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Eamonn Fitzgerald: My golden memories of East Kerry’s 1971 Club All-Ireland

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Former East Kerry player Eamonn Fitzgerald recalls his team’s historic run in the 1971 All-Ireland Senior Club Football Championship.

It took all of 50 years for East Kerry, the winners of the inaugural 1971 All-Ireland Senior Club Football Championship, to be brought together and honoured.

The local East Kerry Board (EKB) did it in style at sun-splashed Fitzgerald Stadium on Sunday last. The winning players of ’71, led by captain Mick Gleeson, are unique as they are the only divisional team to ever win the title. The GAA decided very quickly that divisional board teams were no longer eligible to take part.

The present EKB, led by genial cathaoirleach Johnny Brosnan, spent 10 weeks of hard work sourcing the whereabouts of the title winners and making all the necessary arrangements which ensured that everything went off like clockwork on Sunday, including the presentation of specially commissioned and personally inscribed medals for all.

Of the first 15 that played in the final in Croke Park in 1971, only one person has passed away, that great, lovable rogue and brilliant forward Denis Coffey of Lewis Road. That’s a remarkable feat when one considers that we have been surrounded by so much mortality, especially over the past few years.

Fittingly and much appreciated was the decision of the EKB to present the special medals to all who played their part at different stages on the way to Croker. Gone but not forgotten.

Also remembered was the peerless Donie Sheahan, who trained East Kerry to three Kerry SFC wins in a row from 1968 to 1970. He had his greatest moment on November 21, 1971 when East Kerry beat Bryansford in the All-Ireland final at Croke Park.

He was the catalyst for victory, aided by fellow selectors Brendan Walsh (Glenflesk), Johnny Culloty (Legion), Donie O’Leary (Spa), and Johnny Barry (Gneeveguilla).

The efficiency and drive of EKB officers Brendy Walsh (Chairman, Glenflesk), Denis Fenton (Secretary, Spa) and John Daly (Treasurer, Dr Crokes) was crucial. No hassle about out of pocket expenses, especially for students and the then unwaged, meant a well-oiled winning machine. And there wasn’t any GPA to ruffle feathers.

As Kerry champions in 1970, when they completed the three-in-a row, East Kerry qualified for the national title.

I have clear recollections of that memorable journey, which began with a home g ame against Ardfinnan, the Tipperary champions, in the Fitzgerald Stadium on January 24, 1971. The weather was seasonally dreadful and as centre back I had the task of making sure no opponent came soloing through the middle. Mind the gap was the mantra. They had two very good forwards, Olly O’Connor and a very young Babs Keating. Both scored goals but East Kerry added winning points to Mick Gleeson’s goal for a narrow win (1-6 to 2-1). It was the first win of many.

Next up was an away match against John Mitchells in Portlaw, Co. Waterford. “We’ll stick you in at corner forward today and hang under the big fellows Gleeson, Kavanagh and Coffey for the breaking ball.” Those were my riding instructions from Donie Sheahan. What a delight, just like plucking golden apples. Timing and positioning was crucial. Raising different coloured flags was a liberating experience. A handsome 1-4. The other goalscorers were Mikey Lyne, Mick Gleeson and a screamer from Pat Moynihan’s ensured a facile 4-15 to 1-4 passage to the Munster final.

KERRY V CORK

The Munster final on St Patrick’s Day was anything but easy. The worst conditions I ever played in. Four seasons in one day, and really play was nearly impossible.

I was back to being a defender once more and it was just about survival; it was nearly as terrible as the weather conditions the great Tom Crean experienced. The explorer from Annascaul was a great footballer himself and we could have done with his indomitable spirit of endurance in the blizzard that day, facing some great Cork players such as full back Mick Scannell, Connie Kelly, Séamus McCarthy and many more that I can’t re-call after 50 years.

We were haunted to edge out the very good Muskerry Divisional Board team who defeated Nemo Rangers in the 1970 Cork county final. The final score was seven points to six and the man to save us was Donie O’Sullivan.

Is it any wonder that the New York Jets wanted to sign him up as a kicker? Yes, just that, come off after each kick and wait for the next one. Thankfully for East Kerry, he rejected the NFL and in the storm-lashed Fitzgerald Stadium blizzard he converted two monster kicks into the gale to snatch victory. Was it any wonder he went on to be Kerry’s first All-Star 1971?

Paddy O'Donoghue (two) and Johnny O’Mahony RIP (three) also scored invaluable points. We were haunted and frozen stiff. Did you ever try to unlace muddy boots through frozen eyelids in a blinding blizzard? No parades that time in Killarney. Haven’t we come along ways and for the better too.

NO FOUR-IN-A-ROW

Meanwhile, the plans for four-in-a-row of Kerry SFC titles disappeared. Was this the end of an era?

In Kerry, yes, but the lure of a big day out in Croke Park was the bait used by Donie Sheahan. This was the crossroad for decision-making. How did he plámás the panel to give it an almighty go for gold? Spa had taken over from Dr Crokes as kingpins of the O’Donoghue Cup, but they were shocked to not alone lose to unfancied Listry, but to be well beaten in the 1970 final (2-8 to 1-7). Spa roared back to win the 1971 decider, defeating Dr Crokes in the final.

Opponents on Sunday, but when that rivalry saw its course, Donie Sheahan got them together the following Tuesday night. Club affiliations were set aside to unite under the red geansaís of East Kerry. Unity was paramount, in the name of the game.

No such word as bonding at that time, but an almighty effort was needed for the All-Ireland semi-final away to Gracefield, the Offaly champions. They had a good number of Offaly intercounty players on home soil in Tullamore and the weather was fine in early September.

“You’re up to corner forward again, but this time we are switching you to the left corner forward side,” said boss Donie.

Gracefield were very tough, backboned by Offaly’s John Smith, who took no prisoners. Tom Looney was playing very well at right half forward but had to leave the field after a head-on collision with big Smith. Unfortunately for Tom it cost him his place in the final. I recall the game held up for quite a while following that incident. East Kerry’s best players that late evening were Donie O’Sullivan at centre back and the versatile Dan O’Keeffe on the 40. Their best were goalkeeper Jimmy Murphy, Tadhg Bryan and Smith, of course.

Majestic at midfield was that graceful fetcher Pat Moynihan, and also the hard grafting Pat Casey. Seán O’Sullivan (Lissivigeen) came on for Looney and the great-hearted Mike Lyne (Legion) substituted for Paddy O’Donoghue. Other memories were fine goalkeeping by Weeshie Fogarty, no surrender by Derry Crowley and Jim Gleeson, and two points from the left corner forward, one from a free. It was one of the few frees I ever converted. Dee Coff wanted a break, winked and wanted to get me on the scoreboard. We were fortunate to have Paul Kelly (Dublin) in charge, the best referee in Ireland at that time.

ALL-IRELAND FINAL

The All-Ireland final against Ulster champions Bryansford on November 21 was played in Croke Park and they were highly rated having accounted for Crossmaglen in the ferociously competitive Ulster series. They had four Cunningham brothers, three Neeson brothers, and the best of all was the Down star Cecil Ward. East Kerry played with the wind in the first half. Donie Sheehan’s words and tactics are still clear in my mind.

“Go out there and show them that Kerry football is the best of all. Play to our strengths. Donie (O’Sullivan), you’re the longest kicker in Ireland, in fact in the world. One of ye Pats (Casey and Moynihan) lepp high and the other one stay down. Send it straight into the best full forward line in Ireland and they won’t miss. I want no tippy tappy stuff imitating that Down football. Make every post a winner. Go out there and make (Joe) Lennon eat his own words.” (Lennon, in intercounty star, had stated that that “traditional Kerry football is 10 years behind the rest of the country”.)

“Lead them out there, Mick (Gleeson),” Donie continued, “and for God’s sake play with the wind in the first half. Make every post a winner.”

THE GREEN AND GOLD

And the irony of it all was that some Dublin based late comers to the game cringed as the green and gold defenders were swamped in that opening salvo of goals.  Bryansford’s club geansaís were green and gold while Kerry sported their traditional red!

East Kerry struck early and often, led by Gleeson, captain fantastic. The goals came him (two), Kavanagh (two) and Coffey. James Borden, the Bryansford goalkeeper, had to retrieve the O’Neill’s leather five times in all from a bulging net, but he was like the little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dyke in a valiant attempt to save his country from being swamped.

The full back line of Cunningham, Burns and Neeson were bamboozled. But fair deuce to them they rallied as we expected and as goalkeeper I, too, had to unravel the net, but fortunately only twice. Gerald Cullinane played a blinder at wing back, the best player along with Donie O’Sullivan to drop-kick the ball, a skill that is redundant in the modern hand-passing game.

At 4.15pm, referee Jimmy Hatton sounded the sweetest whistle of all. 5-9 to 2-7.

Winner takes all and Donie Sheahan was like the traditional kangaroo hopping from one East Kerry player to the next. God those home pills from Main Street were working.

When he did get to me he said: “Look at the scoreboard. Five goals. Lennon will have to eat humble pie now. What will he write in the Sunday Press after that. I can die happily now.”

Fortunately for all, he lived on for 50 more years and nearly made it to last Sunday’s golden anniversary. Memories such as these and many more came tumbling back at sunny Fitzgerald Stadium on Sunday last. Donie Sheahan had the best seat in the Park, the helicopter view!

HISTORIC MAKERS

East Kerry lined out as follows in the 1971 All-Ireland Club Football final: Éamonn Fitzgerald (Dr Crokes), Donie O’Sullivan (Spa), Derry Crowley (Glenflesk), Jim Gleeson (Spa), Gerard Cullinane (Dr Crokes), Noel Power (Legion), Jerh O’Donoghue (Rathmore), Pat Moynihan (Gneeveguilla), Pat Casey (Spa), Paddy O’Donoghue (Glenflesk), Dan O’Keeffe (Gneeveguilla), Denny Healy (Glenflesk), Denis Coffey (Dr Crokes), Michael Gleeson (Captain, Spa), Domhnalll Kavanagh (Dr Crokes). Tom Looney (Dr Crokes) came on as a sub for Pat Casey. Subs: Weeshie Fogarty (Legion), Seán O’Sullivan (Spa), Johnny O’Mahony (Gneeveguilla), Mikey Lyne (Legion), Dan Kelleher (Dr Crokes), Jimmy Hegarty (Glenflesk), Johnny Batt Cronin (Spa), Peter Clerkin (Glenflesk).

DUG THE WELL

The fortunate ones to taste the water of success at Croke Park in 1971 never forgot those who dug the well over several years and played their parts in ultimate glory. The EKB also remember and appreciate them. That hard working meitheal of Johnny Brosnan, Michael O’Mahony, Anne Holland, John Dineen, Séamus Healy, Ellen O’Keeffe, Peggy Horan, Gary O’Halloran, Dermot O’Connor, Noel Kennedy, Ger Galvin, Peggy Brosnan, John O’Leary, and Daniel O’Sullivan. They didn’t forget those wonderful players and selectors who could not be present, but were represented so well and so gracefully by relatives, shown in brackets. I think of Tom Looney (Ian Looney), Denis Coffey (Noreen Coffey), Weeshie Fogarty (Denise Fogarty), Johnny Culloty, Johnny Crowley (Martin Crowley), Tom O’Keeffe (Breda McAuliffe), Johnny O’ Mahony (Sheila O’Mahony), Jimmy Hegarty (Tim Murphy), Der Sweeney (Denis Sweeney), Johnny Cronin (Donagh Cronin), Peter Clerkin (Sam and Ann Clerkin), Brendan Walshe (Cathal Walshe), Denis Fenton (Mark Fenton), and Donie Sheahan (Liam Sheahan).

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Survey reveals Kerry fans’ expectations for 2023

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A start-of-season survey carried out by the Killarney Advertiser has revealed Kerry supporters’ expectations ahead of the 2023 campaign, which gets underway on Sunday with a league match against Donegal.

Kerry enjoyed a perfect year in 2022 as Jack O’Connor led his team to glory in the National League, Munster Championship and All-Ireland Championship. It would be an incredible achievement to replicate that success again this time around, but some supporters seem to think that it can be done.

Around 73% of those polled believe that Kerry will reach another All-Ireland final, with the majority (42%) predicting that Sam Maguire will be staying in the Kingdom for another year at least. Just under a quarter of respondents (23%) think that Kerry will fall at the semi-final stage, however, with the remainder (4%) anticipating a quarter-final or round robin exit.

1. How far will Kerry go in the championship?

All-Ireland round robin – 1%

All-Ireland quarter-final – 3%

All-Ireland semi-final – 23%

All-Ireland final (runners-up) – 31%

All-Ireland final (winners) – 42%

That’s what supporters expect to happen, but what would they be happy with? When asked what would constitute a “good year” for Kerry in 2023, 54% stated that only an All-Ireland will do. A further 32% said they would be content with another All-Ireland final appearance. So, effectively, the vast majority of Kerry supporters (86%) won’t be happy unless their team at least makes it to the All-Ireland final on July 30.

2. Kerry need to ___________ for 2023 to be classed as a “good” year.

Reach the All-Ireland round robin stage – 1%

Reach the All-Ireland quarter-final – 3%

Reach the All-Ireland semi-final – 10%

Reach the All-Ireland final – 32%

Win the All-Ireland final – 54%

Neighbours Cork gave Kerry a real hiding in the McGrath Cup at the beginning of this month but it appears as though fans from this side of the county bounds are placing little stock in that particular result. Over 96% of supporters expect Kerry to win their provincial championship. A very small minority (3%) are fearing the worst, i.e. Cork winning Munster.

3. Who will win the Munster Championship?

Kerry – 96%

Cork – 3%

Someone else – 1%

Expectations are lower for the immediate future, however. With several players out injured and others – including star player David Clifford – being rested, most fans reckon Kerry will finish mid-table in Division 1 of the National League. Over half of the readers who responded to our survey (52%) think Kerry will finish 3rd or 4th in the eight-team pool, with roughly one-in-five expecting a 5th or 6th place finish.

Despite the lengthy list of absentees, 21% of supporters are still optimistic that Kerry can retain their Division 1 title. At the other end of the scale, around 1% think Kerry will be relegated.

4. Where will Kerry finish in Division 1 of the National League?

1st or 2nd (winners) – 21%

1st or 2nd (runners-up) – 8%

3rd or 4th – 52%

5th or 6th – 18%

7th or 8th (relegated) – 1%

When asked which opponent they are most wary of heading into the new season, the vast majority of Kerry fans singled out the same Division 2 team.

5. Which opposition team should Kerry be most worried about in 2023?

Dublin – 78%

Tyrone – 7%

Armagh – 6%

Cork – 3%

Derry – 3%

Mayo – 2%

Galway – 1%

Jack O’Connor’s side travel to Ballybofey on Sunday for their first competitive outing of the season. Throw-in is at 2pm with the match being televised live on TG4.

Follow @AdamMoynihan for all the latest Kerry GAA news

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“Argentina have Messi but we have the Messiah”

By Michelle Crean  Calls for full civic reception for David Clifford Superstar footballer David Clifford has been compared to Argentina’s Messi. At Monday’s full Kerry County Council meeting councillors were full of […]

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By Michelle Crean 

Calls for full civic reception for David Clifford

Superstar footballer David Clifford has been compared to Argentina’s Messi.

At Monday’s full Kerry County Council meeting councillors were full of praise for both the Fossa and Rathmore teams who won their respective finals a day earlier in Croke Park. Fossa became the All-Ireland Junior Football Champions when they beat Stewartstown Harps, while Rathmore secured the AIB All-Ireland Intermediate Club Football title.

Cllr Mike Kennelly said “we are currently witnessing the greatest footballer ever” as he called for a full civic reception to honour David Clifford.

“I think he’s the greatest inspiration to every Kerry person. We, as an authority, as a county need to acknowledge this. We need to acknowledge David’s greatness and inspiration on his unrivalled success over the last 12 months. Argentina has Messi but we have the Messiah and we’ve got to protect him and honour that. Most people will agree with us that he is the greatest we have ever seen.”

However, cautiously Cllr Cahill added that it’s better to hold a civic reception for both teams rather than single out one player.

“I’m not too sure about singling out David. Maybe talk to the family on that. Paudie got an All Star this year and last year and was Man of the Match at several games. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it but tease it out a little bit further.”

The matter was referred to the CPG.

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