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Eamonn Fitzgerald: Goodbye to a difficult year

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Killarney Advertiser sports columnist Eamonn Fitzgerald reflects on 2020, a sporting year like no other that produced some fascinating storylines.

 

What’s another year, as we say goodbye to 2020, a year dominated by COVID-19.

It impacted on the health of so many people and sadly, in the case of far too many, death followed. To all those who suffered and were bereaved we extend our sympathies and hope that 2021 will be a better one for you and for your families.

Sport also came a cropper, especially in the early stages, but then it opened up again. I had argued in this column on a number of occasions that most sporting activities should also be closed down, because the health and lives of people were at stake, particularly in crowded situations, involving teams and supporters. I was in favour of individual sport continuing.

I can appreciate the counter-argument that sport was not alone necessary for the physical health of players and supporters, but very much so for mental health. Sporting events were something we look forward to, but the risks were too high.

However, most sports opened up and 2020 provided that release for so many aficionados. It was a different year, with most sports played behind closed doors. Live streaming became the norm and it looks like the new norm will continue for 2021.

SOCCER

COVID-19 wasn’t kind to Stephen Kenny in his opening matches in charge of the Irish team in the Nations League. A famine of goals followed as he set about changing the Irish style of play. Gone was the Charlton mode of putting ‘em under pressure, often hoofing the ball long and direct. Kenny’s style is more attractive, but fans want wins, not moral victories. And, certainly, we need goals. What is overlooked too often is that he does not have the calibre of class players that Big Jack had. He has too few top-class footballers to call on.

On the club scene, COVID-19 didn’t stop Liverpool from being crowned champions, even if their many supporters in Killarney had to wait for quite a while before they could exercise the bragging rights, which they did. They were deserving champions and they still lead the way. Chelsea and Leeds’ fans hopes were high to challenge them, but recent results burst that balloon, even at this early stage. The challenge may well fall to the two Manchester rival clubs and what about Leicester, making an early burst?

On the Irish stage Shamrock Rovers reigned supreme and were worthy champions. I have happy memories of going to Glenmalure Park in Miltown (Dublin) in the seventies when they were unbeatable. They are in that mode again, but their old stomping ground is no more. In 1987 that beautiful pitch was controversially sold to speculative-minded builders, so beautifully captured by Luke Kelly in his song Dublin in the Rare Old Times: “the grey unyielding concrete makes a city of my town”.

Rovers had no home ground for over 20 years until they settled on Tallaght.

SIX–IN-A-ROW

Across the city to the north side and there was no stopping the Dubs as they rewrote the history they made in 2019 by clinching the new norm of six-in a-row.

Great displays by Cavan and Tipperary brought home interprovincial silverware to success-starved fans in those counties. No joy for Kerry, who allowed Cork to boss them in the deluge at Páirc Uí Chaiomh and bending the knee with that late, late goal. What’s the story for 2021? More about that in future editions.

The Kerry hurlers gave great satisfaction to so many supporters, even if they lost the McDonagh Cup final to Antrim, who proved to be their nemesis on four occasions in 2020.

This game was a curtain-raiser to the All-Ireland senior hurling final which was won convincingly in great fashion by Limerick. My abiding hurling memories of 2020 were those amazing sideline cuts by the imperious Joe Canning. Four out of four from varying distances, left and right. What a skill, what a man raising four white flags. At local level, it was encouraging to see Dr Crokes win the Kerry IHC title versus Tralee Parnells. They are looking good for the future.

Speaking of the future and of optimism: fair dues to the Kerry U17 footballers. They beat Cork in a thriller in Tralee and made sure of the Munster title with victory over Clare. They played a brand of football that gladdened the hearts of Kerry supporters, who were still hurting after the seniors' defeat. They played a good mix of old-style direct football and controlled close passing until the colleague arrived on the shoulder. They drove forward and delivered the ball in quickly to the scoring zone, where garsúns like Cian McMahon came of age, notching match-winning scores.

They were due to meet Roscommon in the All-Ireland semi-final in two weeks’ time, but I don’t expect that game to go ahead.

The U20s were badly hit for their All-Ireland semi-final v Galway, losing three players to the virus just before the match. Galway went on to beat Dublin in the final. John Sugrue had a good stint as manager but he stepped down, after facing that long return journey from Portlaoise a few times every week.

Declan O’Sullivan will manage this important group for the next two years, at least. His linkage with the senior management team will be very important as Kerry regroup. As expected, Donie Buckley wasn’t idle too long after parting company with Kerry, the one team he wanted to work with. Banty has taken him on board to boost Monaghan’s hopes of cranking up their dreams.

KERRY LADIES

A special mention to the Kerry ladies football team. They did very well and put up a great show against Cork in Tralee. Cork went on to the All-Ireland final, where they bowed to the other Dub trailblazers.

Mind you, the emerging Dubs have a long ways to go to reach the heights of past Kerry teams which included, among others, the all-round sports star Mary Geaney and Mary Jo Curran. If memory serves me well, Kerry won something like nine All-Irelands in a row, led by Beaufort’s Mary Jo. She won a bagful of All-Ireland medals, 11 in all. What a record and only Henry Shefflin, the great Kilkenny hurler, came near with 10.

At long last progress has been made in some sports where women were treated less equally than men.

Such misogynistic sentiments are coming to their rightful and timely end. In golf at long last, the GUI and the ILGUI have merged amicably into Golf Ireland. I wonder what the story is in Portmarnock and in Royal Dublin? Killarney Golf & Fishing Club has embraced this welcome, pluralistic mindset for quite some time.

The men and women players in the GAA are also well on the way to unity, but the top table of the GAA still lacks the heterogeneity of thought to bring them all under the one umbrella. The treatment of Galway in the staging of the All-Ireland semi-final still rankles, as does the low level of travel expenses paid to the ladies in comparison to the men. Equality beckons. Or does it?

HEART

There was plenty more to gladden the heart in 2020. Katie Taylor is the queen of the ring, the undisputed world champion.

Bookies were closed for the most part, as horse racing went ahead behind closed doors. The harsh lesson from the fall-out in March from Cheltenham was a stark reminder. The main winner in the new set-up was Willie Mullins and it was great to seek the Kerry jockeys doing so well.

The Irish rugby team struggled, but are Munster on the way back up again to their former lofty perch?

In golf, there was no Ryder Cup for team captain Pádraig Harrington. We had winning performances from Dustin Johnson, as well as the arrival on the podium of Bryson DeChambeau, defying best practices by missing most of the fairways and using his extra three stone weight to hit the ball out of the high rough without a bother, giving high handicappers great hopes of making the same winning connection more regularly.

FOCAL SCOIR

Focal scoir and just a few days into 2021, I still feel on balance that a halt should be called to competitions for team sports, where physical contact is a prerequisite. Numero uno is the health of all. Sport for individuals could go ahead, where social distancing is not an issue.

The daily number of cases is close to 5,000. By the time you read this, the daily figure may be up to 7,000. Statistics are reminders of the reality of the fallout from COVID -19. However, these are also human stories of suffering, worry, uncertainty and regrettably, in too many cases, death and mourning for families who are unable to grieve in the healing process of traditional Irish wakes and funerals.

Schools may not re-open on Monday next and Lockdown 3 may well need to continue into March. Team sports should be put on hold until it is deemed safe to open up. After all, basketball has been closed completely in 2020, as it is an indoor sport. For the first time in over 50 years the eagerly awaited Castleisland Christmas basketball blitz, masterminded by the indefatigable Duke, did not go ahead.

Idir an dá linn, Happy New Year and stay safe.

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BREAKING: Kerry FC respond to criticism of season ticket prices

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by Adam Moynihan

Kerry FC have responded to online criticism of the price of their 2023 seated season tickets, highlighting the availability of “other options” for supporters of the League of Ireland’s newest club.

Season tickets for the Main Stand at Mounthawk Park went on sale this morning at a price of €275. LOI fans were quick to point out that this is the most expensive season ticket in the First Division, with a number of rival clubs charging less than €200.

In a statement released to the Killarney Advertiser, Kerry FC said that pricing structures were “examined for a long time” in the build-up to their season ticket launch.

“It’s worth noting that the €275 season ticket guarantees your assigned seat for every home league game in the 2023 season in a covered stand on the long side of the pitch,” the club explained.

“If supporters would prefer, there are plenty of other season ticket options, including a terrace ticket for general admission at a price of €200.

“Family tickets ensure children can attend our games at a minimal cost while Students/OAPs receive a significant discount on their yearly ticket.”

Over 100 Main Stand season tickets were sold within an hour of going on sale at 9am today.

The 2023 League of Ireland season will get underway in February.

Kerry FC season tickets can be purchased here.

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How ‘box office’ duo Clifford and O’Shea pushed Kerry’s brand into overdrive

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Adam Moynihan caught up with Kerry GAA Store manager Luke Quinn to find out how the Killarney-based business made record profits in 2022

It was a sad day for the parish when Killarney’s famous Nike Factory Store closed its doors in March of this year. That big, white Swoosh had attracted locals and visitors to the Killarney Outlet Centre since both the store and the centre first opened in 1999. Having a brand that large in a town so small was pretty cool. We were all sorry to see it go.

It wasn’t the only sports brand to call the Outlet Centre home, though. As Nike shut up shop, just across the way, on the other side of the escalator, the Kerry GAA Store was gearing up for what would turn out to be their best year ever.

The official retail outlet of Kerry GAA racked up €200,000 in profits in the financial year up to November. Not quite Nike numbers – the US sportswear giant made €21 billion globally – but the store’s record revenue certainly came as a welcome bonus for the county board.

Preparing intercounty teams has become hugely expensive (Kerry spent almost €1.5 million on their footballers and hurlers in 2022) and plans are in place to redevelop the Fitzgerald Stadium at an estimated cost of €72 million. Every cent counts.

The unprecedented success of the business is also a sure sign that the Kerry brand, which has been developing in one way or another for over 100 years, has now slipped into overdrive.

I recently called into the Kerry GAA Store to speak to manager Luke Quinn and find out more.

OFFICE

After selling a half-zip tracksuit top to a customer and handing over to his assistant, Luke invites me into a narrow office down the back. Myself and Luke actually know each other a long time. As kids we were neighbours down in Whitebridge Manor. I recall borrowing his Schmeichel-era Man United keeper jersey once so I could play in goal. It wasn’t the last jersey he gave me (although, in fairness, these days I pay).

A popular figure at his club, Dr Crokes, Luke experienced great success as a player and he is currently part of Brian McMahon’s senior management team. After chatting a bit about football, we get down to business.

I get the impression that I’m embarrassing him somewhat when I ask for the official amount that the store handed over to the county board, but he readily admits that he is delighted with the 12 months he and his team have put down.

“I think with the new jersey being released, and with Kerry reaching and winning the All-Ireland final, all those things combined and led to a very profitable year,” Quinn says.

“Any time you bring out a jersey, especially a home jersey, it gains traction – not alone in Kerry but all over the world.”

The popularity of that new O’Neills home jersey is an interesting one because it actually received quite a poor reception when it was unveiled in January. For his part, Quinn attributes that initial reaction to the imagery that accompanied the release. The sublimated background graphics on the body of the shirt were exaggerated in the launch photos, which made it look far louder than it actually was in real life.

“When people saw it in reality and when the team wore it, sales went through the roof. I remember the first weekend they wore it on TV against Kildare, the jersey gained unbelievable traction. I think people’s minds were changed.

“I know that O’Neills were very confident that it was going to sell well and, to be honest, we were as well. It’s like anything when it’s new, it takes a bit of time to seep in.

“I think the return of white trim was a factor. The bit of white just makes everything pop. It’s subtle enough but it makes a huge difference; it makes the green and gold more prominent.”

Perhaps even more significant than the design of the jersey itself was the talent wearing it. Kerry ended their eight-year drought by defeating Galway in the All-Ireland final in July with Man of the Match and Footballer of the Year David Clifford to the fore. At just 23 years of age, Clifford is now the sport’s standout superstar and Quinn says that he and semi-final hero Seán O’Shea are now driving the Kerry brand on a national and global level.

“Kerry is a worldwide brand at this stage. It’s a known brand and it’s not only Kerry people who want to buy the shirt, it’s people in the midlands, up the north, all over the world really.

“This Kerry team is relatively young and they’re after building a nice relationship with the public. The more you win, the more you’re going to be in the news and the media and the likes of David Clifford and Seánie and these guys, they’re box office now. The boys really do give [the brand] that extra push.

“It’s very hard to quantify but one thing you’d notice is that this year we had parents coming in who might have no interest in the GAA, in particular foreign nationals from places like Eastern Europe, and they had kids who were mad to get the jersey. They would actually point to the photos of David and Seánie and say they wanted the jerseys that those guys wear.

“You can’t really put a figure on it but you can see that these players are reaching out to a large audience because of who they are. At this stage, if they wore a black plastic bag, the kids would want a black plastic bag.”

The GAA is different to sports like soccer in that players don’t have squad numbers or their names printed on the backs of their shirts. If the GAA went down that road, Quinn has no doubt about which jersey would be the most popular.

“You’d just be stocking up on Clifford jerseys, wouldn’t you?” he laughs. “I’ve heard squad numbers being mooted but intercounty GAA is so different. The panels change so often, especially the higher numbers. Kerry could have 40 different players training with them throughout the year so it would be hard to nail down numbers.

“We possibly will bring out a number 14 and a number 11 shirt ourselves (Clifford and O’Shea’s usual numbers). Maybe a number 8 too. The more prominent ones. There is a demand for that. But as for names on the back, that might be a bridge too far.”

Aside from the jerseys, many items from Kerry’s leisure and training wear collections are also big sellers. The store receives four ranges from O’Neills every year, two of which are exclusive to the shop (i.e. the National League range and the Championship range). These collections include the same hoodies, jackets, half-zips and polo shirts the players wear travelling to games, as well as the clothing that team manager Jack O’Connor wears on the sideline.

The training jerseys sported by the players when they warm up before matches are also popular.

STRONG RELATIONSHIP

After a turbulent period in the nineties when they changed kit supplier three times (adidas to Emerald Active Wear, then to Millfield, and then back to adidas), Kerry have now been with O’Neills for 22 years straight. The relationship between the two parties is strong. Quinn certainly doesn’t see it ending any time soon.

“O’Neills are a great company to deal with. They have a lot of stuff in the pot – 30 or 31 counties – but they’re good at what they do. They wouldn’t be at the top of the game for this long otherwise. Their production is very streamlined, they have a good marketing team, and a good design team. The reps on the ground are very helpful and I can see them going from strength to strength to be honest with you, and further afield in other sports as well.

“The issue with another company coming in instead of O’Neills – for example if we took on another smaller producer – I think the bottom line is that if the team gets to an All-Ireland semi-final or final, the demand for jerseys and leisurewear goes through the roof. I don’t think there’s any other company in the country that could accommodate that demand in such a short space of time. Especially with the season being shortened, I just can’t see anyone else being able to take on that production.

“O’Neills have a monstrosity of a factory up in Strabane as well as the one in Dublin, which is no small factory either. And even at that, when it comes to the summertime, they would be at capacity. I can’t imagine another company taking on a county like Kerry or Dublin or Mayo who are GAA mad and are always at the business end of the season. Other companies will find it hard to dip into the big hitters.”

At a national level, O’Neills jersey sales were actually down 16% in 2022, something the company has attributed to the shorter intercounty window. Thankfully for Quinn and for Kerry, the Kerry GAA Store didn’t experience the same drop in sales once the season ended in July.

“I suppose with Kerry getting to the final and winning it, we weren’t affected as much,” he reflects. “There was a nice little buzz after the final. We brought out some different bits of merchandise on the back of winning as well so that’s always going to help. I also think people are getting ahead of Christmas that bit earlier this year.

“It would be different if Kerry lost earlier in the year but I can’t say the split season affected us too much.”

SEVEN DAYS A WEEK

Quinn took the reins five years ago and although he describes it as a busy job, it’s one he’s massively enjoying.

“I’m loving it. I took over from Botty (Niall O’Callaghan) and Seán O’Sullivan so I had big boots to fill but the boys were great on the handover. I’ve got some good bosses who help me out big time. The county board leave me to my own devices but they’re always there when I need any help.

“It’s busy and we’re open seven days a week. The only days we’re closed are Christmas Day and New Year’s Day so it’s gung-ho all the time. With new ranges and new jerseys and new fashion trends, you have to keep your finger on the pulse at all times. So it is busy but it’s the way I like to be.”

What does a normal day look like?

“It’s always about planning ahead. Today I’m ordering next year’s Christmas range. I don’t even know how exactly Christmas is going to go this year in terms of sales but O’Neills need to plan so far ahead in their production that I’m already ordering for Christmas next year. You’re always trying to keep ahead of the game.

“There are new training jerseys coming out pre-Christmas. There’s a National League range coming out pre-Christmas. There’s an away jersey coming in January. You have to get your numbers right, get your system set up to take in all that stock, organise staff, and make sure everything is streamlined.”

That mention of a new Kerry away jersey will no doubt pique the curiosity of our readers. The outgoing away top, an eye-catching blue and lime green effort, has been in use since 2020. I pressed Luke for details.

“I haven’t even seen samples yet. If you’re talking to O’Neills tell them to send them down as soon as possible! I genuinely don’t know what it will look like. The design team at O’Neills will develop a good few prototypes, they’ll be sent down to ourselves and the county board, and we’ll go through them. O’Neills will give us a good idea of what they feel will work.

“Some of the players will have an input and then a final decision will be made. At the end of January, Kerry will be out against Donegal and hopefully we’ll see the new away jersey then.”

It’s hard to imagine Kerry footballers from bygone eras having (or wanting to have) too much say in the design of the kit but, generally speaking, the modern player is more into fashion than his predecessors. In that regard, it makes sense for them to have their say.

“There would definitely be an input,” Quinn reveals. “Some of the players just want to concentrate on the football or the hurling but other guys would be very style conscious in what they want to wear. Colm Whelan, the kit man for the footballers, and Tim Daly with the hurlers have a big interest in what ranges and training jerseys and playing jerseys are coming in. They know the guys [on the panel] who would be into the fashion side of things and we have a couple of WhatsApp groups to get the players’ opinions.

“O’Neills would definitely take it on board,” Quinn says, before jokingly adding, “I suppose if the best footballer in the country wants a certain thing then you’re going to have to go with it, aren’t you?!”

FOOTBALL TALK

One thing I’ve noticed from my trips to the Kerry GAA Store is the constant flow of GAA-related chat between the customers and the staff. Admittedly you could probably overhear football talk on any premises in a town like Killarney, but the store is the perfect setting for it. And that’s something Quinn and his employees relish. 

“You have all these business things going on in the background but the main thing in all this is the customer. We can’t lose sight of that. You still want to give the customers coming in the best experience, to chat about Kerry football, and engage with the public. That’s what it’s all about.

“This shop is bucking the trend. We do have an online store but it’s still very much a kind of ‘shop local’ set-up. All profits raised go back to the county board and we have so many repeat customers. Some people don’t even buy stuff, they just come in and shoot the breeze about how bad the Crokes were last weekend or whatever. From my point of view, I love it.

“My staff are great too. Seán House from Tralee is the assistant manager. He has been here a year and a bit and he has been excellent. We have eight or nine part-timers and most of them are in college but they’re all very invested in the place. They’re all here four or five years which is a good sign. They get excited when new stuff is coming in, they get a kick out of that.”

As a Kerry native who played the game to a high level, Quinn is naturally a massive fan of Kerry football. I was curious to know if the nature of his line of work, specifically the fact that the fortunes of the business depend so heavily on the fortunes of the team, affects the way he watches the games.

“A couple of years ago Kerry lost to Cork and we were out so early. Maybe not during the game but shortly after you’re saying to yourself, revenues are going to be a lot further down now. So definitely after the game it would be one of the first thoughts to come into your head. But it’s more the county board and the revenues that go back that I’d be thinking of.

“It would pop into your head afterwards but I’d be a normal Kerry supporter as the game is going on.”

Ultimately, it’s all about facilitating the continued growth of football and hurling in the county and Quinn is full of praise for his bosses who help make that happen.

“The chairman Patrick O’Sullivan – the store was his idea first day – as well as John O’Leary, John Joe Carroll and Liam Chute, they’re all very successful in their own professional careers. They’re very much doing this on a voluntary basis because they’re so proud of the shop and how well it has done. We’re all in it together.

“When you have a successful year financially it means you can develop Currans further, you can develop the pitches, you can bring in more Games Development Administrators. You can keep pushing on.”

The brand has a long way to go to reach Nike levels but with talented individuals on the pitch and in the boardroom, Kerry GAA appear to be ticking all the right boxes.

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