Kerry’s golden years team always had a streak of black and amber to it.
When Mick O’Dwyer’s side rolled over all comers in the 70s and 80s Austin Stacks contributed manpower and expertise: John O’Keeffe, Mikey Sheehy, Ger Power and Ger O’Keeffe were cornerstones of the team and brought plenty of All-Ireland medals back to their Rock Street clubhouse. With that kind of backstory, a time-traveller wouldn’t be surprised to hear they line out against The Nire of Waterford in tomorrow’s Munster club final.
He might be taken aback that they’ve just come out of a two-decade drought without a county title, though. Ger O’Keeffe points to various contributing factors, from natural attrition to specific demographics.
“It’s a surprise to be so long without winning the Kerry championship,” says the former Kerry selector.
“We were generating a considerable amount of quality footballers at underage level, but we were losing them from the age of 16, 17, 18 onwards – like a lot of clubs.
“There seems to be a general problem with young fellas once they go to that age where they head to university or get jobs – certainly we lost a pile of players in that way over the years.”
Developments in the North Kerry area didn’t help them. O’Keeffe points to the changing face of Tralee. Where there used to be three clubs, Na Gaeil came into the Oakpark area of Tralee, which was a mainstay of the Stacks teams back in the seventies.
“That made a difference, but it doesn’t just apply to Stacks – St Patrick’s of Blennerville would be taking players from Kerins O’Rahilly’s, while you have the likes of Ballymac drawing players as well.
“There’d be a sense of people moving out of the town of Tralee and of that having a knock-on effect on the main clubs in the town, because their base was not increasing. The amount of area they were drawing from wasn’t getting any bigger either.”
They mined what quality they could and turned up a sparkling gem in the current Kerry full-forward. O’Keeffe agrees that having a prominent county player is a huge asset to a club: “Particularly a player like Kieran (Donaghy), who’s very influential throughout the club.
“When I was playing there were five or six of us on the Kerry team, and that was detrimental in one sense, because when Kerry were so successful the club wasn’t as successful as it might have been.
“We only won one Munster club championship, one All-Ireland club championship – we came up against some fantastic Nemo teams in Munster, and Thomond College tripped us up a couple of times when they were a league of nations team.
Donaghy’s extraordinary late-season renaissance has energised the entire club, says O’Keeffe.
“Nowadays having county players on your club team is a huge benefit, and Kieran is the perfect example of that. As he’s risen, he’s carried the club along with his exuberance and euphoria. If you look at the Munster final in Cork, he didn’t play any part, and in the All-Ireland semi-final, the first day against Mayo the management probably felt they had nothing to lose and threw him on, and suddenly Kerry end up winning an All-Ireland.”
O’Keeffe also points out that the gregarious, outgoing Donaghy is suited to that role of figurehead: “He’s been superb for the club as a role model – he’s brought the young lads along with him and they seem to be rising to the occasion. When he plays well the club plays well.
At present Stacks are fundraising to buy land, so the spotlight is welcome. O’Keeffe says they’re determined to make the most of their success on and off the field: they’ve waited long enough for another county title and they know opportunities have to be seized. There’s a sense they might have achieved more at club level when their big names were visiting Croke Park every September.
“We’re hoping to run a corporate lunch to raise funds early in the new year, while the club is going well we want to strike while the iron is hot and advance matters.
“Look, obviously if you’re successful – if the club were to progress in the All-Ireland series after tomorrow, say – you’d be hoping that parents would think, ‘well, we’ll send our kids down there’.
That’s only natural when a club is going well, it happened to Kerins O’Rahillys when they were going well, the same with John Mitchels.
“The unfortunate thing was when Kerry were successful back in the seventies that there were nearly too many Stacks players on the selection, because you were trying to serve two masters, and the club probably didn’t win as much as it could have.
“That’s different now. The training and preparations are both more structured, and so is the social aspect, by the way. It was very social years ago, particularly at club level. Fellas are certainly entitled to celebrate, of course they are, but when you have momentum as a team it’s important to maintain that.
“Stacks built that momentum with the games coming close together this year in the county championship, the players really saw it as an opportunity and responded accordingly.
“One thing about the break over Christmas before the All-Ireland series is that it seems to have had an effect on a lot of teams, that it breaks their momentum. Certainly Dr Crokes haven’t been as good after Christmas in their All-Ireland campaigns as before Christmas.
“To me running off the club campaigns in the calendar year would make more sense. Hopefully on Sunday we’ll be thinking ahead about that.
2013: Dr Crokes (Kerry)
2012: Dr Crokes (Kerry)
2011: Dr Crokes (Kerry)
2010: Nemo Rangers (Cork)
2009: Kilmurry-Ibrickane (Clare)