in 1990, when we were going all out to win the match because the prize for the winners was a trip to London.

When we reached a league semi-final in 1994, we only scraped past Kerry in Ennis in Round 6, a game we had to win to maintain our push for a league quarter-final.

Although we beat Tipperary in the Munster quarter-final that May, we were certainly on edge going into the semi-final against Kerry in June because Kerry had scalped Waterford in Walsh Park in the previous year’s championship, which was possibly the biggest shock ever in Munster hurling.

That afternoon in Austin Stack Park in 1994 was an electric experience. The place was absolutely wedged. A lot of the Clare crowd missed the first 15 minutes because the traffic was backed up for miles heading into the town beforehand.

When I was in Austin Stack Park last year for a Joe McDonagh Cup game between Kerry and Offaly, it was a totally different, and much sadder, experience. The place was near-deserted. Twenty-five years after Offaly had won the 1994 All-Ireland, they were relegated to the Christy Ring, the third tier of the championship.

As I left Tralee that evening, my mind wandered back to that golden Sunday in 1994. I was thinking: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have Kerry back in the Munster championship again.”

That’s only a remote possibility any time soon because even if Kerry were to win the Joe McDonagh Cup, they’d have to win a play-off with the bottom team in Munster to gain access to the Munster championship. With all due respect to Kerry at the moment, that isn’t going to happen any time soon.

That predicament is in stark contrast to all the other teams in the Joe McDonagh Cup, including Antrim, where winning the competition would secure a place in the Leinster championship. Kerry may be a Munster team but that’s no good to them if they’re effectively denied a passage into the Munster championship.

So in essence, if Kerry win the Joe Mac, they collect the cup, and then go back into the same competition the following year. Deep down, any player would question themselves, and the long-term project, in that predicament.

That’s even harder again for Kerry to reconcile given that they entered the Leinster championship - albeit the early qualification rounds - after winning the Christy Ring in 2015. Yet that potential ticket was revoked and, while Kerry are legitimate Joe Mac contenders, they are still effectively in a long-term no man’s land.

I think the GAA authorities could do more for Kerry. I’m not saying that because I have a soft spot for Kerry but I think the GAA could do more for those counties outside the top ten, full stop.

Where would it start for Kerry? For me, it’s a no brainer – Tralee. The town, with a population of 23,000 people, is right on the hurling border in north Kerry. What’s more, it has a tradition of hurling – the last title may have been 1931 but Tralee has 13 senior hurling championships.

Those titles were won by John Mitchels, Austin Stacks, Tralee Parnells, Tralee Celtic and Tralee. Almost 100 years since their last title, Parnells (it’s now Tralee Parnells Hurling and Camogie club) are back up and running, with some remarkable people driving the project; David Brick is an outstanding secretary; David Reen has done trojan work as Chairman. Ollie Broughton and Mark Ryall are reportedly top-class coaches.

Parnells don’t have their own pitch. They’ve bedded down in Caherslee for the time being, but their numbers are really impressive; Parnells have nine hurling and six camogie teams; the club has 400 members.

There have been some visible green shoots from the tilled new ground. Last December Tralee CBS defeated Mercy Mouthawk (Tralee) in the Munster Colleges E hurling final.

Half the players involved were from Parnells, but for any sport to thrive, the real work has to begin as early as possible. Tralee Parnells have 16 primary schools within their catchment area but the buy-in is always going to be much harder in a football stronghold. And the evangelical work is harder again when the preachers are so few.

Colm O’Brien from Limerick is the sole Games Development Administrator (GDA) covering Tralee and the south of the county. Kilgarvan, which won the Intermediate championship and went up to Division 1 of the league this year, is a beacon of hurling hope. But unless more is done to try and grow more clubs, Kilgarvan will remain a remote oasis in a hurling desert.

Of course, the reasons why that ground will remain barren are the same reasons why there are so many hurling wastelands all over the country. If football people don’t want hurling, they will always find reasons to try and extinguish a flickering flame.

I heard a story recently that didn’t surprise me in the least. The best U-12 hurler in Kerry is a highly talented dual player from Tralee, who hurls with Parnells and kicks football with Austin Stacks. Stacks got such a panic attack that the young lad may become distracted by hurling that they got one of their highly-respected former Kerry footballers to have a word in his ear. How paranoid would you have to be to try and turn a 12-year old?

Should Stacks not be more worried about trying to recruit young lads ahead of O’Rahillys, Mitchels and Na Gaeil – the other clubs in the town - instead of telling one of their own to turn his back on hurling, and his friends?

I know basketball is big in Tralee. I’ve no problem with basketball. I enjoyed watching ‘The Last Dance’ on Netflix in recent weeks. But, as GAA people, should we not want our kids playing GAA as opposed to playing another sport?

I know how this works because I saw it myself first hand. When I moved back to west Clare 20 years ago, Fr Peter O’Loughlin, a local priest and a great friend approached me about a start-up hurling franchise in Kilmihil. Even though I was still playing with Clare, before then managing Clare, I immersed myself in the project for five years.

Although we played under the banner of Kilmihil, we had loads of lads from other west Clare clubs, where hurling isn’t played; Shannon Gaels, Cooraclare, Coolmeen. Even the great Clare footballer David Tubridy from Doonbeg hurled with us up to U16. We started out with an U14 D team before winning U16 C and contesting Minor B county semi-finals. We made massive progress but every step forward felt like a stretching point somewhere else.

The breaking point for me eventually arrived one night in Kilmihil. We had 23 players training in a corner of a field where you wouldn’t play a 5-a-side soccer match. Then some of our young minor players from Kilmihil were told to train with their Junior footballers in the main field. I just turned to Fr Peter: “I’m sorry for the young fellas but I can’t take any more of this. We’re clearly not wanted around here.”

After that team broke up, Ballyea were the biggest beneficiaries. Ballyea already had a strong connection with Kilmihil anyway because Carmel Coughlan, the principal in Kilmihil school, always coached hurling in the school so most of those young lads Went over to Ballyea, the nearest hurling club to Kilmihil. When Ballyea reached the 2017 All-Ireland club final, Stan Lineen from Kilmihil captained the side.

I fully understand why they don’t want hurling in Kilmihil or Doonbeg just like they don’t want football in Sixmilebridge. I saw the other side of it too when I was with Kilmihil. When we started winning, there were plenty of clubs around east Clare that resented us. I heard ‘West Clare United’ muttered out of the side of fellas’ mouths often enough. But when lads are getting sick of you, you know you’re doing your job right.

I struggled to comprehend that resentment. I just don’t understand why, in strong football and hurling areas, there can’t be a space for lads who want to play both codes.

In Clarecastle, hurling is our only religion. But we’ve made a space for football too. We might not take it too seriously, but the option is there for lads who want to play football.

Is Kerry not big enough to reach such an accommodation? Can the GAA not do more to promote the game? Like, how much can one GDA really do for hurling in such a massive area? Almost every club in Dublin has a GDA.

There will always be areas that don’t want hurling. But there are just as many areas that are open to playing both codes. So at least give those kids a chance to make a choice.

Hurling will never prosper in so many counties, but surely there is scope to further develop those counties in the Joe McDonagh and Christy Ring Cups? None of those counties will win a Liam MacCarthy anytime soon but it would be a massive boost to the game to have 13 or 14 counties in the senior championship in ten years-time.

How serious though, are the GAA in trying to make that happen? Martin Fogarty is doing a great job as the National Hurling Development Manager but how much can one man really do? It’s too much of a hit-and-miss approach. If the GAA were really serious about promoting the game, they’d put together a high-powered board, with huge investment - both financial and personnel - and with serious planning, to really make inroads into those hurling wastelands.

I fully accept that even with that approach, there will still always be roadblocks in the way. For all the passion and loyalty and communal spirit within the hurling community, there is an element of snobbery there too. That auld attitude of ‘It’s only Kerry, it’s only Antrim, it’s only Westmeath’. Hurling people can be condescending without knowing it.

I’m not just using it as an amnesty, but I honestly don’t think we in Clare ever looked on those counties in that snobbish manner. We knew the bad days. We suffered the hammerings. We felt the humiliation.

I don’t want to be condescending to the strong counties either, because they won so many All-Irelands. But the natural reflex is often to see those counties as almost not having the right to sit at the top table.

Even when I was Dublin manager, I took fair stick for us losing to Antrim in 2010. It was almost like a stain on my reputation as a manager, but I knew how good Antrim were. I didn’t need anybody to tell me how good Liam Watson was.I know how good Neil McManus is from Antrim now. I saw Shane Brick’s class and genius up close with Kilmoyley. On the victorious UCC Fitzgibbon Cup team this year, Shane Conway from Kerry was their best player.

For now, all Kerry hurling can do is keep on keeping on. Parnells are certainly showing what can be done. After eight years, they are finally up in the Intermediate grade. And I really believe that the stronger Parnells get, the stronger Kerry hurling will become. It would be great to see Kerry back in the Munster championship some day.

They may suffer for a while but didn’t we suffer in Clare for long enough? So did Waterford. Limerick took plenty of hidings too throughout the decades. But we all learned. We built. We came back. We got knocked down again. But we came back again.

CONDOLENCES

I was saddened to hear of the death of long-time Austin Stack Park steward Mossie Spillane last week. Mossie was a gentleman in every sense and always extended a handshake and a warm welcome whenever I was on his patch. What I loved most about him was that he treated the hurlers with the same respect and courtesy as the footballers.

My deepest sympathies to his wife Mary and to his children, Michelle, Tracey, Deirdre and Ashling.

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