Kerry football was perilously close to falling into a funk five years ago, but the turnaround has been impressive. Not that there aren’t a couple of haymakers for the new GAA chairman, Tim Murphy to dodge still, writes Tony Leen.
This isn’t a brag, stresses the county’s new GAA chairman Tim Murphy. “But I am firmly of the belief that the best footballers are still being produced in Kerry.”
The Brosna man, a no-frills full-back in his North Kerry playing days, is choosing an advantageous moment to make such a claim. Five years ago, well five years ago he just couldn’t have said such a thing within earshot of a white coat.
Tomorrow, Glenbeigh-Glencar attempt to claim the Kingdom’s eighth All-Ireland Club JFC title in 13 years. It will be a surprise if they’re unsuccessful. Dr Crokes are through to the All-Ireland club senior final next month. The last three senior All-Ireland colleges football titles have been won by Kerry schools, and the county has completed a hat-trick on All-Ireland minor football titles to boot. The county’s U21 footballers are strong contenders for trophies in 2017. And there’s more to come. “There’s a fierce talented batch of U14’s at the moment too,” Murphy says at one point in the interview.
Should everyone else (bar Dublin) just get their coats?
Not quite. Kerry is facing opponents it can’t master with a Colm Cooper or a David Clifford, obstacles in the guise of professional sport, tight finances and rural depopulation. Other counties share some of those concerns, Tim Murphy agrees, but not all three. He’s not looking for pity. In his inaugural address as chairman to December’s convention Murphy, a quantity surveyor, spoke eloquently on many topics but repeatedly on one: The club. And the absolute necessity for the county to harness every potential football talent available. “Making sure no one falls off the wagon,” he says.
“Our challenge is to make sure no club should go out of existence, but we can’t invent people — there will be team and club amalgamations. But we must make sure those guys in the small clubs get every opportunity to be part of the system.”
So how grey is Murphy’s hair turning at the prospect of Kerry’s youngest and brightest talents being cherry-picked by Australian Rules scouts and agents?
Mark O’Connor’s gone and the heads of other All-Ireland minor starlets have been turned. Is Kerry a nursery for the AFL?
Murphy says the issue is “huge” and the fight is uneven. Amateur v professional.
“It’s hard for the young lads too, it’s an attractive option for them. My approach is we need to create the environment at home to make it as attractive as possible for them to stay in Kerry. We are looking at university scholarships with business interests easing the financial burden. Or schemes like Austin Stacks’ ‘Jobsmatch’ the year they won the county championship (where they encouraged Tralee businesses to employ players and keep them at home during the summer).
“This talent is being approached, tapped up, whatever you want to call it,” Murphy says. “We have to address it. We want to get well-known Kerry footballers from the past to get involved too as mentors. To get the lads to consider what they are giving up as much as what they are turning down.”
And even then, the Kerry chairman knows they’ll lose some. They can’t compete with contracts and zeroes.
“But it’s a lifestyle decision too. We will make the environment as attractive as we can here at home.”
And he does believe the flow of talent is coursing through the county’s academies again. From the smallest to the biggest clubs.
“There is a lot of natural talent there. But it’s incumbent to have every structure in place to maximise it. No county can compete with Dublin population-wise — and that gap is getting wider and wider — but what we can do is squeeze every last drop out of what we have and further improve coaching and development structures.”
Murphy mentioned a wedding towards the end of last year, a neighbour’s son. It was like the shop or the mart, he says. The first and only topic of conversation was football.
“It’s ingrained in the psyche of a Kerry person, the alpha and the omega in their lives almost. It’s a birth-right, sort of. Very hard to explain. You see it, the unspoken regard for a man who’s played with the county. No matter what level he achieved, he wore the jersey. And that’s remembered, often more than the person.”
Murphy’s defiance is there, tangible. If you could see what his club, Brosna, came from to become All-Ireland junior football champions in 2015, to see their facilities now. Murphy went from an 11-year term as club chairman to Kerry’s development officer.
Construction of Kerry’s soon-to-be-opened €9m centre of excellence was his key brief. But he’s brought one lesson from Brosna to the boardroom.
“When I was development officer I met with a lot of clubs. The most successful ones on the field invariably had the best structures off it. As Kerry chairman, I’ll be fostering teamwork as much as I can. We have 15 officers around a table, and I want to involve and empower each to get the maximum out of them to give the maximum back to Kerry.”
And that must include hurling, and Kerry’s commitment to it. Green and gold progress has been noteworthy of late but a return to the Munster Championship is nowhere on the horizon. “All going well, within five years,” the chairman estimates. Stability and consolidation first. “I mentioned it at Convention, the amount of senior hurling managers we’ve had and lost is ridiculous. I think it’s 12 in the last 14 years? That trend has to stop.”
On the eve of his elevation to chairman, Kerry lost another when Limerick’s Ciarán Carey left.
“The timing was a disaster,” Murphy says. “I met a group of the hurlers just before Christmas. They have a huge appetite for success, they want to move it on. (New manager) Fintan O’Connor — an ex-Waterford selector under Derek McGrath — was brought on board and I’ve been hugely impressed with him, both as a man manager and by his organisational skills. He has signed on for two years with an option on a third. Brendan Cummins is back as coach and I would really hope this would be the start of more stability in management terms.
“Conversations with Fintan are with a view to the future as much as the present. We are looking at a longer-term timescale and need to bring more U21s and minors into the fold than would have been the case heretofore. The way the senior management has worked is that once Kerry is out of Championship, he mightn’t be seen until September again.
“This year what we’ve agreed with Fintan that he will have an involvement with the U21s and that there would be a lot more of a tie-up between the three grades. The players want success. They want to beat a Cork or a Limerick, but there are stepping stones.”
Murphy uses the phrase “shaking the tree” to underline the need to maximise any and all talent available.
He uses a similar turn of phrase for the financial imperatives facing the board. The Currans project will be state-of-the-art, but it won’t run cheap. His predecessor Patrick O’Sullivan pushed the boulder up the hill, but there’s a few financial haymakers coming Kerry’s way.
“Finances are very tight,” Murphy says.
“We have a debt to clear on Fitzgerald Stadium and no Munster final there for 2017 and 2018. That’s €100,000 we have to find. The capital fundraising for Currans has been outstanding. The next trick is to raise money for its maintenance and operational costs which will be €150,000-€200,000 per annum.”
The chairman doesn’t see Currans as a ‘drive in on Thursday night and turn on the lights’ facility. They want it to be an active, vibrant seven-day-a-week operation.
“Whether that’s ladies football, hurling, football or development squads. We plan to make it a centre of best practice for GAA and sports medicine. I think we’ve got it right. In May, the main building will be operational, with four fully-finished dressing rooms and the gym. It’ll evolve slowly from there, because we have to be prudent with the spend. We will still have a debt of €1.5m when it opens and further monies must be spent.
“What I have seen with capital projects in the past is that when something gets built and finished, it starts to steamroll a bit. Momentum builds. We want Currans to be a sustainable facility that will wipe its face in an ideal world. But if that’s not possible, it can’t be a cost to the clubs of Kerry. That’s our ambition.”
The ambition? “When the whole project was mooted at a presentation in IT Tralee four years ago, clubs were concerned they were going to be footing the bill for it. They won’t. But we will need help with raising more money for Currans and we need the clubs in Kerry to help identify new sources of funding to keep these facilities going.
“It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, a win-win for both club and county. People will see the benefit when it’s opened.”
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