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Celtic youths on cusp of history

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FAI Youth Cup Final
Killarney Celtic v Douglas Hall
Sunday at 2pm
Mounthawk Park, Tralee

 

Killarney Celtic’s exploits in this season’s FAI Youth Cup are already the stuff of club legend but this talented group of youngsters are not quite finished yet.

Over the course of an elongated campaign, they have achieved some incredible results against top class opposition. Now it’s time to take that extra step and secure this prestigious national title for the first time in the club’s history.

If their games to date are anything to go by, we could be set for a spectacular finale.

SPECIAL

It takes a special kind of team to make it all the way to an All-Ireland final. Talent is important, of course, but equally important is the right attitude and the will to win. In Round 1, Celtic showed that they have all of these qualities in abundance.

Half-way through their opening round match against Killorglin in October of 2019, The Hoops were on the ropes. In fact, it was far worse than that. They were on the canvas and on the brink of being counted out. A disastrous opening 45 minutes saw the reigning league and cup champions trailing by four goals to nil and it looked for all the world as though their FAI adventure was about to be over before it had even started.

With the words of mentors Matt Keane, Jerry Falvey and Conor McCarthy ringing in their ears, they managed to pull themselves back up to their feet, and then came the fightback. A brace apiece by skipper Terry Sparling and attacking midfielder Dylan Callaghan sent the match to extra time, and centre midfielder Evan Looney popped up with the all-important winner to complete an unbelievable turnaround.

The victory set up a derby versus Killarney Athletic in Round 2 and when Callaghan (two) and Pádraic Looney gave them a 3-0 lead, Athletic seemed to be defeated. The Blues responded well, however, and they staged a comeback of their own to send the match to overtime. Once again it was a midfielder who came up with the goods for Celtic in ET as James Darmody netted to send his side into the third round.

A trip to Galway to play Bearna/Na Forbacha followed with a place in the last 16 at stake. Despite conceding an early goal to their hosts, Celtic ran out 6-1 winners with Sparling (two), Pádraic Looney, Jason Kerins, Callaghan and Darmody all finding the target. Now the bus was really rolling.

DOMINANT

This result led to a home tie against Waterford’s Villa FC in mid-February. In front a sizeable home crowd (remember those?), Killarney Celtic put in a very dominant performance. Callaghan, Darmody and Jackson O’Mahony were the goalscorers as The Celts won 3-1 to make it through to the last eight.

Park United from Mitchelstown were the next team to get the Celtic treatment and strikes by Sparling and wide man Ruairí Doyle sent the Cork men home empty-handed.

Galway giants Mervue rolled into town for the semi-final a fortnight ago and the old seanfhocal ‘tús maith leath na hoibre’ rang true for the hosts as early goals by Evan Looney and Emmet Cronin set them up for an impressive 2-1 win.

IMMORTALITY

Only one Kerry team (Tralee Dynamos in 1998) have won the FAI Youth Cup in its 85-year history. Celtic came mightily close in 2011 when they made it all the way to the final before succumbing to Cork City.

For this current crop of Celtic youngsters, Douglas Hall of Cork stand between them and immortality.

 

This match is ticket only and will be streamed live on the Full Time Productions Facebook page.

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Killarney girls prepared for Munster final duel

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U16 Munster League Final

Killarney RFC v Ennis

Saturday at 1pm

LIT

The Killarney RFC U16 girls’ team are heading for Limerick today (Saturday) hoping to cap a magnificent season with a trophy.

This talented group of players, many of whom are new to the sport, have taken on all comers en route to the decider and now Ennis stand between them and provincial glory.

Even reaching the final is a great achievement for the Aghadoe-based club. Coach Diarmuid O’Malley says his charges will need to find “another level” to get over the line.

“We have seen [Ennis] play on a couple of occasions this season and what’s clear is that they have being together for many years,” O’Malley said. “We again will need to step it up to another level in order to be able to compete effectively against them.

“I look back on the success of the Limerick hurling team when they reached the All-Ireland final in 2018, not many gave them much of a chance at the time. The common theme was that “it’s a young team and their time will come”. They not only took the opportunity in 2018 but have since won three out of the last four All-Irelands.

“Finals are all about being present, patient and taking your opportunity, and not letting the occasion get to you. These girls have a great approach to everything they have done in the most challenging environment this year in the current global circumstances.

“It’s going to be one hell of a battle against a very good Ennis team and they are very much favoured to win, but nothing is beyond this capable bunch of Killarney girls.”

If Killarney are to cause an upset, their defence will be key.

“We have had a phenomenal run to get to the final and all through the journey the girls have not compromised on the quality of the rugby they are playing. The most pleasing aspect of our semifinal win against Bruff was keeping them to zero as we have put huge emphasis on our defence all season.

“We will very much approach the final versus Ennis in the same way.”

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100 days of Jack O’Connor

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Our sports editor Adam Moynihan analyses the first 100 days of Jack O’Connor’s third spell as Kerry manager.

The McGrath Cup isn’t exactly the acid test – it has been distinctly alkaline so far, truth be told – but Jack O’Connor’s feet are now firmly beneath his desk. It’s hard to believe but he has already put down his first 100 days as Kerry’s manager. I think that gives us the green light to start analysing the poor man to within an inch of his life, as is the custom in these parts.

Kerry have played just two preseason games during O’Connor’s third stint but there is still plenty to pore over. (And if there wasn’t we’d find something, says you.)

THE BEGINNING

Going back as far as Day 1, and even before that, there was significant controversy surrounding his appointment. O’Connor was officially ratified on October 4 but he appeared to publicly flirt with the idea of returning to The Kingdom on an Irish Examiner podcast in August. Some people felt that this was disrespectful to Peter Keane – Kerry had just been knocked out of the championship by Tyrone – and O’Connor later admitted that his comments were “naïve”.

However, I wouldn’t personally go along with this idea that Jack O’Connor ought to have been more mindful of Peter Keane in this situation. The two were competitors in a very competitive field and Keane was technically no longer the Kerry manager after the Tyrone defeat because his term was up. If a journalist asks Jack O’Connor if there is an “allure”, why should he lie and say there isn’t?

The interview process that followed drew sharp criticism in some quarters, particularly amongst Keane supporters, because there was a perception that O’Connor was the preferred candidate before he, Keane and Stephen Stack were interviewed. So what if he was? Complete impartiality is impossible in this kind of scenario. The candidates are known to the board, so some sort of bias is inevitable.

That doesn’t mean they were wrong to meet with Keane and Stack. If Keane was turfed out without getting the chance to make his case, his supporters would have been livid over that as well. There is no nice way to lose a job, particularly one that is as prestigious and coveted as the Kerry gig.

Off The Ball AM went one step further and, quoting an unnamed source, alleged that O’Connor had been hired even before the interview process had started. If true, that would have been a different story. That would be completely unfair and a real slap in the face for Keane and Stack and their respective teams. But the accusations were denied in the strongest terms by outgoing chair Tim Murphy, and OTB AM later apologised for their “groundless, false, and incorrect” claims.

The bottom line, when you sidestep all the politics and gossip, is that Keane was given a three-year term and Kerry were knocked out of the championship by underdogs in Years 2 and 3. No Kerry manager has ever survived such a sequence. There was appetite for change and the board acted.

Only time will tell if they made the right decision by opting for Jack O’Connor. He will be judged by his results, just like every Kerry bainisteoir before him.

LEAVING KILDARE

O’Connor faced some more understandable criticism over the manner in which he left his previous post in Kildare. From the outside looking in, it did appear as though he left them high and dry, but he subsequently explained that he hadn’t actually committed to The Lilywhites for 2022. In fact, he had “more or less” made his mind up that he would be standing aside.

“This thing that I left Kildare because I was asked to manage Kerry or that it was a done deal is absolute and total nonsense,” the Dromid man said. The commute was taking its toll and his management team had largely disbanded.

Even if he had another year with Kildare in the tank, the reality is that no Kerry-born intercounty manager is going to turn down Kerry if the opportunity arises.

CALL-UPS

Now, down to the real business of assembling a squad. Whereas previous regimes were condemned for sometimes overlooking players who were performing well for their clubs, O’Connor has taken a different approach.

Three Austin Stacks players – Dylan Casey, Jack O’Shea and Greg Horan – were drafted in on the back of the Rockies’ heroics in the County Championship. Two more of last season’s most eye-catching club players, Andrew Barry and Jack Savage, were also added to the panel.

Dan O’Donoghue and Darragh Roche both starred for East Kerry in their title-winning campaigns in 2019 and 2020. One could argue that they both might have been looked at sooner.

Elsewhere, goalkeeper Shane Murphy was recalled after being dropped by Peter Keane in 2018. Shane Ryan has done well over the past three seasons but there has been a nagging feeling in the county that Murphy and his unique attributes, particularly when kicking from the tee, might merit a recall. Clearly, Jack O’Connor is of the same mind.

There is also great excitement amongst Kerry fans surrounding the return of Stefan Okunbor. The former Geelong Cats player had made just a couple of appearances for Na Gaeil and St Brendan’s when O’Connor’s first panel was drawn up, but Okunbor was included anyway. He started at midfield in the first McGrath Cup game against Limerick and his eye-catching fetch from the throw-in left those of a green and gold persuasion rubbing their hands with glee.

THE KERRY WAY

There’s no denying that we consider ourselves to be the aristocrats of Gaelic football down here in Kerry. We demand that our senior footballers play the “Kerry way”. This “traditional” style of attack apparently includes plenty of kicking and catching, conveniently ignoring the fact that our best ever team was built around the handpass.

Nevertheless, we do enjoy a fast, direct game, and if the opening two matches in the McGrath Cup are anything to go by, Jack O’Connor intends to deliver on that front.

So far it has been an obvious tactic to get the ball into the hands of the team’s best passers – Paudie Clifford, Seán O’Shea and nominal corner back Tom O’Sullivan – and allow them to spray long, accurate passes into the full forward line.

O’Sullivan in particular appears to be operating as a free man and playmaker, taking advantage of the fact that most opponents drop an extra player back in defence.

This tactic has worked so far with Paul Geaney and Killian Spillane reaping the rewards in the opening preseason fixtures. That has certainly been encouraging. Whether or not the approach will continue to function as well when things get serious remains to be seen.

PLAYER WELFARE

One of the biggest talking points from O’Connor’s first 100 days arrived on the 100th day itself. Last Wednesday night up in Templetuohy, Co. Tipperary, Tony Brosnan and Jack Savage entered the fray as second-half substitutes. The problem? They had lined out earlier that same day for MTU Kerry in their Sigerson Cup victory over UCD. Another MTU Kerry player, Paul O’Shea, was also named on the Kerry panel, but he did not feature against Tipp.

O’Connor’s decision to play Brosnan and Savage just hours after they had finished another match in a different county was rightly called into question. After all, player welfare is a hot button topic and surely there is no shortage of footballers in the county who would be delighted to receive a call-up.

There were mitigating factors, though. Kerry were missing 14 players due to club and college commitments. Without the MTU Kerry trio, they would have travelled to Tipperary with just 20 players. While it should be possible to find replacements, even at short notice, perhaps O’Connor was keen to keep the circle small, so to speak. Particularly with Covid so rampant.

The Kerry boss also indicated that the players were left to decide for themselves if they wanted to play. You might say, well, a fella scrapping to get on the Kerry team is hardly going to say “no”, and that’s a fair enough point to make. Who knows, maybe O’Connor was testing the players to see if they were willing to go above and beyond?

Either way, it’s not something I’d like to see happening again, although in this instance there was no harm done.

GOOD VIBES

By and large, O’Connor has made popular choices up to this point and the mood on the street is positive. Victory over Cork on Saturday in front of a healthy home crowd will add to those good vibes, and with that in mind he is likely to name a strong starting lineup.

But, as the man himself knows all too well, the temperature will gradually increase over the next 100 days or so. O’Connor’s third coming will ultimately be judged in the boiling heat of championship action.

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