East Kerry’s winning culture at minor and U21 level has been a key ingredient in the division’s flagship team reaching the Kerry SFC decider, according to manager Jerry O’Sullivan.
East Kerry will attempt to thwart Dr Crokes’ four-in-a-row bid at Austin Stack Park on Sunday (3pm), in what will be the division’s first county final appearance in 20 years. That 1999 decider ended with East Kerry celebrating a third consecutive final victory. And although success at senior level has since dried up, an East Kerry three-in-a-row did materialise at minor level as recent as last year.
All told, the division has been cleaning up at underage these past few years. There have been five county minor titles this decade. 2019 alone has seen a fourth consecutive minor crown captured, as well as back-to-back success at U21 level.
Sunday, hence, provides the opportunity for a clean sweep of minor, U21, and senior county titles.
From the starting team which overcame St Brendan’s in the senior semi-final at the end of last month, Chris O’Donoghue (Glenflesk), Niall Donohue (Firies), and Evan Cronin (Spa) backboned last year’s all-conquering U21 side.
Niall McCarthy of Spa was used off the bench last time out. He kicked 0-3 in this year’s U21 final demolition of Feale Rangers. Fellow senior panellists Mark Kelliher, Ian Roche, David Spillane, and Jake Flynn were also part of this year’s U21 team. Pa Warren of Gneeveguilla, who has been operating at half-back en route to Sunday’s final, was part of the 2016 and 17 minor classes which achieved county glory.
In essence, the younger members of Jerry O’Sullivan’s group are no strangers to county final afternoon and, more pertinently, have plenty of experience in getting the job done when there is silverware at stake.
What has most struck the East Kerry manager is how relaxed these younger players are: “The underage success is a bonus and, look, if you’re experienced enough, you’re old enough, or whatever the saying is,” said O’Sullivan.
“These guys, they know how to win, whether it’s at schools level (St Brendan’s Killarney won the Hogan Cup in 2016 and ‘17), underage level with East Kerry, or at minor level with Kerry.
“I’d know myself from playing that just before a game you’d be half nervous, but I’d be looking at these guys and they are jovial [beforehand]. You’d be kind of saying to yourself, are these fellas ready for a game at all. It’s something I’ve noticed. The culture has changed.”
East Kerry went as far as the semi-finals last year. The 2018 team bears little resemblance to the 15 who will march behind the band this weekend, however, given Kilcummin’s promotion to the senior ranks robbed O’Sullivan of one-third of last year’s starting team.
Moulding a new side was relatively easy, the manager admitted.
“We always knew we had the players in East Kerry. We were missing a few from last year but a number of the younger players are a year older and have that extra bit of experience.
“Now, you still have to go out, ask players do they want to be involved, and you must still get that commitment from the players that they are ready to train when their clubs are finished. But I have to say that this bunch of lads have been exceptional. You just tell them when training is on and they will show up to a man without excuses. They have been excellent so that makes my job easy.
“I know them from the U21s and they know me so it works well. They know what we expect off of them and, to be fair, they have delivered in spades. There is a great buzz about them. They are full of life. They play like friends would in a club set-up, so that all helps. I am delighted for them that they are in a final and hoping now that we can complete the job.”
On the challenge in front of them, the manager added:
“Since East Kerry won it last in 1999, Crokes have won it eight times and contested eleven finals. They’ve been All-Ireland club champions too. You cannot argue with those stats. They are the club side all others strive to match.”