Talking heads

Uncompromising on the field, Kerry’s Liam O’Flaherty and Eamonn Breen took a vow of silence off it. They built a career on being strong and silent. But they’ve mellowed, as Colm O’Connor found out.

GROUNDHOG DAY in Killarney. Grizzled hacks believing this year would be different, that the players might open up.

Kerry GAA media days had defining images. Shrugged shoulders, balls raining down on unsuspecting pensmiths.

Polite refusals, impolite refusals. Uncomfortable glances.

And then there was Liam O'Flaherty and Eamonn Breen. Silence from a different league. The two best non-talkers you never spoke to. Fla? Breen? You're having a laugh? They don't.

Breen recalls being followed around a training session by a microphone-wielding radio reporter whose grasp of the English language did not stretch to the word 'No'. Of course, the vow of silence multiplied the mystique. Vignettes of information became rounded character profiles, and moulded personalities.

One a plasterer, the other a farmer. They travelled together, roomed together, drank together.

That stage Irish portrayal still obviously annoys them greatly.

"If you had one pint," Breen points out, "and 10 fellahs say the saw you, then suddenly your one pint becomes 10 pints. Yes, you would have a few pints after a game but that is natural. I trained under Mickey Ned, Ogie and Páidí, the same as Fla, and I ran foul only once when Mickey Ned had to carpet me. But that was only once in 10 years."

O'Flaherty is also keen to bury the myth of misdemeanours which has haunted the pair.

"We never missed training or anything like that and if you want to ask any of our former managers they will tell you that we were the most punctual players that they dealt with. We never lost a game because of drinking or partying."

There were whispers of murderous solo runs, on cold and miserable nights in Coolard and Finuge.

"I would always train on my own," Breen nods. "If I went down to a field and there were young lads kicking ball, I would head off somewhere else.

"I much preferred to be doing the work on my own. In any game even though you are playing with 14 other fellows, in the last 10 minutes, that is when you are really on your own. Fellows are tired and you really have to dig deep.

"That's where training on your own comes into it. I think a lot more fellows should be doing it."

Neither were at last Sunday's meeting of Kerry and Mayo in the League, and it's almost seven years now since their finest hour against the same opposition at Croke Park.

The day the Kerry famine ended.

Today's tipple is a sparkling water, O'Flaherty is on a coke. Both still playing with Finuge and Ballydonoghue, and neither has lost their shape.

"Because I was farming and Eamon was plastering, we were not role models for footballers of today. So many of them were in third level, were teaching, working as reps or with the bank, but we were working for ourselves and maybe that is why we got the reputation," says O'Flaherty now managing both his farm and 'The Mermaids,' a pub and night-club business in Listowel.

It was a foul reputation, years in the making. Despite the fact that there is only a year between them, their footballing paths did not cross until secondary school, at St Michael's College in Listowel.

Breen was a Kerry minor in 1987, with O'Flaherty lining out at wing-back in the All-Ireland winning side a year later. (He is amongst the select group to hold All-Irelands at minor, U21 and senior. His bid to land a junior accolade were scuppered by Tipperary in Clonmel three years ago).

Given the dearth of inter-county talent in North Kerry at the time, their friendship blossomed, copper-fastened by the All-Ireland U21 title win over Tyrone in 1991 when they discovered that football was not their only common interest.

"We won against Tyrone, up in Mullingar. We bought champagne on the way down. At the time we thought that we were kings of the world. Anyhow, we came down to Limerick, which is an hour from home and we had a good night there. The next day we went on in Limerick again but somehow managed to end up in Dublin that night.

"We came down the next day. It took us three days to get home from Mullingar. We could have gone around the world in three days," O'Flaherty laughs while Breen grimaces at the painful memory.

Laughter didn't always come so easily. They arrived to a Kingdom side in transition. The Golden Years had turned to brass with players fresh out of minor and U21 dumped into key roles in a senior side scattered with stars whose sparkle was fading. Something had to give, and it did in the most spectacular fashion with defeat to Clare in the 1992 Munster SFC Final at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick.

It did not dawn on us too much," says O'Flaherty. "Because we were playing with Jack O'Shea and Charlie Nelligan, guys we were looking up to for years, watching them being beaten was more of an upset than the result itself. But credit to Clare as well. They could have gone all the way to an All-Ireland final but had a goal disallowed in the semi-final."

Breen suspects Kerry were far from focused that day in Limerick. A facile victory over Cork had led to feelings of invincibility in some ranks. Some mentors tried to combat that by reminding players that an upset was not beyond the bounds of possibility. It had all the ingredients of a mental car wreck. And even God it seems was not listening.

"We spent nearly eight hours in the Ardfert retreat centre the day before the game. I left home before 10am and did not get back until after 6pm. This was the day before a Munster Final," says Breen who still looks a little confused and bemused at the recollection.

As Kerry groaned through the early 1990's the poisoned chalice of management slipped from Mickey Ned O'Sullivan to Ogie Moran before coming to rest with Páidí Ó Sé. Both agree that all had their good points but that the changing landscape added to a freshness of training techniques.

But there was one threat which remained in place in those days. The monotony of the two-hour round trips were shared with Stephen Stack and Kieran Culhane, with O'Flaherty usually at the helm of his diesel Audi. The banter was relentless, the ribbing was merciless. The journeys were often the most memorable.

O'Flaherty: "One day we were driving along minding our own business when we heard this buzzing in the back of the car. We looked around and there was this big 'whasper' of a bee the size of a bat."

Breen: "He was as big as an ashtray."

O'Flaherty: "So we stopped the car and baled out opening doors and windows. We wouldn't get back in until he flew away. Kerry footballers standing at the side of the road. We got some strange looks on the side of the road that evening."

Slowly, killer bees and poor form were overcome. Kerry rediscovered the way to Croke Park.

Victory over Cork in 1996 led to an All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo.

A party atmosphere prevailed amongst the supporters, an attitude which the lads admit spread to the players. The Kingdom boys were quickly sent packing with their tails between their legs.

But all was not lost, Breen reflected. "There was a group of those fellows who had come up through the U21's the two Dara's (Ó Sé and Cinnéide), the two Hassetts, (Mike and Liam), Killian Burns and Brian Clarke to name a few. And they were good old characters. We were five or six years older but we still had the same old attitude. There was good old friendship and of course when you win then, things are 10 times better."

Or at least they were if everything was going in your favour, as one anonymous defender learned to his eternal cost.

"The banter was so good in the Kerry camp at one stage that we nicknamed a guy 'peanut'," O'Flaherty grins. "That was because he used to be dry roasted so often in training and at matches. One day, he was called ashore after 20 minutes and had this big look of surprise on his face. And that was after his man scored 1-2!"

Things got even better in 1997 with the county winning the NFL before the September Road brought them face-to-face with John Maughan's Mayo.

Eleven years, one of the longest spells that Kerry had every gone without a visit from Sam Maguire. O'Flaherty can still pinpoint, that one moment when the season turned, and they joined the ranks of Kerry men to win an All-Ireland.

"We were beaten by Meath, in the first or second national league game. Meath were the All-Ireland champions at the time (having beaten Mayo). We were beaten and we were absolutely slated. So we said that was that, we are not going to be beaten any more and we won every national league game after that and the championship straight through.

"And obviously when you put a run of wins together, the craic is better, the team starts to gel together, training is easier, you would enjoy it."

Rooming together on the eve of the final against Mayo was a tortured affair. Not because of the impending game but because of Breen's insistence at leaving the radio on.

"He couldn't sleep without it and I could not sleep with it," Flaherty winces.

"What we aimed for was to get one All-Ireland final and if we didn't win in 1997 then we would target 1998," claims the then centre-back. "We were not under undue pressure. After all we had won the League earlier in the year. And then the Munster championship. In fact that was more than what we had aimed to win that year. So it was a stepping stone."

Says Breen: "There was a kind of revenge thing too before that All-Ireland final because Mayo had given us a bit of a lesson the year before. There was more focus. 1996 was the first year that Kerry had gotten to an All-Ireland semi-final since 1991 and there was nearly a bit of a party atmosphere going up there. But in 1997 it was a different ball game."

Though it will always be remembered as the Maurice Fitzgerald final, O'Flaherty's second-half tour de force remains special for Kerry people. Breen was his lieutenant, as Mayo stormed at Kerry on the back of a Kieran McDonald penalty.

"When you are playing you just want to prove to yourself that you can reach the top," O'Flaherty states. "It is not about having the medal to prove that. It is just about accomplishing what you set out to do. If you do anything you want to do it to the best of your ability.

"You never go out to see what you get out of it. You don't play for credit."

Breen nods. "I get embarrassed about those kind of things. I just want to play the game and head off when the job is done. Some fellows like the limelight. I'm not one of them."

O'Flaherty still farms, Breen still plasters, and at the weekends they are again side by side in the bar and night-club inside the counter. A realisation of a dream for O'Flaherty.

Wistfully, some in Kerry pine for the growling presence of both in recent years, as northern lights blinded Kerry in Croke Park. Suddenly, football has become a game of hulks.

"I don't think that there is anything wrong with the rules of football," Breen says.

"I think that the biggest problem is that they are coming up with rules when there is no need for them. The game itself is fine. The only thing is how referees define a tackle. Sometimes you see them blow for something, other times they wouldn't and that leads to aggro. There is no real tackle as in rugby or in the Australian Rules. It is a hard game to define the tackle because of the solo and the dummies that go with it. But that is something that they must do."

Muses O'Flaherty: "Kerry football was always long kicking and high fielding. That was Kerry football. It has veered completely away from that. If there are any high fielders and they are not great runners, the management go for a small plucky guy who is happy to run around all day and pick up the breaks.

"But that is not the way that Kerry football was. Darragh Ó Sé aside, they have no one down the centre up front who can field balls. If Kerry went back to that system of having a big man in the full forward or at centre things would be much different.

"If a back is in trouble, he can just let rip with a big kick of 60 yards and it would take off the pressure. You could win games by long kicking alone."

ON screen above them, Ireland's rugby heroes are continuing their Six Nations campaign. Careers that pay.

"No," says Breen, "because money was never mentioned in our day. I don't think that it will ever come in because the GAA is not big enough to handle that. You can see that rugby is suffering, the All Ireland League is in trouble, and they are only catering for a fraction of the numbers. The clubs will suffer."

His boss, ever the business man has a different and more complex long term plan to steal the best of Irish youth before rugby or soccer comes calling.

"Any young fellow that makes the county minor grade, should have his university studies paid for, for a number of years. That would give parents more of an incentive to push their kids into football or hurling rather than the kids at the age of 16 going off into night-clubs drinking."

And down the road, how will they remember that day in September, the whole barrel of fish?

"We got places, literally and metaphorically," says Breen. "And we've a lot of friends who we can enjoy it with now. Yeah, enjoy it. That's what it's there for."

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