The Kieran Shannon interview
All-Ireland winner Bryan Sheehan on learning the art of free-taking from Maurice Fitzgerald and why Kerry football is in a good place, despite the exodus of its All-Ireland winning stars.
Bryan Sheehan’s about the only past Kerry player who hasn’t been asked about David Gough’s suitability to referee this year’s All-Ireland final, yet, inadvertently, he played a role in that melodrama.
Much of the ire, or at least scepticism, within Kerry, stems from the concluding stages of the epic 2016 All Ireland football semi-final between Kerry and Dublin.
With Kerry trailing by a point, Peter Crowley took a pop pass from Sheehan, only for Kevin McManamon to clatter into Crowley, sending man and ball flailing.
Gough, unsighted, let play go on, allowing McManamon to pounce on the loose ball and initiate a Dublin attack, which ended with Diarmuid Connolly kicking the insurance point.
Having watched it again, it was a clear foul: McManamon’s ferocious challenge was more shoulder to head than shoulder to shoulder. But any free would have been at least 43 yards out from Stephen Cluxton’s goal.
How many free-takers would score more often than they’d miss from that range? Three, maybe five, tops. Yet, in Kerry, the perception has always been that it would have been a gimme for Sheehan, their free-taker.
They are indignant because they assume Sheehan would have nailed it; Sheehan would have levelled it. Just like Maurice did against the Dubs as well, in Thurles, 15 years earlier.
As it happens, Sheehan had a small part to play in that slice of football folklore, which sealed Fitzgerald’s legend.
His club is St Mary’s, as it is Maurice’s; Dr Con Keating Park is his favourite refuge and haunt; as it is Maurice’s. In the summer of 2001, a 15-year-old Sheehan was playing for the Kerry minors, in goals, because no other player had a kickout that boomed like his.
The Tuesday before the seniors travelled to Tipp, Maurice rang the Sheehan landline. Could Bryan come down to the field that evening?
“So, I went down to the field for a kick with Maurice,” says Sheehan.
I practised my kickouts and he fielded out in the middle of the field, playing the odd one-two with Kieran [McCarthy, the Bundini to Fitzgerald’s Ali] and kicking a point. Then, he might have moved in, taking shots on me, so I’d get some shot-stopping in.
The next day, we headed off on a family holiday; back then, there was no All-Ireland minor quarter-final, so there was a big gap between the Munster final and the All-Ireland semi-final.
“And there was no Twitter. So we rang my uncle at home and he told my father that the game had ended in a draw, that Maurice came on and kicked a screamer from the sideline.
“When we came home, I watched the video of the game. And I turned around to the father and said, ‘He did that below in the field last Tuesday.’
“He kicked one on the far sideline with his left, as well. I was Davy Byrne [the Dublin goalkeeper, helplessly finger-tipping the top of the crossbar].
“Maurice didn’t just decide below in Thurles, ‘Sure, I’ll try kicking this.’ I don’t think people realised the work he put in. Nearly every lunchtime, he’d head from work down to the field to get some kicking in.
“That’s probably the biggest thing I took from Maurice: the amount of work you have to do.”
Dr Con Keating Park, where you can hear, see, and smell the Atlantic crashing against the coast, is one of those anomalous places that produce a disproportionate amount of sporting talent.
Just as the Great Drift Valley, in Kenya, churns out brilliant long-distance runners, and just as the small Caribbean island of Curacao produces more major league baseball players per capita than anywhere else on Earth, one small football pitch in south Kerry has an astonishing record of grooming some of the greatest dead-ball specialists and complete footballers to ever kick an O’Neill’s.
Mick O’Connell and Mick O’Dwyer used to regularly retreat to the Cahirciveen pitch to hone their kicking, with a young local, called Jack O’Shea, happy to retrieve every ball for them.
A decade on, Jacko had a ball boy of his own, one Maurice Fitzgerald. Sheehan was more than willing to follow in every aspect of that lineage.
“When I was five or six, my father, John, was still playing for the club, so I’d tag along. And he’d always be saying to me, ‘Look out for this lad, Maurice Fitz.’ So I’d watch Maurice and see him kicking frees. Then, I’d go home and be kicking ball in the hallway. ‘And it’s a goal for Kerry! Maurice Fitzgerald!’
“I was about 10 or 11 when I started putting the ball on the ground. Just at home, in the back lawn. I thought I was far out, but looking back, it was only 13 yards. So I’d put it down and try to kick it over the bar.
“I’d keep going until I got three in a row, then I’d go back another five yards and see if I could kick it over the bar again. And it just progressed. The lawn was, maybe, 30 yards long and, all of a sudden, I couldn’t go back any further.”
By 14, he was scoring 45s, his first in an U16 game against the Legion, up in Killarney. Mastering the art of the deadball had become an obsession.
He’d study Trevor Giles, Colin Corkery: how were they able to put bend on the ball? But more than anything else, when he wasn’t practising, he’d observe Maurice down in the local field. Inspiration. Routine. Technique. Maurice provided it all.
“I’d stand the same way as him. He’d have his hands on his hips when he was addressing the ball. I still do that to this day. I watched his follow-through. His leg didn’t stop after making contact with the ball. His leg was always extending, like a golf club.”
It was a constant process of small failures, adjustments, and private triumphs.
“At first, I was just trying to get the ball in the air. Initially, it might only go straight. Then, as I got older, I’d try to put spin on the ball. I might hit a ball and it’d trickle on the ground and I’d say, ‘Well, why did that happen? Oh, I hit it too high up.’ Or, I might have hit it with the tip of my toe.
My sweet spot was the big metatarsal of my toe and the inside of the laces of my boot. If I hit it there, it was going to bend. It just came with constant kicking. I loved it. Every day, I’d come home from school and go straight out kicking.
The distance came from playing in goal; Sheehan played three years for the Kerry minors, but it was only in his last season that he played out the field. Such a career trajectory helped his kicking. In those primitive, pre-Cluxton days, a goalkeeper’s job was to kick the ball out as high and as long as possible.
“You’d to really put your foot through the ball to get that height on it. And I learned I had to strike the ball higher up to get more distance on it. If I caught it too low, it was only going to go in the air,” Sheehan says.
No-one had greater range than him. A quick search on YouTube throws up two outrageous bombs he landed from well beyond the 65m line, in a 2009 county final for South Kerry against Dr Crokes.
On the commentary, the late, great Weeshie Fogarty proclaims that, in over 50 years of attending matches in Fitzgerald Stadium, he’s never seen anyone kick a score from that distance.
That wasn’t what Sheehan prided himself on: for him, it was always about the consistent, not the spectacular. That’s why he never took a free from out of the hand: dropping the ball onto the foot brought too many actions and variables into play.
(“Michael Murphy is a great kicker — there’s no forcing the kick with him — but I don’t know why he takes some kicks from the hand.”) Striking off the ground involved just the one movement: boot meets ball.
The week of any championship match, Sheehan would get in two kicking sessions on his own in Keating Park, the last on a Saturday if it was a game in Munster, or the Friday if it was above in Croke Park. Whichever arena it was, one thing was constant.
“People go on about visualisation for something like kicking a free. Whenever I had a big pressure kick in Killarney or Croke Park, I’d always think, ‘I’m back in Con Keating Park. I’m down, now, in my own home pitch.’ It’s where I grew up. I know every blade of it. It has always felt like home.”
Some scenarios were still unique to Croker. But always the student, Sheehan learned how to cope.
“It’s rare in Croke Park that there’s a direct wind up and down the field. The wind swirls around the place. You could pick up a blade of grass, kicking into Hill 16, and the wind would blow towards the corner flag in the Cusack Stand side and loop around again.
“But I remember my first two years on the panel, Dara Ó Cinnéide used to always tell me, ‘Don’t be fooled by the wind up there. Regardless of what way it’s blowing, always aim for the outside of the back post.’
“In the warm-up before the 2014 final [against Donegal], I pulled two frees to the near post. Gooch was alongside me and I said to him, ‘God, that wind is tricky.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, there’s a nice breeze there all right. Just let it off to the outside of the post.’
“When I came on then, I had a ’45 into that same Hill side. I was, ‘Right, I was here just over an hour ago. I know this ball needs to be put well outside the post.’ And, thankfully, I did. So you learn these things, from experience and from the likes of [Ó] Cinnéide.”
Now, the free-taking baton has been passed on to Seán O’Shea, whose first year on the county panel coincided with Sheehan’s last. Sheehan saw enough in that 2017 season, as well as since, to know the baton is in safe hands.
“I was in the Hogan Stand the last day for the Tyrone game, on the 45-metre line, and Seán was kicking a free in front of me and I thought, ‘God, what I wouldn’t do to be down there, taking that.’ But, of course, he nailed it. He’s a tremendous striker of the ball.
“He’s lucky, in a way, that he’s come along at the same time as David Clifford. All the talk is about David, but I think Seán is every bit as good. It’s very like how it was when Declan [O’Sullivan] and Gooch came onto the scene within a year of one another.
“Everything I won outside of with my club was with Declan — Kerry, South Kerry, Corn Uí Mhuirís with Coláiste na Sceilge. He was a fantastic footballer. And to me, Seán O’Shea is the next Declan O’Sullivan.”
It doesn’t surprise Sheehan that O’Shea is especially thriving under his current coach. Just as with O’Shea, Sheehan spent only one, but very telling, season in the same dressing room as Peter Keane.
For the 2010-2011 season, Keane coached his home club to an All Ireland junior title.
“For me, he was a coach as much as a manager. If something didn’t go well in a certain game, he’d come into training the next night with the stats to highlight and a drill or game to rectify it.
“We got cleaned out in the south Kerry final in breaking ball and he had a stat where our forwards turned over just one ball. So, the next night, in training, he went working on kickouts and getting fellas under the breaking ball and our forwards tackling.”
Keane would use more than stats to illustrate his point. Sheehan will vouch that the St Mary’s players were subjected to some of the same droll wit that Keane now routinely dishes out to the media.
“With the club, we’d have this lad called Aidan Walsh. Tall, great pair of hands, and an absolute speed merchant. But Peter wanted him to stop carrying the ball from our half-back line the whole length of the field. So one night, Aidan took off again on a run and Peter said, ‘Stop’ and called everyone in.
“He said, ‘Okay, Aido, I want you take off from the 45 and sprint to the end line there and we’ll time you.’ So Aidan took off and Peter was timing him. ‘One, two… Well done, Aido, that’s great. Now, do you think you can beat that time? Do you want to do it again?’
So, Aido gets his breath back, then goes again. Same thing. ‘That’s mighty, Aido, fair play. Want one last go?’
So Aido goes, ‘Yeah’, takes off, when, next thing, Peter gets a ball and boots it over Aido’s head and out over the endline.
He calls Aido back in. ‘What did you learn?’ Aido: ‘The ball travels quicker than I can.’
“I thought it was brilliant. He was basically telling Aido, ‘Yes, you’re fast, but kick it inside and you can run again and come onto the pass.’
“I’m not saying he’s done the same inside [Kerry training] with Stephen O’Brien, but he has that way of getting his message across to players, especially younger fellas.”
The last time Kerry faced Dublin in championship, three years ago, it was a veteran-dominated environment: Marc, Mahony, Maher, Donaghy, Donnchadh, Darran, Gooch, Sheehan himself. Now, they’re all gone, which Sheehan feels has probably helped Keane and the kids. It’s their place, their time, now.
“My last year  with Kerry, it would hit you even going for a night-out, ‘God, they’re all so young!’ I remember picking up a programme and seeing Seán O’Shea was born in 1997. And I remember thinking: God almighty, that’s what it must have been like for Dara Ó Cinnéide and Johnny Crowley, when I came in. ‘Jesus, here comes another 18-year-old’.”
He saw a lot change in his 15 years in that dressing room.
“In the early days, everyone seemed to be a guard, a teacher, or working in the bank. Now, you have pharmacists [Peter Crowley], engineers [Jack Sherwood], accountants [David Moran, Paul Murphy]…”
Sheehan is a quantity surveyor, and now that he doesn’t have to be in Currans or Killarney three times a week, he’s the procurement manager for all of northern Europe for the German company, Enercon, overseeing the construction of their wind turbines.
Yet home is where the heart still is. Although most of his work is in an office in Tralee, twice a day he’ll make the hour-long journey to Caherciveen, where he lives with his wife, Ita, and 18-month-old son, Donagh.
Yet for all his love for South Kerry and for all he’s won with them — Maurice Fitzgerald has called him the greatest county championship player in Kerry history, on account of the five county championship medals he won, to go with his five All-Irelands — Sheehan is concerned about whether Donagh’s generation will be able to live locally.
“There’s nothing down in Caherciveen to keep people employed there, so they have to move away. In April, when the club championship is being run off here, every club in south Kerry has to train in Tralee or Killarney, because they have players working or studying in Cork or Limerick.
“This year, [St Mary’s] have often had just 16, 17 players for games. All our underage teams are amalgamations with Renard — and we’re a town club.
“I could be wrong and I hope I am, but I fear a time is going to come where clubs won’t be able to field their own senior teams, that you’ll have two or three adult teams for all of south Kerry.”
He’ll be part of the fight to keep and bring jobs and life to the area. He knows its potential and sees how a town like Dingle is so vibrant and well-promoted.
South Kerry, with a hub like Caherciveen, could do something similar, especially if the greenway cycle along the old railway track from Glenbeigh finally got off the ground. “When the weather is good, there’s no better place on Earth to be.”
And it will always have Dr Con Keating Park, his favourite place. The next Bryan Sheehan has yet to announce himself locally, but then his influence stretches beyond the town’s bridge. Seán O’Shea was reared on going to Kerry games with Sheehan as their primary free-taker.
And a couple of years ago, coming out of a Munster final in Fitzgerald Stadium, Sheehan met Seamus Moynihan with his wife and son.
“Seamo said, ‘This lad here is a big fan of yours. He’s always out the back garden, kicking frees, thinking he’s Bryan Sheehan.’ To be honest, I was a bit embarrassed. I was there thinking, ‘God, does that lad not know his father was one of the best footballers who ever played?’
“But sure he wouldn’t have seen Seamo play. I suppose we’re lucky in Kerry that there’s always players for the next generation to look up to.”
The legacy continues. As does the honour of having been part of it.