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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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Kerry will need more intensity, more physicality and more collaboration to bounce back from Dub drubbing

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by Adam Moynihan

In the 22nd minute of last Saturday night’s league match in Croke Park, Lee Gannon collected a pass on his own 65 and carried the ball unchallenged right into the heart of Kerry’s defence. Brian Fenton took over and a tackle by Diarmuid O’Connor slowed the attack.

Then Fenton looked up and saw that Niall Scully was standing at the top of the D, completely unmarked. It was a simple five-metre handpass to the centre, and Scully had all the time in the world to steady himself and shoot. His point made it Dublin 2-8 Kerry 0-5. Ten shots for Dublin. Ten scores. One-way traffic.

The Dubs deserve credit for their accuracy in front of the posts – Con O’Callaghan was particularly excellent – but the ease with which they were creating their openings was startling from a Kerry perspective. For Scully’s score, the resistance was non-existent. If the same thing happened in a training match, the manager would be well within his rights to call off the session and send everyone home.

The cameras may have been trained on Kerry’s full back line and, yes, Jason Foley and Dylan Casey were struggling against O’Callaghan and Paddy Small, but Kerry were found wanting all over the pitch. You could have sailed the Titanic down the centre of their defence and O’Callaghan exploited that space to great effect for his third goal. Foley got hoodwinked by a lovely piece of movement by the Dublin full forward, but where was the help?

Centre back Tadhg Morley was pushing up on Dublin dangerman Seán Bugler but that’s the thing with Dublin: all their forwards are dangerous in one way or another. Maybe Tadhg was following instructions but you wonder if he could have cheated off Bugler when the all-action centre forward was outside the 45.

Whether it’s Morley or someone else, that gap in front of the goal needs to be filled – especially against teams of Dublin’s calibre.

What we saw in Croke Park last Saturday was a far cry from the solid defensive structure that won Kerry an All-Ireland in 2022, that’s for sure. You can be certain that Jack O’Connor will be demanding a far more intense, more physical and more collaborative performance against Tyrone on Sunday (1.15pm).

KICKOUTS

Speaking after the Dublin game, O’Connor said that his side “malfunctioned” on the kickouts. While Dublin keeper David O’Hanlon was firing out his kicks like a machine gun, Shane Ryan was far more measured with his. Dublin’s press was brilliant in fairness to them but you’d have to question Kerry’s appetite for making honest, hard runs and receiving the ball in potentially tight areas.

Graham O’Sullivan and Brian Ó Beaglaoich (who is currently injured) are outstanding when it comes to breaking free and accepting that responsibility. You’d like to see one or two more backs getting in on the act.

As for Ryan himself, could he be a bit quicker and a bit more adventurous with his distribution? Look, if there’s nothing on, there’s nothing on, but I think at times he could back himself more resolutely. He has the range and the accuracy.

Of course, if he takes a risk and it gets intercepted he’ll be in line for even sharper criticism, so you can understand him being cautious when the kick isn’t 100% on.

Whatever the solution, on the evidence of the Dublin and Derry games, Kerry do need to try something a bit different to beat the press. Tyrone are unlikely to be as aggressive as Dublin were but when they do push up, it will be fascinating to see how Kerry deal with it.

Kerry’s midfielders also need to compete aerially against whoever they’re up against when it goes long – even if that’s Brian Fenton or Conor Glass or Brendan Rogers. It’s not easy to get the better of these guys in the air (or to break even, which would do) but that’s the level required.

Joe O’Connor showed that his ball skills have improved markedly by taking his goal and his point so cleanly, and he is doing well in general, but he and his namesake Diarmuid will have to be more impactful both from kickouts and without the ball if Kerry want to be a real force this season.

Personally, I would like to see Seán O’Brien getting some more game time. He has only played six minutes since being taken off early on his debut against Derry five weeks ago. Kerry will need back-up at midfield as the season goes on and O’Brien has a lot of potential.

FORWARDS

Up front, the main positive is that Cillian Burke continues to make his presence felt. Even when his more experienced teammates were faltering the last night, Burke stood tall and played his usual game. And he swung over a great score for good measure.

David Clifford will be disappointed that he didn’t convert one of his goal chances – the first one was definitely there for the taking – but you know that over the course of the season he’ll finish more of those than he misses. I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if he comes out and strokes one in on Sunday.

It’s nice to see Tony Brosnan back on the pitch as well. He deserves some kind fortune following a tough spell with illness and injury.

Tyrone coming to Killarney gives the players the perfect opportunity to bounce back quickly and show supporters – and themselves – that the Dublin game was a glitch and nothing more. Improvements are needed all over the pitch but the sight of the Red Hand should bring focus and resolve.

A good performance, a win and two points would put a lot of minds at ease.

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Killarney girls will answer Ireland’s call

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A trio of talented young Killarney rugby players have been called up to the Ireland U18 squad for the upcoming Six Nations festival in Wales.

Ava O’Malley, Fia Whelan and Emma Dunican have all been included in Matt Gill’s panel for the tournament, which will take place between March 29 and April 6. They will link up with their new teammates for three weekend training camps at the IRFU’s High Performance Centre on the Sport Ireland Campus in Dublin during the month of March.

Gill, the current Women’s Provincial Talent Coach for Leinster, will be assisted by Sana Govender, who has previously coached Munster Women’s teams.

“I’m really looking forward to continuing our Irish U18 Women’s Six Nations preparations and getting our camps underway,” the head coach said. “I’m excited to work with Sana and our management team, and to work with this incredibly talented group of players.”

O’Malley, Whelan and Dunican are products of Killarney RFC’s blossoming youth set-up and all three were on the U18.5 team that recently won the Munster League.

Including the Killarney girls, there are seven Munster-based players on the 35-woman squad with 15 hailing from Leinster, eight from Connacht and five from Ulster.

“It’s a very proud day for the girls, their families, teammates and coaches, and for Killarney RFC,” the club commented. “Best of luck, girls!”

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