Half a glance at the match programme for West Kerry’s defeat of Austin Stacks in the Kerry SFC quarter-final confirmed one of the most remarkable resurgences of a small GAA club in recent times.
Three years ago the Gaeltacht club was 60 minutes from plummeting to Division 4 of the county league, a seemingly stunning fall from grace for a club that appeared in an All-Ireland senior club final in Croke Park only a decade previous.
But stunning only if one conveniently bypasses the logistical and societal issues it faces in its remoteness.
So rate these increments on the basis of how much your eyebrows arch: That Gaeltacht provided 12 of the starting 15 for the division against Austin Stacks, that they are second only to Dr Crokes now in Division One of the Co League, or that they are now 60 minutes away from a return to the senior championship themselves, with an IFC final against Templenoe slated for October 29?
In some respects, it would be easy for the 15 Gaeltacht players on the West Kerry panel for tomorrow’s Kerry SFC semi-final against, yes Dr Crokes, to treat it as a freebie of sorts.
“Club is king,” acknowledges West Kerry manager, Paul Quinn and he should know. A son of Ceann Tra, he was Darragh Ó Sé’s midfield sidekick in the glory years and has been in charge of the Gaeltacht for the past three seasons, overseeing rapid progress in each once they’d survived that doomsday in 2014 against Keel with Division 4 beckoning.
Now he’s West Kerry manager. The brand isn’t what it once was, when Páidí Ó Sé brought the canister over Blennerville Bridge in 1984 and 1985, promoting local captaincy of the Kingdom for Ó Sé himself and Tommy Doyle in All-Ireland winning campaigns afterwards. Dingle are now a senior force themselves, and truth to tell, if Gaeltacht win the intermediate final, the remaining units in the division – Lispole, Castlegregory and Annascaul – won’t amount to a whole lot. For the moment though the only tomorrow Quinn is concerning himself with is the one that follows today.
“We are trying to win a county. The players seem to have bought into the West Kerry brand again this year and it’s something I’m not exploring too deeply in terms of reasons. I’m just glad it’s there.”
Unquestionably, Gaeltacht’s resurgence is the engine driving progress. The convenient narrative is that an exceptional crop from the club has bloomed, and there’s a degree of fact in that. But Quinn argues that the notion Gaeltacht stopped producing talent is a fallacy.
Honing it was the key.
“When Pobal Scoil (Corca Dhuibhne) were winning all those Corn Uí Mhuiris and Hogan Cups (All-Ireland SFC Colleges), there was a perception that the team was primarily Dingle, but it was actually a 50-50 contribution with the Gaeltacht. There were exceptional youngsters from both clubs but the Gaeltacht lads went under the radar because Dingle were senior and Division 1.
“We were down in Division 3 competing with these 17 and 18-year-olds. We’d won a county minor in 2011, lost a final to East Kerry in 2014 and have secured two promotions since.”
Importantly from a psychological point of view, they also defeated Dingle in the West Kerry championship final in 2015.
And the Gaeltacht club provided six members of the Kerry junior panel that won an All-Ireland against Meath in Portlaoise in August.
That’s a decent-sized group to be setting standards. The smell of success is there again.
“Maybe it’s for private, selfish, motivation but they seem to have a huge desire to play senior county championship. Whether they want to put themselves in the shop window for Kerry I don’t know, but they are displaying key qualities you can’t coach – desire, hunger,” says Quinn (43).
“And maybe management too are using as leverage the fact that they have to perform in senior county championship if they want to go further. If they can’t perform against Crokes in a county senior semi-final, then if I am a member of the Kerry management, I am saying ‘what good are they to me’? That’s not the sole reason, but I am sure it’s there somewhere.”
ONLY Jason Hickson of Annascaul, Alan Fitzgerald of Castlegregory and Declan O’Sullivan (Lispole) avoided an all-Gaeltacht 15 for the six-point defeat of Austin Stacks, but Quinn insists the other three clubs are not just hitched to the Gaeltacht bandwagon.
Nevertheless, it was hardly the dream job when the West Kerry Board came knocking on Quinn’s door. And it was no more so after West Kerry had, in Quinn’s words, “their Macedonia”, losing the first round of the championship in Gallarus to Feale Rangers.
“It was desperate stuff, but we steadied things and beat St Kieran’s by a point in the back door, and then edged Legion in extra time in Round 3.
“The attraction of West Kerry was twofold – I knew the talent was there, and time-wise, after three years managing a club that is effectively a ten-month- a-year thing, I knew the division wouldn’t be as taxing. Plus I wanted to leave my own club on good terms, not overstay my welcome. Maybe down the road, I could contribute again.”
Going from club to division felt like going from club to international soccer manager, he smiles. “The players were doing their stuff with the clubs, I was going to games, monitoring form, keeping in touch. There was no doubt the talent was there as well.”
For that, credit must be shared. “There’s been huge work done in Dingle and in the Gaeltacht. The likes of Paul Fitzmaurice and Colm Geaney in Dingle, Tomás Ó Conchúir nurtured the Gaeltacht lads at U12 and U14, they went up to a Féile in Derry with Tomás and Seán Mac an tSithigh. Every fresh voice is good, so when Eamonn Fitzmaurice and the lads in Pobal Scoil saw them, the school was getting them at a decent level already.”
The Kerry manager may renew acquaintances with some of his former pupils in big school next year. Briain Ó Bealglaoich had a nightmare 2017 with niggling injuries, but if recent form is reliable, he has found his form again, which is a godsend for a Kerry defence with plenty of questions hanging over it.
Tomás Ó Sé – or The Dancer – as he’s known to distinguish him from his better know namesake – spent much of 2016 traversing the globe as part of the Riverdance troupe, but his fast feet and scoring instincts wouldn’t go amiss with Kerry either.
“I’d say he travelled to every continent, and did a lot of exploring between shows, but he’d done with that for the time being. Tomás is basically torn between two loves – the dancing and the football. It’s great to see him flying with the club and the district and had a great summer with the Kerry juniors.”
Taking down the All-Ireland club champions tomorrow is another test of Ó Sé, Beagloaich, Gaeltacht and their divisional compadres. Gaeltacht hasn’t lost a game in any competition since April 8, and the only club which compares is Dr Crokes – incredibly they’ve not been defeated for over a year.
That run may survive tomorrow but an awakening in the west will have them fearful and forearmed.
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