Those suspicious minds in Kerry smelt something a little off when the venue for this Sunday’s Division 1 round one was fixed a few months back.
Letterkenny is not Ballybofey where Donegal have previously hosted them in 2008 and ’13. About 30 minutes less of a trip north. Bear in mind also that Cork’s last two visits to The Forgotten County in 2015 and last year were staged in southerly Ballyshannon.
It is, of course, Donegal’s prerogative to choose their home venue – they generally divide games between the aforementioned three venues – and in fairness they have travelled to Tralee these last two springs. It must also be noted that they did welcome Pat O’Shea’s side to O’Donnell Park 10 years ago.
So it shouldn’t seem too out of the ordinary but then any decision taken by either of these teams reflecting the other was going to be scrutinised more than it should after last year’s fiery encounter in the then newly-refurbished Austin Stack Park.
Fiery is an appropriate word but its referee Eddie Kinsella had another less subtle antonym – “a hoor of a match,” he told this newspaper upon his inter-county retirement in November. “It was a terrible game to referee because so much was going on.”
By the end, Alan Fitzgerald had been red-carded for swinging out at Neil McGee, the Donegal defender later receiving a retrospective one-match ban for the actions that provoked his marker’s angst. Both county boards were fined €7,500, while Leo McLoone was also shown a red card and Kerry pair Shane Enright and Denis Daly picked up black cards.
Afterwards, a member of the Donegal camp privately asked a number of journalists if they were going to write about how cynical Kerry were during the game. He declined the offer to speak about his grievances on the record. That was understandable given that the visitors had lost and the individual likely felt his words would have come across as sour grapes but it gave an indication into the tensions between the sides, which pre-date the 2014 All-Ireland final when Donegal players at a social event confronted a Kerry player for public remarks he had made about them.
However, the ’14 decider most assuredly raised the temperature. Speaking to the Irish Examiner before the ’15 league game, which largely passed off without incident, Damien Diver, who was a selector under McGuinness the previous season accused Kerry of being cynical in the final particularly in their treatment of captain Michael Murphy.
“Aidan O'Mahony did do right enough but there was a lot of off-the-ball stuff that wasn't seen,” said Diver. “Michael doesn't get a fair crack of the whip as far as referees are concerned just because he's a big man. A free is a free no matter how big or small the player is. I would say having been beaten by Tyrone a lot down through the years and Armagh didn't help things and they changed their style and probably got more cynical that way. Some of their tackling in the All-Ireland final was very cynical, like holding on a lot and stopping runners. They learned all of that through time."
Likewise in Kerry, it might be joked about now but the spy-in-the-tree episode outside Fitzgerald Stadium in the lead-up to that final hasn’t been forgotten either. Similarly, the perceived dearth of credit afforded to them for winning. In McGuinness’ book “Until Victory Always”, he recalled of the match: “Kerry did nothing in that game that we didn’t flag. That’s what was so disappointing. They didn’t catch us on the hop, even for that (Kieran Donaghy goal). They set up as we expected and their kick-outs went where we knew they would. We just didn’t deliver our normal purposeful performance.”
McGuinness continued: “If our boys had been living it and playing with abandon and Kerry were just that bit better, you could walk away with a clean conscience and think: Wow, that’s a great team we met. There are ways to lose, Kerry were the better team on the day, but our performance was not there.”
Donegal and Kerry stir each other. Even as the visitors count up their club-tied players and the hosts their retired, there is too much history between them not to be engaged. Inter-county Gaelic football is back, most likely, in Letterkenny, with a bang.
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