Ireland Correspondent: Kennelly subdued as mighty Kerry takes on tiny Antrim

By Peter Lenaghan

Kerry is Gaelic football’s undisputed powerhouse. Its dominance goes back to early last century and includes several eras of domination. The county’s distinctive green shirts with a gold band across the middle are admired and feared. The Kingdom, as County Kerry is known, has won 35 All-Ireland football titles. The list of great Gaelic football figures to emerge from Kerry is equally impressive and includes the legendary manager Mick O’Dwyer, Frank Sheehy, Pat Spillane and Tim Kennelly – the powerful centre half-back who captained the victorious 1979 side. When Kennelly died in 2005, eleven priests attended his funeral and thousands of people lined the streets of the family’s home town of Listowel.

Kennelly’s son Tadhg returned home to south-west Ireland at the end of the last AFL season, hoping to emulate his father’s success and win an All-Ireland football medal. Kennelly forged a decade-long career in Australia, becoming a daring and dashing half-back who was a member of Sydney’s 2005 premiership team. He was the first Irishman to win an AFL flag. Many will remember Kennelly’s celebratory jig on the Melbourne Cricket Ground podium. His father died suddenly just a couple of months after that victory.

When Tadhg returned to Ireland after the end of the 2008 AFL season, it seemed highly likely that he, too, could lift the Sam Maguire Cup, which is the cup for the winner of the All-Ireland title. Kerry had competed in each of the past five All-Ireland football finals, collecting three titles along the way. The team was littered with modern-day stars: Colm Cooper, Darragh O Se, Kieran Donaghy and the towering young forward, Tommy Walsh.

But something was wrong. Kerry was dumped out of the Munster championship in June by Cork in a replayed semi-final, forcing the Kingdom to take the “back door” route and try to negotiate the qualifying rounds in a bid to make the All-Ireland quarter finals. Lacklustre and scarcely deserved wins followed over minnow counties Longford and Sligo.
Then reports emerged last week, just days before Kerry’s crucial qualifier against Antrim, that there was trouble in the camp. There had been a team meeting. Two senior and popular figures, Colm Cooper and Tomas O Se, were going to be dropped. Kennelly, who had declared himself fit after missing two games because of a broken finger, was in contention for a recall to the starting 15. Newspaper pundits wondered whether the leak from the camp was a sign of ill health or just a clever smoke screen. Write the Kingdom off at your peril, was the experts’ opinion.
We travelled to Tullamore, County Offaly, on Sunday for a look; to see the great champion county of the Irish game, to see the man who had dazzled Australian audiences for so long, to see if the reports were true. The venue in the heart of the Midlands was a fitting halfway point for two teams coming from opposite ends of the island, opposite ends of the game’s spectrum. Antrim, from Northern Ireland, was enjoying a golden summer. The Saffrons produced huge upsets to defeat Donegal and Cavan and reach their first Ulster province final since the 1970s, but a loss to the mighty Tyrone meant Antrim would have to beat Kerry to extend its season into August.
Tullamore is overrun with the green jerseys of Kerry and the saffron jerseys of Antrim as the fans walk up the main street, cross the bridge over the Grand Canal, and enter O’Connor Park. Emily and I find our way to the northern terrace, settling between groups of supporters from either county. The Ulstermen seem excited about the contest. My saffron-clad neighbour asks where we are from. “Do you know all about our history, like?” he enquires. “A match like this has been a long time coming.”
The ground announcer confirms rumour as fact. Tomas O Se and Cooper have been dropped to the bench; Kennelly will play from the start at half-forward. After the Irish Republic’s anthem, observed by both sets of fans and players, Kerry settles quickly into its powerful work. Walsh exchanges handpasses with the former Sydney Swan and sticks it in the net.
But Antrim does not waver. Kerry is sloppy and gives away possession cheaply. Within minutes Tony Scullion bursts forward and scores a goal for the Saffrons. Kennelly is involved in some good moments, but looks slow. Antrim leads and Tomas McCann is buzzing like a hyperactive blowfly, surging forward through the midfield. A young Kerry fan in front of us throws his green and gold flag to the ground. Soon, Kerry’s manager is forced to make a change and Cooper is summoned from the pine. The man known as The Gooch gets an enormous roar from the Kerry fans. The northern county is up by a point at half-time and my neighbour is one of dozens around us applauding his team into the change rooms beneath our feet, cheering, “An-trum, An-trum, An-trum!”
Behind the terrace, concerned men and women in green and gold shirts are gathered in small groups. “There’s just no balance,” says one, while another defiantly answers, “Well, I still have faith.”
Kerry’s frustration on the field boils over just after the restart. Marc O Se throws a punch and is lucky to stay on the pitch. More substitutions are made. Kennelly is ineffectual and withdrawn. Antrim tries to land a killer blow but cannot in the blustery conditions. Kerry slowly begins to assert itself. Mike McCarthy and The Gooch start to win the ball. Antrim gives away a series of fouls close to goal. Cooper calmly takes the points and the Kingdom edges ahead. Despite Kerry’s resurgence, Antrim stays in touch thanks to a trio of scores from Mick McCann.
The game’s defining moment arrives ten minutes from the end. Donnacha Walsh, who replaced Kennelly, finds space close to goal and shoots. Antrim’s goalkeeper, John Finucane, saves brilliantly with his boot, but Paul Galvin plays the classic opportunistic forward and slides in to kick the ball in to the net. Kerry is never headed in the final minutes and Emily is cheering for the Kingdom. Antrim’s gallant summer is over.
After the final whistle sounds, fans from both counties stream out on to the pitch. Kerry’s players gather in a circle to show unity. The display is derided on television later that night by RTE’s pundit, Anthony Tohill, who says the county is not fooling anyone and that the team remains in “total disarray”. Kerry’s manager, Jack O’Connor, tells the press his team is “fine”. Dublin awaits the Kingdom in a quarter final next Monday at Croke Park. Kennelly’s ambition of helping his home county to a 36th championship lives on, but a far sterner test lies ahead.

ALL-IRELAND FOOTBALL QUARTER FINALS
Sunday 2 August – Cork v Donegal
Sunday 2 August – Tyrone v Kildare
Monday 3 August – Dublin v Kerry
Mayo v Limerick or Meath (date to be confirmed)

ALL-IRELAND HURLING SEMI FINALS
Sunday 9 August – Kilkenny v Waterford
Sunday 16 August –Tipperary v Limerick

Comments

  1. Dave Goodwin says:

    Fantastic piece Peter, providing insight into the great Irish sporting culture. This is inspiring me to plan to spend a holiday one August in Ireland, attending as many of the Gaelic and Hurling finals as possible. I can feel another “mancation” coming on. Dave

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