My wife and I have three kids, a two-year old girl who runs the show, and twin boys who are four-years-old, which has meant Saturday morning U6 training sessions have become a bit of a ritual for the whole family to enjoy. They’ve started on the ladder, are pressure free and having fun, which is all we care about for now.
Barry John Keane is a clubmate of mine with Kerins O’Rahillys, and is plying his trade at the opposite end of the footballing spectrum to my two small men. He started at corner forward last Sunday for Kerry, which relegated reigning footballer of the year James O’Donoghue to kicking his heels on the bench… no pressure there.
He’s the young lad with the bad haircut and sleeve of tattoos that you might recall knocked the ball off Paul Durkin’s tee, denying him a quick kick-out, in the final tension filled minutes of last year’s All-Ireland victory over Donegal. He subsequently took a hammering for that apparent lack of sportsmanship. Fair enough, it looked bad, but I know him to be a good kid, whose life revolves around his football.
His parents Dave and Kayrena just happened to be walking into Semple Stadium 10 yards ahead of me last weekend, and they looked under more pressure than some of the stewards who were frantically trying to ready the old stand for the unexpected crowd. I kept my eye on the two of them to see what had them rattled. Ok, I suppose I was bored, the game was delayed, the players were gone back into the dressing rooms and they had sold out of match programmes.
Barry John is a grandson of the legendary Kerry footballer of the 1950s; John Dowling, and is a guy who is under the constant pressure of a deep sea diver to prove his worth every time he takes the field for Kerry. He’s one of those players right on the bubble, who needs to be absolutely flawless to receive even crumbs of praise from the terrace mafia. But I never really thought of how it affected the rest of his clan, or family members of any other players for that matter, until last Sunday.
First, his mom and dad separated into different sections of the stand - like two good half-backs splitting for a quick kick-out - the tension too great to be in close proximity to each other - and this was only a Munster semi-final. Kayrena went and sat in a quiet spot down in the front of the stand, while Dave stood like a sentry, leaning against a pole for the entire game, kicking every ball and making every run with his son.
By the 11th minute of the game, no Kerry forward had gained a single possession of the ball. Not one. It was like Brendan Kealy was kicking the ball off a wall it was coming back at him so quickly. Kerry trailed 1-1 to 0-0 and Anthony Maher and Bryan Sheehan were being overwhelmed by the power of Tipperary’s middle men, who were feeding off the energy and excitement that was bursting out of the stands.
Around that time, a Kerry supporter behind me started bellowing to take off Barry John Keane. Eleven minutes in. He seemed like a reasonable enough character, so out of pure curiosity, I leaned back during the next break in play to politely ask him if he could explain his logic for wanting to take off a corner forward when we hadn’t yet got a ball past the half way line?
I should have known better.
But I instantly understood the reasoning for Dave and Kayrena to occupy the more sparsely populated sections of the old stand. And also gave myself a frightening glimpse of what I put my poor mother and father through for years, along with a flash forward to my own potential future of going to watch my kids playing games at any level.
By the time Kerry awoke from their slumber, Tipp were in full flow. And but for a lack of cutting edge quality in the final third, the Premier county should have been far more ahead. A combined 18 missed opportunities was never going to be good enough to cause the upset.
They began in a whirlwind, attacking a very frail-looking Kerry defence with direct running and it looked as if they might continue striding downhill right over the top of us.
But championship experience is invaluable, and coupled with the confidence of Celtic crosses and a high footballing intelligence, Kerry were able to take affirmative action during that first half and not wait on Eamon Fitzmaurice to make adjustments at the break. They began flooding bodies back inside their defensive 45, and subsequently took the sting out of the Tipperary running attack. As soon as Tipp lost their stranglehold around the middle, their race was run.
The most impressive aspect of the turnaround for me, was the ability of the players out on the field to identify and solve the problems that Tipp were posing themselves. Kerry had the leaders, the guile, and the knowhow. And it showed what a high level of autonomy exists within the Kerry camp - the players own the process.
Bryan Sheehan thundered into the game and along with Maher and Jonathan Lyne turned the contest back in Kerry’s favour.
Tipperary fought to the bitter end, but Kerry decided to beat the traffic and were half way back down the motorway by the time the final whistle blew.
I’m sure Tipperary will be bitterly disappointed in their third quarter display, which allowed Kerry ease away and make the game comfortable. Sure, they asked the champions some hard questions in the first 35, but were unable to sustain that effort for 70 hard minutes.
In the cold light of day, a six-point defeat will be seen as progress from the 17-point humiliation they suffered in Killarney two years ago, but that will be scant consolation for Peter Creedon and his charges who made no secret of their belief in themselves to get even closer to the champions.
Barry John Keane was Kerry’s best forward on the day. He finished his 45 minutes or so with 1-1, but it was his energetic running that provided Kerry with a shot of espresso to shake them from their early attacking slumber.
I’m sure he, and every other player who puts on any county jersey, feels a huge pressure to perform, but I bet they are as oblivious - as I was - to the tumble-dryer of emotions they put their parents and family though every time they cross the white line.