‘It’s the dream everyone involved in the GAA dreams of’

A tiny Kerry club with huge ambition lines out on the GAA’s biggest stage tonight in Croke Park.

IT is impossible to hide from football in the little North Kerry village of Duagh this week. Ducking off the flag strewn main street offers little respite.

Even the children in the primary school are carried along in the hype. Everyone can offer you the range of issues facing manager John Dillon ahead of tonight’s All-Ireland Club Junior football final against Tyrone’s Greencastle.

The public houses of The Elm, O’Brien’s and O’Connor’s are going against the grain of rural pubs in crisis — all are buzzing with talk of the trip to Dublin and the worrying lack of change from a fiver for a pint in the big smoke.

Up the road in Gaire’s Supermarket and Post Office, be prepared for long queues, wide smiles and discussions about the flux capacity of the Croke Park floodlights, t he strengths and weaknesses of the opposition and the odds on offer from Berkie Browne in neighbouring Listowel.

The exodus will be mass, insofar as that applies to a hamlet of 2,000 souls, and whatever the outcome, it will be an evening of mixed emotions for Liam Dennehy.

Dennehy has 30 years of uninterrupted service to the Duagh club, but this will be his final official engagement as he takes charge of the North Kerry Board.

“I was by far a better administrator than I was a footballer,” he smiles of his terms as chairman, treasurer and secretary over the past three decades.

Dennehy, a native of the parish, came home from college with two ambitions. The first was to set up a veterinary practice; the second to get involved in the GAA club.

Within a few months he was busily attending to all creatures great and small and at the helm of Duagh.

“There were a lot of difficult years in the late seventies and early eighties and it was quite tough at times to keep the club going and put teams out. The interest was simply not there. Those were bad times.”

It was a case of sink or swim. A few innovative men got together and began to fight back. For Dennehy one decision changed the course of the club and ensured the future.

“The key was that we were one of the first clubs in North Kerry to set up a separate Bord na nÓg club. Patrick Keane (now the club’s PRO) was chairman and Maurice Dowling was his secretary. Things blossomed from there.”

Keane, a teacher in one of the two schools in the parish which sits along the River Feale between Abbeyfeale and Listowel, doubles as a local GAA historian.

He reveals the first attempts to form a club was made in 1891 and by the early 1920’s “a good structure was in place in the parish.” However two variables kept holding them back: emigration and religion.

Explained Keane: “Every time we would have a good team, we would lose players to emigration. But that was not the only problem. There were also a record number of clerics born and educated in the area. When they were in the seminary, they could only play football on their holidays and then the majority of them left to join the missions. Many fine players were lost.”

The late 50s and early 60s produced a golden era. The club was one of the powerhouses in the famed North Kerry senior championship, collecting five titles. The team was built around the likes of Dan McAuliffe, Tom Costelloe and Diarmuid Dillion, all of whom played with Kerry.

McAuliffe was the star man winning All-Irelands in 1959 and 1962. Even now, mention of his name and his place-kicking exploits is a source of huge pride in these parts. Of the trio, only Costelloe is still alive and according to Keane is “hale and hearty and looking forward to Saturday.”

Then came something of a slump.

“We had good footballers,” said Keane of the 70’s, “but it was often hard to get 15 fellas to play in the County League. It was often a case of guys showing up to watch the games and rolling up their pants to make up the numbers. It just was not very attractive to being playing gaelic football around the time.”

Despite such problems there were some highlights. Keane recalls how Duagh, along with a star studded Beale which featured the likes of Bomber Liston and Ogie Moran, zoomed up from Division Four to Division Two in two seasons. Beale created a dynasty. And Duagh?

“We gave one season in Division Two and plummeted straight back down to Division Four. It took years to get going again.”

And that was where the Board na nÓg was formed. “I was chairman and I knew many of the kids from school. Maurice Dowling was my secretary and we kept it going for many years. But once we got organised things began to click. The foundations for this run go back over 20 years.”

They were also a progressive bunch. The services of Kerry legend John O’Keeffe were called upon, adding structure to the underage and senior ranks. Ten years ago the school, parents and the club banded together and raised money for a coach to come to work with the kids every Friday. Word spread and now the North Kerry Board are providing such a service to primary children across the division — Duagh included.

Their recent successes — kick-started by a Kerry Novice title back in 2002 when they defeated Listry — is ongoing.

“We seem to being going against the trend here. Our population is rising, more and more children are coming to our schools, so much so we have one new teacher starting in September. We have also started a junior hurling club (Duagh is landlocked in football country). David O’Regan who hurled with Clare and Kerry is a very keen hurling man and he takes the kids a couple of times a week. Things are improving since he started three years ago. We took our first county league title last year and our first schools title.”

Big matches wouldn’t be that alien for many of the Duagh side. Anthony Maher came on as a substitute in the All-Ireland MFC final two years ago and is now part of the Kerry U21 squad. The O’Brien’s, Alan and Brendan, have county experience as has Declan Griffin and Kieran Quirke.

Manager John Dillon has the happiest memories of Croke Park having won two All-Ireland VEC medals in the early 90’s.

Tonight will be bittersweet for Dillon. He was the standout underage star with the club, the guy who dragged them through so many games on so many dark and damp days. Indeed he was the side’s top scorer when they lifted the novice crown five years ago.

Last year he suffered a knee injury and his career was put on hold. But then fate played a hand when club bosses launched a search for a new manager around North Kerry and West Limerick but were met with closing doors.

“We were so unsuccessful, we were unattractive,” admitted Dennehy. The feeling in neighbouring clubs was that Duagh’s best days were behind them.

Dillon offered to take over on an interim basis and suddenly the team that had grown weary of losing game after game by a point, began to eke out gritty wins in places like Kenmare and Blennerville.

“He has been revelation,” admitted Dennehy. “He is as good as you could get anywhere. If he wants it, he has a really big future in management.”

But what Dillon wouldn’t give to be out on the field.

“Naturally there is no replacement for playing but this is not a bad place to be. I was thrown in at the deep end and really enjoyed the year. We set about doing things right from the start. They are all adults and know what is required. We went away knocked on doors, got sponsorship, set up training schedules and put a three or four year plan in place. The plan was to get promoted from Division Four of the County League and maybe try and win the North Kerry League. In a year or two we would start looking to win some silverware. Instead we find ourselves with two trophies and a chance of a third.”

Stories of Dillon’s approach — and that of his two selectors, Eamon Stack and Padraig Keane — are legend. On match days like today, every player will have a sheet. On that piece of paper will be a timetable of the day, every conceivable angle is covered, even what to wear. Nothing is left to chance.

“We are staying in the Citywest Hotel on Friday night, and will head to Croke Park on Saturday morning at 8.30. We will have our kick-around, come back have a bite of lunch and then we have organised a few televisions to be set up so we can watch the Ireland v Scotland game. Fr Moore is coming up from home and will say Mass at 3pm, then we will have a team meeting before heading to Croke Park.”

Duagh aren’t the only Kerry side staying in the Citywest. Ardfert who contest the All-Ireland Intermediate decider at 8pm are down the corridor. Last year they won the Junior title before setting off on another incredible journey through Kerry, Munster and beyond. And yes, perfectionist Dillon has been in touch.

“I have been in constant contact with Pat O’Driscoll (Ardfert coach) and he has been a great help through the year and about what to expect at Croke Park — right down to what studs to use.”

If Duagh lose tonight’s final, the disappointment will heal with time. However the memories of the journey will last a lifetime.

“It’s the dream everyone involved in the GAA dreams of,” said Dennehy. “Croke Park? This is worth every ounce I’ve put into the club over the last 30 years.”

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