North Kerry: where they postpone Christmas

BEAMS of light punch through the December darkness. In their glare, ghostly figures race in a co-ordinated routine. The difficulty of the training is underlined by lingering clouds of breath.

This is Finuge, outside Listowel, a tiny village in the heartland of north Kerry. Christmas is in the air, yet in competitive terms if feels like summer.

The year began with county league commitments in February and has careered out of control beyond the conventional football calendar.

Finuge’s footballers have been out for the last 11 consecutive weekends, and the two biggest Sundays are yet to come. The season isn’t over. Not nearly over.

Over the next eight days, the club which shares its players with Lixnaw’s hurlers and its boundaries with St Senan’s footballers and boasts four All-Ireland winners on the starting 15, will ask its players to gird their weary limbs for two career-shaping championship deciders.

The talk is of the meeting with Listowel on St Stephen’s Day. The North Kerry final has a mystique all of its own, so much so that tomorrow’s Munster Junior Championship final against Cork champions Aghabullogue is shunted into the sidings.

Team trainer Maurice Leahy, a native of Causeway, is better known for his hurling exploits, having managed the county team and numerous club sides.

Ironically it was hurling which brought him here - he knew many of the Finuge players through their exploits with Lixnaw.

“I had planned a break after the Kerry set-up but I listened to what Finuge had to say,” Leahy said. “I told them that if they were fully interested then so was I. They gave me those assurances, and I took the job.”

It proved an inspired move. The side blossomed under Leahy’s infectious enthusiasm, retaining their division three status in the County League before lifting the County JFC title with a three-point win over Lispole.

Limerick’s Cappamore and Rosegreen of Tipperary were subsequently dispatched in the Munster campaign on route to tomorrow’s date in Fitzgerald Stadium (2pm). Armchair fans will highlight the talents of Eamon Fitzmaurice and Paul Galvin, who were sequestered by the county for much of the season, as central reasons for their representation.

But the production line of talent over the last decade has never failed Finuge. It is not by chance.

Remarkable work in the schools of the parish and at underage level has shaped this success. John McAuliffe, Dan Joy, Christy Killeen and Paddy Sullivan are a repeated reference point on the issue of youth development.

“In the mid 80s we started parish leagues in hurling and football in Lixnaw and Finuge and it just blossomed,” McAuliffe recalls.

“There was always a ball out in the school yards and it just took off. Lixnaw enjoyed huge success in the hurling championships in the nineties and now Finuge are doing likewise in football.

“Strangely it wasn’t pre-planned or a concerted effort, it was all very laid back and we were lucky to have so many committed people and so many talented players.”

Of Leahy’s 25 strong panel, 12 are U21 and two of those are minors. Add in the two current Kingdom stars along with Celtic Cross holders Eamon Breen and Enda Galvin and you have an impressive spine.

“The Munster final offers us the chance of winning a provincial and an All-Ireland title and all these games are great for bringing new players onto the squad and keeping us match fit for the games in North Kerry.

“I haven’t seen Aghabullogue but I know from my experience of Cork that if you are good enough to win the county junior title in Cork, then you are a seriously good team.”

And so too is his side. Leahy is fulsome in praise of his county men, highlighting their interest, efforts and leadership at this late stage of the year. None reflect those characteristics more than Eamon Fitzmaurice.

“You have to win everything you can while you are there. You can go through years without winning - that happened to us and we were left with the feeling that we have underachieved.

“A big factor in this run has been Maurice Leahy. The training he does has been very similar to that which Pat Flanagan has been doing with the Kerry footballers. It is important to enjoy going training and that has certainly been the case.”

Leahy is keenly aware of the pressure that players are under given the ever- extending GAA season.

“Player burn -out is an issue,” Leahy agrees. “More so in a club like Finuge, where many of the lads are also playing hurling, along with commitments with the county team.

“Those guys have a busy, busy year. And they were lucky Lixnaw didn’t have the best season in the county championships. But I think the GAA in Kerry will have to take a look at some of the competitions. There seems to be a concentration on getting as many competitions played but that is detrimental for many players.”

He points to Reggie Galvin, brother of All Star footballer Paul, as an example. The younger sibling is involved with the footballers of Finuge from minor upwards. Now repeat that with the Lixnaw hurlers. Add in some time with the Kerry minors and you can understand Leahy’s concern.

“The talented guys are the ones who are getting punished,” Leahy points out. “By the time they are 20 or 21 years of age, they will have more games played than I had by my thirties. I hate to say that they will have to pick between hurling or football. The season is just too long.

“If Lixnaw and Finuge got together and decided what competitions were of most importance, then they could work their squads accordingly and rotate players. That is the only way to combat burn-out.”

Leahy is a North Kerry hurling man. Though born and reared a few miles from Finuge, he seems at a loss to explain the infatuation with the St Stephen’s Day final.

“From the hurling area it never seemed that important. But it means everything in these parts. It is almost like the All-Ireland for North Kerry.

“From my point of view the Kerry junior and the Munster Junior titles were the most important thing this year as it gives you the chance to go up to intermediate and to senior.

“They are willing to go to any end for this game against Listowel. Enda Galvin is putting off his holiday to Australia by a few days and Conor Galvin has had to cancel a skiing trip. That is how seriously they take it.”

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