Changing mindset sees football grow in Kilkenny

There are some words that look out of place sharing the same sentence. Jose Mourinho and modest. Paul O’Connell and ordinary. Kilkenny and football.

But after last weekend the latter pairing have grown more comfortable bedfellows.

On Saturday Kilkenny made history when crowned British Junior Football Champions with a 2-7 to 0-8 win over Scotland in Edinburgh which sets up an All-Ireland semi-final with Mayo in Nowlan Park next month.

On Sunday, the young footballers of O’Loughlin Gaels won the Division 6 Féile final while Danesfort contested the Division 10 decider.

Kilkenny Football chairman Tom Brennan smiled: “It is nice to have good news about Kilkenny football for a change given all the doom and gloom that we are usually talking about.

“The win in Edinburgh was a remarkable achievement and a massive credit to Christy Walsh and his players. And then for two teams from Kilkenny to play in the national Féile football finals, that was the icing on the cake. We had a lot of doubters.

“When hurling is going so strong in the county a lot of people don’t want to hear about football. But there are still a lot of people who are putting time and effort into football and wanting it to be a success. Thankfully they were rewarded.”

Walsh, is a Kingdom native, who ironically is steeped in hurling, having played and starred for his native Kilmoyley, Kerry and Munster.

But in Kilkenny he is seen very much as a football man due to his county of birth.

“When the footballers pulled out of the league a few years ago this (the British Junior) was the competition they entered in an effort to keep county football alive.

“This is the third year we are in it. Last year we were beaten in the semi-final so we were always going to be there or there about this season.

“The key thing is that the competition falls in a window when there is little or no club hurling on in Kilkenny because of the county teams being in Leinster action. As a result we had a full panel to pick from.

“We nearly had to win it this year given the effort we are putting in. There is a huge amount of hassle and logistics, organising flights to play, as you are often planning things at short notice, week to week.

“For example we used four flights to bring everyone home from Edinburgh. That wasn’t because we had massive numbers; it was because we had limited space available on flights as we were booking so late.”

Given his native Kerry have been a bogey side for Mayo in recent years, will Walsh hope to instil some of that belief in his side when the Connacht champions come calling?

“I’d give us a great chance if we are playing this weekend with the momentum build up of the last few weekends of games. But with the break of a month it will be hard going. And the other issue is a lot of the lads will be back hurling with their clubs.”

And there again is the ‘h’ word. And Walsh is wise enough to understand that the hierarchy will never change in his adopted home.

“Kilkenny are as good as anyone at U12 and U14 level but it trails off after that. Hurling takes precedence. You look at Kerry. Football is first and foremost as everyone knows. But you still have hurling heartlands, places like Kilmoyley, Causeway, Ballyduff and so on that are hurling strongholds and will always be. But you don’t have those pockets of exclusive football strongholds in Kilkenny. Railyard up in the north is only one such club.”

Ironically a former Kilkenny hurler was crucial to this season’s success, explained Brennan.

“David Herity retired from the county hurling side last year and threw his lot in with the footballers. That was a big help. Not alone is he a fine player but a lot of other lads followed his lead who mightn’t otherwise have been involved.”

Herity has had a lifelong grá for football (thanks to a father and mother from Sligo and Monaghan respectively). He represented the county throughout the ranks and then honed his skills playing with St Patrick’s College (Drumcondra), contesting a number of Trench Cup finals alongside the likes of Rory Kavanagh, David Henry and Brian Kavanagh.

But then came a call from Brian Cody and priorities shifted. After retirement from the hurling squad, Herity wasn’t long filling the void as he quickly returned to his football roots.

“There is nearly a greater sense of enjoyment because you are such underdogs,” he replies when asked to compare Saturday’s win to some of the glory days with the hurlers.

“You are going from playing with one of the best teams in the country to one of the weakest. The other thing about the game in Scotland is that you are going into the unknown, playing on a pitch you have never seen against a team you know little or nothing about.

“Compare that to playing in Croke Park when everything is worked out in advance down to the very last item. The final whistle on Saturday was something special. It was a great buzz to be alongside lads celebrating perhaps their first football title in their lives.”

O’Loughlin Gaels Juvenile Committee Chairman Niall Bergin is well accustomed to football success. The club are the most dominant side in the underage Kilkenny football ranks, holding minor, U16 and U14 county titles.

On Sunday they added another crown to their haul, when defeating Erin’s Own Cargin (Antrim) 6-4 to 1-7 in the National Féile decider.

Such success isn’t accidental. “We have dedicated football training every Monday night. Indeed Gaelic football is both promoted and coached in our own club summer camp which is run for two weeks in August each year.

“The camp caters for kids from 6 to 13 and the majority of the Féile panel at the weekend would have taken part in those camps over the years.

“Former rugby star Mick Galwey (who won an All-Ireland with Kerry and lives in Kilkenny) is helping us out with Gaelic football and things like that generate more of an interest. And keeping an interest is key.

“The further boys move away from U14 their interest begins to wane in Gaelic football. The focus turns to hurling, it is the cooler thing to be playing. The challenge is to bring these guys on for a few more years.”

But Herity is adamant that football’s stock can improve if all the stars align.

“It would be nice to think that the words Kilkenny football would just roll of the tongue instead of people rolling their eyes. There was a bit of reaction to the win on Twitter and hopefully all those lads who thought it was all a bit of a joke might start to think again and get involved next season.

“I’m convinced that in five or 10 years time Kilkenny can have a team competing in the league again. But the mindset has to change. Hopefully Saturday will be the first step on the road to improving the attitudes towards Kilkenny football.”


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