Kerry hurler Mikey Boyle’s young son, Bobby, wanted a Galway gearbag for Christmas as Joe Canning is one of his favourite players. Instead of the gearbag, Kerry boss Fintan O’Connor is hopeful Bobby will be able to meet the five-time All-Star in the flesh when the league resumes next spring.
Such a pairing is by no means out of the question as the new look top-flight league fare in 2020 is the prize on offer for the winner of tomorrow’s Division 2A decider between the Kingdom and Meath. Tomorrow’s champions will find themselves in a group next spring with the counties who finish first and fourth in this year’s Division 1A, the winner of the relegation playoff and the second and third-placed teams in Division 1B.
From that viewpoint, victory tomorrow is essential for Kerry, particularly when you consider their path to top tier championship hurling is far trickier than that of opponents Westmeath. Joe McDonagh Cup success for Joe Quaid’s Westmeath will parachute the Lake County into the 2020 Leinster championship, but, for Kerry, the same piece of silverware only guarantees them a promotion/relegation play-off against the bottom-placed team in Munster. “Getting up to that top level makes it far more attractive for lads to stay with Kerry,” said O’Connor.
“Get promoted and you are going back training in October/November to prepare for Kilkenny and the likes the following spring. That would give the whole set-up a new freshness. Everyone loves a challenge and it would be nice to bring Kerry hurling to a place where the top teams are visiting Tralee and Killarney next year. There are a lot of youngsters playing hurling in Kerry and it would be nice to expose them to their heroes that they see on television all the time. Mikey Boyle’s young fella Bobby was looking for a Galway bag for Christmas because he loves Joe Canning. It’d be nice to bring him to a game in Kerry where Galway are playing.
Limerick coming down before Christmas for the Munster SHL league was a massive plus, and we had a good crowd in Tralee for the game.
"There was a load of Kerry kids at it and they met Declan Hanlon and a few more of their heroes afterwards. That’s a really good way of marketing and selling the Kerry hurling product.”
Getting up to that top level will also lessen the talk of “Shane Conway has to go and play with Cork or Shane Conway has to go and play somewhere to advance Shane Conway,” O’Connor continues.
Twenty-year-old Conway, an integral part of O’Connor’s set-up, was a leading figure throughout UCC’s run to a 39th Fitzgibbon Cup crown, scoring 0-38 (0-27 from the placed ball) across their six outings. The conversation which arose from a young Lixnaw man tearing it up on the Fitzgibbon scene shows that Kerry have still a way to go before earning the full respect of the hurling community in the established counties.
“You want your best fellas staying and the minute we produce a fella like Shane Conway, the first thing you hear is, ‘he’ll surely go and play in Cork’. Getting up to the higher level will encourage lads to stay around. When you see Darragh O’Connell playing with Dublin and you know he could be playing with Kerry, it is bittersweet. It does become a harder sell when they move away.
“Shane doesn’t need the hassle of someone saying to him, ‘are you moving here or there?’ He is a proud Lixnaw and Kerry man. That he brought all his UCC teammates down to Lixnaw on the Monday after their final win speaks volumes of what he thinks of his locality. We want to keep Shane and all our hurlers happy. And playing at the top level is important in that regard.”
What O’Connor sees as imperative in bridging the gap to the top tier is more Kerry hurlers being exposed to the Fitzgibbon Cup. Conway was very much the exception rather than the rule and while Crotta’s Barry Mahony, who will captain Limerick IT in next week’s All-Ireland Freshers hurling final, is following in Conway’s footsteps, the talented young dual player has opted to throw his lot in with the Kerry U20 footballers this year.
“Limerick, Kilkenny, Cork and Clare had so many hurlers playing Fitzgibbon every Wednesday. From our side, everyone was going on about Shane. He was the one Kerry lad playing consistently at that level. That’s the gap I would see,” notes O’Connor.
“Even Westmeath had a couple playing with DCU, the same with Carlow having a few on the IT Carlow team. That is the challenge, to get lads playing at a higher level. Definitely, getting up to Division 1, could we manage it, will help us in that regard.”