How the Kingdom puts its senior citizens first

Paul Murphy in action, August 2014

Allianz FL Division 1
Kerry v Mayo
Tomorrow: Fitzgerald Stadium, 2pm
Referee: M Deegan
TV: TG4 (live)

Mike Quirke listed the “popular misconceptions” surrounding Kerry football. They had no structure, no coaching and no talent coming through. The Kingdom was headed for a famine “worse than any potato blight”.

Sam Maguire may have returned south last September, but it was only a few short years ago Kerry were being told they were behind the curve.

Even last spring, Quirke points out, were they informed production lines had ground to a halt. A county beyond rescue.

Four-time All-Ireland medal-winner Quirke, along with Kilkenny coaching officer Brian Ryan, were the opening speakers at this month’s Games Development Conference in Croke Park — their presentation aptly titled ‘Special Ks: Behind the strength of Kerry and Kilkenny’. 700 grassroots members packed into the room to learn of the magic formula serving both counties so well.

The opening graph showed Kerry to have won more All-Ireland football titles than any other county in the last four 25-year periods.

“You wouldn’t think so if you were to listen to what was being said,” quipped the Kerry Games Development Administrator, Quirke.

Their problems were rooted in a failure to produce underage footballers “who could run 100 metres in five seconds, guys who were eating five chicken breasts, 12 eggs and a protein shake for breakfast.”

Development squads would prove a particular thorn in their side.

“We were getting lambasted for not producing big, huge animals that could jump over tall buildings. We re-evaluated our structure because we were coming under real pressure about the physicality of the game and how the players we were producing weren’t as physically imposing as these superhuman people emerging in other counties,” said the Kerins O’Rahillys clubman.

“In terms of our squads, we have real emphasis on regular fishing with a wide net. It is not a closed shop. If you miss out on the development squad at U14, that doesn’t mean that particular player will never play for Kerry.

“We are very conscious that every child has a different developmental rate, whether that be physically or emotionally.

“If you are talking about taking a kid in at U14 and that in four years’ time, he will be a Kerry minor and nobody else will be involved, then you’re not going to win a whole pile. The door must be kept open.”

Quirke believes a lot of counties lost sight of football’s core values, getting far too caught up in the strength and conditioning craze.

Not Kerry. Their view of the game remained long-term, their emphasis never wavered from developing the traditional skills of the game.

“We were talking about guys eating five chicken breasts, 12 eggs and a protein shake for breakfast — and then going into primary school third class. In Kerry, we didn’t buy into that stuff.

“We kept it to more body weight exercises, where we were preparing the players’ bodies for loaded weights when they were older and could cope with it. We were working on flexibility, core and injury prevention. It was not about getting bigger or faster, it was about preparing their bodies for when they are older. Bilateral coordination, being able to move off both feet. Being able to catch, hand-pass and kick off both legs. All that kind of stuff.

“Games-based coaching is another buzz word, and without being smart, we are probably doing games-based coaching in Kerry since the beginning of time.

“People go up to Nowlan Park and watch Kilkenny training, I went up a couple of years ago. Brian Cody never blew his whistle once in the hour and a half they were on the field.

“Training is about playing the games. That is no secret. Training is not about standing around cones and watching others move in straight lines where there is no decision-making involved.

“Decision-making in a game situation is the only way you will improve a player.”

Having won seven All-Ireland crowns during their 20-year famine at minor level (1994-2014), Quirke says success has never been linear as far as Kerry were concerned.

“Joe Brolly’s article ‘The production line grounds to a halt in Kerry football factory’ was symptomatic of every article that was written about Kerry at the time. Every radio programme was about Kerry not winning an All-Ireland for the next 20 years. It was gone crazy the amount of negativity about the place. It was based on misconceptions. That is why Kieran Donaghy lost the plot.

“You can have success at senior level without winning minor. The key to it is that winning is a by-product of good development, that winning is not the end goal.

“If your goal is to win the U16 county championship, you are going to have less of a chance of that team winning at senior.

“In 2011, our U21 side were beaten by Cork. At the time, they weren’t as physically developed as they are now. But they were seen as one of the worst U21 teams that ever came out of the county. Between last year’s All-Ireland senior semi-final and final, nine of that team featured. This was the same team beaten by 22 points by Cork. Three years later, they were All Star recipients and James O’Donoghue was footballer of the year.

“I was talking about lads eating a shopping basket of chicken breasts in the morning. Take Paul Murphy. He didn’t win at minor. He was man of the match in the All-Ireland final and will have that jersey for as long as he wants.”

Quirke continued: “The Kerry medal presentation was on before Christmas. Eamonn Fitzmaurice congratulated the young lads on winning the minor All-Ireland, but reminded them it was a minor All-Ireland and how in Kerry you are judged by winning Sam Maguire. We hadn’t won a minor in 20 years and there was pandemonium in the county. But Fitzmaurice was still saying that while we are delighted for you, it is not the end goal.

“Senior success is the end goal.”

And above everything else, above games-based coaching, strength and conditioning and your shopping basket full of chicken breasts, it is tradition that fuels Kerry’s desire to mould correctly the next generation, tradition drives their unstinting desire to achieve further senior success.

“We had twin boys, about four years ago,” he said.

“The pair were four weeks old before we brought them home. We got home, and we were exhausted, scared. There was a knock on the door within 40 minutes of us arriving home.

“A lady arrived with two pairs of football boots, the two boys’ names on the boots, and two club jerseys.

“Two minutes later, a friend of mine arrived with two picture frames.

“Inside the frames were two betting slips saying ‘that Cameron Quirke won win an All-Ireland senior football medal with Kerry and that Ethan Quirke would win an All-Ireland senior football medal with Kerry’.

“‘Put them up on the wall,’ he says. “The frightening thing was the odds Paddy Power gave on the two boys winning All-Ireland senior medals with Kerry was 10/1.

“‘It’s not the Gooch’s’ kids,’ I said. “But that is the tradition in Kerry, they are being groomed from four weeks of age.”


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