Na Gaeil were never going to rest on junior laurels as they seek Croke Park return

Even in the victorious Croke Park dressing room two years ago, there was no hint from the players that they had reached the top of the mountain.
Na Gaeil were never going to rest on junior laurels as they seek Croke Park return

Na Gaeil captain Eoin Doody lifts the cup following the AIB GAA Football All-Ireland Junior Club Championship final win over Rathgarogue-Cushinstown in 2020. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Exactly two years ago, when Na Gaeil sauntered to a comfortable victory over Wexford side Rathgarogue-Cushinstown to claim the All-Ireland junior football title, it was a watershed moment in the history of the Tralee club, which was only established in 1978.

However, as then-manager Donal Rooney explains, even in the victorious Croke Park dressing room after that game, there was no hint from the players that they had reached the top of the mountain. There was a determination to keep progressing, and to strive for more notable achievements.

As they face into Saturday's All-Ireland intermediate semi-final against Steelstown Brian Ógs of Derry at the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence (2pm), Rooney, who led St Brendan’s to the county championship last four in Kerry last season, takes up the story.

“It was mentioned afterwards that there was a certain desire among the lads, they stated that we’re not finished yet, that they wanted to get to senior level and all that. It was stressed by one or two people in that dressing room, that it was a stepping stone, rather than a culmination of efforts,” he said.

“There are a lot of guys inside there who would have fairly lofty ambitions of where they want to get to, and of where they want to bring the club. That would be one part of it, from the players that were there previously. The second part then is obviously the influx of young fellas that have come in the last two years.

“When we were preparing for the All-Ireland that time, there would have been five Kerry minors that were too young to play for us, but they would have played with us on the way up towards the All-Ireland. They had that bit of experience of training with us, and then they came straight into the senior panel the following year,” he added.

In the recent provincial decider with Corofin (Clare), Na Gaeil started with only six of the first 15 from that famous day at Croke Park in January 2020. Youngsters like Jack Sheehan, Jack Bourke, Devon Burns, and Enda O’Connor have moved seamlessly through the ranks.

“Various guys have been involved, but the one common denominator is Denis Sugrue at under-6s, and now under-7s. He’s the one fella that’s probably trained every single senior on that team. He’s been an ever-present, and a great man to get those kids involved, and getting them to love it. He would be one name that I would definitely have to mention.”

While Na Gaeil depend so much on the leadership and game-deciding qualities of their quartet of Kerry senior panellists in the Barry brothers, Jack and Andrew, Diarmuid O’Connor and Stefan Okunbor, their former manager is quick to pinpoint some unsung heroes for the club’s progression.

“You look at the likes of Eoin Doody, who captains the side. I suppose he has really changed himself, and his body around, over the last four or five years from where he may have been before. Then there are a few others who would be good leaders, the Dan O’Connors, the Eoin O’Neills, these type of fellas, who would be around the 30 mark but would set fairly high standards.”

Despite Na Gaeil’s third quarter push that turned the Munster final, Rooney expects a much stiffer assignment from the Derry champions.

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