It is unusual to find a team heading into a provincial club fixture having not played championship in seven weeks. Then again, it is an unusual position Austin Stacks find themselves in.
The Tralee outfit travel to Leeside tomorrow for a Munster club semi-final against Nemo Rangers. They do so not as Kerry county champions, but rather Kerry club champions — a title they annexed all of seven and a half months ago.
The club championship is a secondary competition for senior clubs in the Kingdom, but written in rule is that its winners represent the county in the event that a club team does not triumph in the county championship, as was the case last weekend when David Clifford’s East Kerry whacked four-in-a-row-chasing Dr Crokes.
Needless to point out, Austin Stacks are incredibly thankful to be afforded this opportunity so late in a season which had as many troughs as it had peaks. What must also be noted, however, is that Stacks are way behind the eight ball.
Their opponents arrive into this fixture off the back of decent wins over St Finbarr’s, Douglas, Duhallow, and Newcastlewest. The first of those victories was ground out on the same weekend — September 28/29 — that Austin Stacks were dumped out of the Kerry County Championship. In the intervening seven weeks, while Nemo were busy putting away the club’s 21st Cork SFC title and moving within one hour of a 19th Munster final appearance, Stacks played a single county league game — that a 4-15 to 1-6 hammering of St Mary’s last Saturday.
They are also without cruciate victims Conor Jordan and Greg Horan, as well as 2016 All-Ireland minor medal winner Ferdia O’Brien.
Manager Wayne Quillinan, though, is confident his players will rise to the challenge.
“I’ve a great group of players. The bigger the game, the more fellas become focused. And it doesn’t get much bigger than a Munster semi-final against Nemo.”
Surely, there has to be an element of Stacks wanting to atone for their failure to win a single county championship game in 2019? Managing just six points first time out against Dingle, the Tralee men exited the race for the Bishop Moynihan Cup when hit for 3-13 by East Kerry, a game where Stacks failed to score for 23 minutes of the opening half.
“This weekend is not about redemption. That’s not the word I’d use. It is a case of us wanting to prove to ourselves that we are better than we showed in the county championship as there was obvious disappointment at how that went. We want to avail of the chance we’ve been given.
“We’ve put a hell of a lot of work into this team. Two years ago, this team was in Division 2 of the county league. Winning the senior club was a massive stepping stone for us because this team is in transition. This is a very, very young side and when we got back together a couple of weeks ago, we just felt this could be a huge opportunity for ourselves.”
By comparison with their opponents’ busy schedule of late, Quillinan reckons the three weeks off he gave his players following their county championship elimination has served them well.
“That downtime would have done the lads the world of good. It would have been good for the mind, more so than anything else.
“As the championship went on, the possibility of us representing Kerry did begin to grow, particularly when they got to the semis and three of the four teams were divisional sides. We got together around then to say, look, we’ll up the work we are doing a small bit. Good and all as Crokes are, it is still hard to beat two divisional sides on the way to the county title. And then last Sunday, it came to reality that we’d be representing Kerry.”
Quillinan sees it as inevitable that teams in Kerry will invest far greater time and energy in the club championship next year than would have been the case in campaigns gone. With champions East Kerry gaining Shane Ryan and Paul Murphy for 2020, not forgetting fellow Kerry senior Dara Moynihan who missed the concluding stages of this year’s county championship because of injury, the easier route to Munster involvement may well prove through the club championship.
“I think teams will put more into the club championship, you couldn’t say otherwise. Bar Jack Sherwood, everyone else on that East Kerry team is under 24. But even though they are young, you are talking about a team that has a pile of experience. Then you add into the mix Shane Ryan and Paul Murphy.
“It will take a massive, massive effort to beat East Kerry over the next couple of years. Clubs will put greater emphasis and focus on the club championship. They’ll have to. They’ll see the situation we are in for having won the Kerry club championship. That will focus clubs more on the club championship.”