The morning of the All-Ireland final between Kerry and Cork in 2009, as I was walking past the Kerry changing room, their kit man pulled up in his van and started unloading the precious green and gold kits.
“Show me the number 13,” I asked him.
“Now, Derryman, you know all about number 13.”
“Ah go on, show me it.”
He took it out reverentially, like a pilgrim who had discovered the last stitch on Padre Pio’s gown.
“There it is,” he said, “A lot of greats have worn it.”
“Maybe this latest one is the greatest of them all?” I suggested.
“You might be right, Derryman, you might be right.”
A few hours later, Cooper and Co. ran riot, bewildering Cork with an awesome display of skill, power and ruthlessness. That was then. Four years on, the team is as creaky as the joints of the veterans that are holding it together.
Watching their next generation labouring miserably against Dublin in Killarney at the weekend and against Mayo in McHale Park the week before, Kerry folk must be wondering where they are going to find their next great No. 13. Or next great No. 9, or No. 6, or any number at all. The well has run dry. This day has been coming. For years now, we have watched their lightweight minor teams coming to Croke Park and being well beaten. They have produced squadrons of Raheem Sterlings, busy bees who can jink and solo-run with little end product. At the same time, the nouveau riche of Tyrone and Dublin and Cork have powered ahead, producing modern, hard hitting athletes.
Last week against Dublin was a good illustration of the problem. The Dubs fielded an equally young team. However, instead of being weakened by the inclusion of recent under 21s, Jim Gavin’s team was strengthened. The young Dubs simply overpowered Kerry. It must have been hugely depressing for Kerry folk, seeing the best they have to offer being so easily handled. Four points they managed over 70 minutes and that was a fair reflection. The Dubs ought to have won by even more than the 10-point margin, spurning several goal chances.
Seven days earlier at McHale Park, James Horan’s modestly talented team, a modern, physically imposing group, had done exactly the same. They bullied Kerry. Bullied them! Fitzmaurice’s young forwards were scattered all over the place. Their experienced midfielder Anthony Maher was physically cowed by Aidan O’Se, something that would have been unthinkable when the likes of Darragh O’Se was wearing the green and gold. When the great Gaeltacht man was prowling the middle third, Kerry midfielders weren’t bullied. Big Aidan would have got a warm ear for his impertinence a few years ago. Ask them in Kerry where Darragh’s replacement is and they will tell you they don’t have one.
Astonishingly, in the second half against Mayo, Kerry didn’t register a single score. I checked the record books during the week to see if this had ever happened to the game’s aristocrats before. In the end, I had to go back 46 years, to November 1966, when Louth beat Kerry in Tralee in the league, 0-6 to 0-5. Kerry, having failed to score in the entire second half that day, were booed from the field by their home supporters. The Independent newspaper’s GAA correspondent wrote, “I saw only one man, Mick Fleming, who remotely resembled a Kerry footballer – the rest were pathetic. Without the least reservation, this was the most pathetically feeble and wretched display I have ever seen from a team carrying the famed green and gold. The team was utterly devoid of either elementary skills or spirit. Hardly a ball was cleanly fielded, hardly a kick was well directed, and hardly a challenge was offered to win possession.”
If I said that on the Sunday Game nowadays, I would have to leave the country under armed guard. Typically, two seasons later in 1969 they were All-Ireland champions again, going on to win the two in a row in 1970, under the guidance of a young physical trainer called Mick O’Dwyer.
Not long after that it was the turn of the Bomber, Sheehy and Jacko. The booing ceased as they put their indelible stamp on the beautiful game. Then, after 11 years of torture from 1986 to 1997, when they languished in the wilderness, the incomparable Maurice Fitzgerald built a bridge from the past to the future, delivering an All-Ireland with a performance for the ages. Then, it was the turn of Moynihan, Cinneide, Cooper and Paidi’s magnificent nephews. The All-Irelands kept rolling in through the 2000s and the balance of the world was restored.
Since my childhood, nay, since my father’s childhood, Kerry football has been one of the glories of Irish Society. In that horrible 1966/67 season, when they appeared to be at their lowest ever ebb, the renowned Kerry GAA correspondent John Barrett issued a stirring challenge to the county’s footballers “Let the New Year flash the lights of a Kerry revival. Let GUTS be the banner under which our footballers march. Let us, at least, set the proper headlines for the youth on the sidelines. In plain words, get rid of the non-triers!” The gauntlet was taken up then. Sad to say, I’m not sure the current crop have it in them.
The future for Kerry football is dimmer now than at any time in living memory. Gooch (above) is 30 and although he is less injury prone than an alley-cat, the miles are in his legs. Club and county seasons have merged, depriving him of the rest essential for a veteran. Against modern, fearsome Donegal last year, he looked a pale shadow of himself. One solution is to play him at number 11, but how can he be expected to cope with hyperactive centre backs like Karl Lacey? Tomas O’Se – the Rolls Royce of wing backs – is 34 and that 12 cylinder engine is starting to backfire. Marc is 33 in April. Star (30 in a few weeks) is distracted, enjoying life, love and a bit of glitz and why wouldn’t he? Paul Galvin meanwhile is 33 and his hunger for the size five has been replaced by a craving for leather trousers. Last week, he tweeted that his new €50,000 Audi was like “a classy centre back, intelligent, fast, powerful with perfect balance, aggressive when necessary but measured and always anticipating outcomes, reading the game.” At or about that very moment, Weeshie Fogarty was no doubt demanding that the world be stopped so he could get off.
They might be able to muster a decent last hurrah for their old friend Eamonn Fitzmaurice, but beyond these veterans, the wilderness beckons . . . .