North Kerry fuelling the passion

CHRISTY RING FINAL:

North Kerry fuelling the passion

Passing through the villages of North Kerry, he couldn’t but take notice of the support for his side.

Flags, banners, bunting, the works — every telephone pole, shop window and school wall sporting the green and gold.

The Clarecastle native had a fair idea they were passionate about their hurling in these parts, but certainly not to this extent.

“The hurling community in Kerry is a relatively small one, but their passion is unbelievable,” he says.

“There are just eight hurling clubs in Kerry, but you’ll find real passionate people in all of them. There is a great buzz about the place ahead of the weekend.”

Today’s Christy Ring final is familiar territory for Kerry, but does it represent the ceiling of their capabilities? Howard doesn’t think so.

“I think Kerry should be agitating to be involved in the Munster championship.

“I think if progress continues to be made they should be given a chance. The big question is when? You don’t want to make the step-up before the team is ready.”

Ambitious, yes, but Howard accepts reality. The road to hurling’s top table is forever widening and Kerry, unfortunately, are on the wrong side of the divide.

“There is a big gap between the Christy Ring Cup and the championship proper. Even in Leinster you have a round robin series and then when the winner of that comes up against one of the bigger teams like Galway or Kilkenny, they are getting hammered and nobody is benefiting from that.”

Kerry first reached the Christy Ring decider in 2010, losing narrowly to Westmeath, before redemption was achieved 12 months later. That said, following the disappointment of last year — the team failed to garner a single victory — many of the players and manager John Meyler called it a day.

“Of the team that lined out in the 2011 Christy Ring final win, only six are still involved. None of the six backs are still playing so we have a completely new defence.

“The attrition of players is quite high. Emigration has been a big factor and added to that, we’ve lost the likes of Shane Brick and Mikey Conway through injury.”

Consequently, when Howard entered the fray late last year, he faced a rebuilding process, but one he took to with no little vigour. To assist in harnessing the raw potential within the squad, Howard secured the services of fellow Clare man Fergie O’Loughlin, brother to Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin. Mind you, Down aren’t without their household names either — Waterford’s Paul Flynn thus far enjoying a successful first term as team coach.

Howard doesn’t play down the importance of the meeting with the northerners, but realises there is a bigger picture at hand, beyond today, beyond the Kerry senior set-up.

A juvenile club was formed this year in Tralee and in the development of Kerry hurling, it represents a giant leap forward.

“It is an incremental step to Kerry hurling. Tralee is such a populated area and to get hurling going in the town is hugely important. It is vital that we now get hurling going in the schools and colleges in Tralee.”

It goes without saying that with just eight clubs employing the small ball game in the Kingdom, the player pool is small, “very small,” quips Howard.

“The hurling community of Kerry is located within a 15 mile radius. It needs to be expanded. There are a lot of people doing a lot of positive things, but more needs to be done however, if we want to aspire to play in the Munster championship.”

Short term success is well and good, but Howard is looking further down the line, advocating the planting of seeds that will yield rich dividends in five to 10 years’ time so that the county can one day be a real force.

The manager’s realistic approach is as refreshing as the pockets of support on view in North Kerry. Blended together, a vibrant future for Kerry hurling is much more than a pipe dream.

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