It’s 10 years since the Tom Markham Cup spent a winter in the Kingdom. In that time, tomorrow’s opponents, Tyrone, have provided the mantelpiece for the old trophy on two occasions, reaching the final a third time for good measure.
Such success is merely the tip of the iceberg. To be blunt, Tyrone’s underage record is frightening. The current minor management team of Liam Donnelly and Martin Coyle took over six years ago and in that time they have claimed four Ulster Minor League titles, three Ulster championships and one All-Ireland.
This season alone the county’s Vocational Schools side bagged the Ulster and All-Ireland crowns, while St Patrick’s, Dungannon took the Ulster Colleges title, only losing out on the national bragging rights to Colm O’Rourke’s St Patrick’s, Navan side in the final.
Both those sides will be well represented in the Ulster minor champions’ line-out tomorrow.
Kerry’s underage haul can’t match that; what county can? Yet, the Munster side’s cupboard isn’t totally bare at minor level - four Munster titles in the last four years are proof positive of that.
So, will the 10-year drought weigh on young Kerry minds tomorrow afternoon and will their opponents’ A-list pedigree be a factor?
“I’ve been asked this question a few times but what I would say is that this team is a new team. You can’t go on history going into matches,” said Kerry manager Sean Geaney.
“Cork weren’t taking about winning a 29th All-Ireland title before their game against Kilkenny and we’re just going to concentrate on ourselves and what we need to do. Maybe Kerry can learn from this 10-year gap anyway, rather than presuming that we’ll always have good players coming through.
“Maybe it will encourage us to put more money into the underage structures.”
That Kerry are here at all has come of something of a shock to more than a few inside the county and out. Cork, Tyrone and Laois were the names on everyone’s lips when the minor competition took its first steps last spring.
Kerry struggled to find cruise control against Clare and Tipperary and were lucky to survive with a draw against Cork in the Munster final before retaining their title in the replay.
A facile win against Kildare was followed up by a true Jekyll and Hyde performance against a depleted Laois, playing with 14 men for the entire second half of the semi-final. Room for improvement then?
“We did struggle at times, especially in the earlier games, but I feel we have improved all along,” Geaney admitted. “In saying that, I don’t think we have hit the high point yet. I’m hoping we can get an even bigger response out of these lads on Sunday.”
Kerry’s progress actually shows some interesting parallels with Tyrone’s. Both were lucky to win their provincial titles after replays (Tyrone’s was against Down) and both have struggled to find the kind of rhythm normally expected of champions-elect.
The challenge is nonetheless a stern one for Kerry. “Tyrone are a very highly rated team with good players all over the pitch,” added Geaney.
“They’re very strong physically and defensively. They have a great work ethic, which we must match if we’re to win.
“The thing with minors is that you just don’t know how they will react on the day. It’s a huge day in their lives, probably their biggest to this point, and we would just hope that they go out there and do well but enjoy it at the same time.”
: B. Kealy (Kilcummin); P. Reidy (Scartaglin), L. Quinn (Dr Crokes), K. Young (Renard); D. Doyle (Churchill), C. Kelliher (Milltown/Castlemaine); D. O’Connor (Gneeveguilla); B. Moran (Kerins O’Rahilly’s), R. Keating (St. Marys); M. Evans (Dingle), A. Kenneally (Dr Crokes); M. O’Donoghue (Spa); S. Murphy (Milltown/Castlemaine), D. O’Sullivan (Glenbeigh/Glencar), P. O’Connor (Kenmare).
: A. O’Connell (Gneeveguilla), D. Culloty (Na Gaeil), A. Maher (Duagh), C. O’Mahony (Ballydonoghue), K. O’Leary (Dr Crokes), P. Curran (Waterville), B. Looney (Dr Crokes), E. Mangan (Ballylongford), A. O’Sullivan (Tuosist).
: J Curran, N McGinn, P Marlow, D Burke, J Gilmore, N Kerr, M Murray, R Mulgrew, S O’Hagan, C O’Neill, M Cunningham (capt), R McCrory, G Devlin, C Cavanagh, A Cassidy.Subs: D McCann, S O’Neill, S Donaghy, G McCaughey, J Kelly, PJ Quinn, C McCarron, C O’Hare, S McMahon.
: (T. Quigley, Wexford).