In the name of the father

IN THEIR curmudgeonly moments, Kerry football supporters like to berate Mick O’Dwyer for his loyalty to the Golden Year greats at the expense of those hoping to prolong the Kingdom’s monopoly of the 70’s and 80’s.

They decry the ‘lost generation’ of players to the green and gold, never pausing to identify anyone beyond one or two possible cases of players being in the wrong county at the wrong time.

“Who were those players?,” Pat Spillane asks rhetorically. “There was perhaps 30 players of a really high standard in Kerry during that period, and by the time we won the last All-Ireland in 1986, most of the fringe players had established themselves anyway — Timmy Dowd, Ger Lynch, John Kennedy, my brother Tom, John Higgins.”

Now as Kerry go in search of a third All-Ireland in a row, the first since that ‘86 final, those legends are still producing for Kerry — quite literally in many instances, as a new generation of GAA superstars and nascent talent surfaces and represents the county with success.

Says Spillane: “I’ve been at a few U12 games this year, even in the lower divisions, and the young talent in the county is unbelievable. People in Kerry presumed during the golden years there was a hidden tap or conveyor belt hidden out in the country, and it took us seven or eight years afterwards to discover that we had to develop a new stream of footballers.”

Little did anyone know, but Kerry’s success at the time was inadvertently doing that for them.

Noel and Tadhg Kennelly would go training with their father, Noel actually making it to the dugout for the 1987 Munster final; Tomás, Darragh and even young Marc recall carrying three-foot hurdles down to Ventry beach for Paidí Ó Sé’s spartan training regimes, timing him on his 13-mile stints around Slea Head.

It wasn’t that Micheal Ó Sé, the boys’ father, was an incidental presence either. A county championship winning minor with West Kerry in 1959, he was happy for his brother — both graduates of St Brendan’s college in Killarney — to bring the trio along on his illustrious coat-tails, kicking ball together in the church yard across from their Árd a Bhothair house.

That sibling scene replicated in the Tralee households of Ogie Moran and Sean Walsh, and in Listowel, where Tadgh and Noel Kennelly grew up under the wing of another Kerry legend. The gold-sprinkle was unavoidable.

“Even though I wasn’t born when the Kerry thing started in the 70s, I grew up watching the Golden Years video,” Noel Kennelly recalls now. “The dad was also a selector in the mid-80s, so we were brought to training and to matches. I don’t know how, but I finished up on the sideline for one Munster final.”

When the All-Ireland champions run onto Croke Park tomorrow, five of the squad are blood relatives of former greats, with Sean Walsh’s second son, Barry John, a leading light for the Kerry minor, who open the bill against Mayo. There are other to come too. Diarmuid O’Donoghue from Killarney Legion, was an inter-county forward of the 80s with a sweet left foot. Perhaps in another era he might have found a place on Kerry’s half forward line, but his son, James, is already showing serious promise at colleges and Kerry minor level.

John Egan’s 15-year-old son of the same name has the potential to be as good as any of the new generation. An accomplished footballer and hurler, he has already been for trials with a number of leading Premier League clubs — sadly for Kerry, he looks more likely to don Cork red than Kerry green and gold, as he is now resident in Wilton in Cork city.

With the startling progress David Moran has made, winning an U21 All-Ireland this season, people forget he’s not the first of Ogie’s sons to show inter-county class. Brian was a Kerry minor midfielder in 2004, and though he’s had a few bad years with injury, he’s now back with Jack O’Connor’s Kerins O’Rahillys as they chase a senior football championship in the county.

John Kennedy’s son, Eoin, has already represented Kerry at minor level — with his father as coach. Whatever about listening to others describing him as “the son of...”, how difficult was it for John?

“When I was initially asked by (County Board chairman) Sean Walsh to take over, I was reluctant because of the fact that Eoin could have been involved,” Kennedy says. “We spoke about it at home but we just made the decision that he’d be treated just like any other player. I don’t think there was any problems with the other players about him. He toed the line like everyone else. When his form was good he was picked and when it dipped he was dropped. Whenever minor training was over, we always just left it behind us. It was never brought into the house.”

Noel Kennelly admits that at times it was difficult being “the son of...”. “You’d get a bit pissed off about it until such time as you developed into your own player, probably around Kerry minor level.”

There were advantages too. “The father would always be watching us, but not saying too much. One thing stuck with me though — he was saying that left footers stood out more, and (with my back to goal), defenders were reading me too easily when I turned onto my right side. One match I went the other way, and the defender completely bought it. Tim enjoyed that one.”

Keeper Danny Nelligan had possibilities of lining out with Dublin while with Kilmacud Crokes, and Ambrose O’Donovan’s reputation as a midfielder with Dr Crokes continues to grow; Ditto Jack O’Shea’s son Aidan, who has already been in for Kerry trials.

It won’t stop there either. The sons of ‘younger’ legends like Tom Spillane are now beginning to flit across the radar — his 11-year-old son, Cillian, is already rated a prospect. Indeed Pat Spillane’s own son (Pat, aged 10) is today preparing for an All-Ireland rugby nine-a-side semi final with Kenmare, though his first love is, obviously, football.

And it isn’t just the boys — Ger O’Driscoll’s daughter Casey is one of the best ladies football forwards in the country.

“Maybe there is a conveyor belt,” laughs Spillane. Perhaps there is. Back in West Kerry, when they return home to visit their mother, Tomás, Marc or Darragh Ó Sé can be seen kicking around with another talented 15-year-old who’s already represented the North Kerry division.

He’s Padraig Ó Sé, son of....

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