FOR their first Christy Ring Cup final, the hurlers of Kerry will play favourites Westmeath and if they’re lucky, they’ll have the support of a couple of thousand.
Because tomorrow in Killarney, the footballers of Kerry will play Limerick in the Munster SFC final and they’ll have the support of tens of thousands. The difference? Football is a countywide passion in the Kingdom while hurling is still very much a novelty.
With one notable exception, this panel is sourced from a small region of north-west Kerry. Travel up the N69 from Tralee to Listowel, swing west on the R553 to Ballybunion, and that’s it – with the exception of goalkeeper Bernard Rochford, who comes from Killeagh in east Cork, every member of John Meyler’s panel comes from a parish between those two roads and the Atlantic.
A proud Wexford native, by way of Cork, it’s an area that Meyler has come to love, and for good reason. “You’re talking here about seven or eight parishes, one division – and not even a full division at that – as opposed to seven divisions in Cork. But there’s a huge tradition of hurling in this pocket of north Kerry; a lot of people tend to forget, but Kerry won an All-Ireland hurling title before they won a football – that was in 1891, a team from Ballyduff with players from Kilmoyley and Lixnaw invited in.
“There have been some great hurlers down the years, Declan Lovett in the 60s, Christy Walsh in the 70s, then they had the Leahys in the 90s, Maurice and DJ Leahy from Crotta. You had the Hennesseys from Ballyduff, generations of them, but basically you’re looking at seven or eight parishes – that’s our pick.”
This is a hurling island locked in by water on one side, football on the other three, with a deep and abiding love for the game. Given those geographic circumstances, however, their own championship became an affair more tribal than in most other counties, every game a local derby, outrage over previous incidents handed on not just from year to year but from generation to generation.
Trying to pull them all together to form a single team, then, was a challenging kind of task. In such circumstances also, playing the same few teams with the same styles, and always in high-intensity games, it’s difficult to make progress in the broader skills.
For a while in the early 90s, in his first term in charge of Kerry, Meyler came in and changed all that, got a talented bunch of hurlers to pull together, and in 1992, in the Munster championship, Kerry knocked over one of the powerhouses, beating Waterford in the first round.
That’s the aim now for Meyler again, get Kerry into the Munster championship. It’s a coaching challenge, but even greater, a managerial challenge: “I had 15 U21s out there tonight (during training in Ballyduff) and you can see, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Fellas are still looking to take that extra touch – if you’re on the likes of Ronan Curran you don’t get that time. It’s a deep-rooted problem, you have to have constant league matches week in, week out against top-class opposition, with a variety of styles, and we don’t get that.
“In Cork you’d have Sars meeting Newtown, then Erin’s Own, then the Glen, and while those teams mightn’t always have their county stars they would still have a lot of top-quality players; here, you’re playing the same teams far too often.”
Should they consider taking part in the Cork leagues, as Carlow do in Kilkenny, as Down do in Antrim? “Maybe, something has to be done.”
And of course there’s the management problem: “You have to be very careful. We have 33 players on the panel – a few young fellas coming up that you’d hope to have for next year, but there’s a world of management here, trying to make sure that you don’t lose anyone. I have a good team around me – Joe O’Connor doing the training, big Jim the kitman, Seán (O’Shea) and John (Hennessey, former stars) as selectors. I look out there now and I see Kilmoyley fellas walking off and talking with Lixnaw fellas, no problems, no issues. That’s the way it’s been in Cork and Kilkenny for generations, fellas will come into training on a Tuesday night after flaking each other on the Sunday, everything forgotten, pushed aside for the sake of the county. We’re trying to create that sense of togetherness in this team.”
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