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‘I was lucky there was no social media at the time’ – Seán Kelly reflects on opening Croker to foreign games

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MOMENTOUS: Ireland and England engage in a scrum during the historic Six Nations match at Croke Park in 2007. Pic: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile.

Former GAA President Seán Kelly speaks to Eamonn Fitzgerald about his role in opening up Croke Park to soccer and rugby in 2007.

Rules 42 and 27 were the most contentious rules in the official guide of the GAA and both had very clear purposes.

Rule 42 prohibited field games other than Gaelic football and hurling being played in GAA grounds. Soccer and rugby were seen as the enemy, the garrison games in direct competition with Gaelic games. The hierarchy in the GAA reflected the fear and, indeed, the hatred of its members countrywide towards soccer and rugby.

Rule 42 did make provision for once-off games not in direct competition with hurling and football to be played on GAA grounds. One I remember was an American football game played in Croke Park in 1999 between the American Navy and Notre Dame. This posed no threat to the GAA games, so it went ahead.

One could see the logic of excluding soccer and rugby. The GAA has so many games for both genders, played in every parish in the country from juvenile right through to senior, and the logistics of accommodating soccer and rugby in your typical GAA field wouldn’t be realistic. If there were a clash of fixtures at the same time in the local GAA pitch, which would get preference? What pitch would be able to stand up to the wear and tear of the grounds, particularly when most of the soccer and rugby games are played in winter conditions? Who would maintain the pitch, where so much loving care, not to mind the expense, rested on the shoulders of the GAA club supporters?

Also remember that Rule 27 (The Ban) took a long time before it was abolished in 1971.

Move to Croke Park, the hallowed ground, where ardent nationalist GAA supporters, particularly (but not exclusively) from the six counties have not forgotten what happened there on Bloody Sunday 1920, when Croke Park became the bloodied field.

And yet the day came when the Irish soccer and rugby teams played their international games in Croke Park. The man who made all that possible is Kilcummin’s Seán Kelly, who did so during his term as Uachtarán of the GAA from 2003 to 2006.

I spoke with him recently about this and other matters and asked him why he fought so doggedly against fierce opposition within the officialdom of the GAA to the abolition of Rule 42, to overcome the odds stacked against him.

SK: I felt strongly that it was the right thing to do and I first raised the issue of making more use out of Croke Park when I was chairman of the Kerry County Board. It took 14 years to bring that dream to reality and I was realistic enough to know that some members and counties had fears, some justifiably so. I had to take these into consideration, but I felt that our games were thriving and should not be afraid of competition from rugby or soccer. We needed to open up Croke Park to soccer and rugby at that time, showing a generosity of spirit and ecumenism, and an opportunity to help ourselves while also helping our fellow Irish.

For the overall good of Irish sport in a new emerging country, timing was everything. It was so difficult to even get it on the ‘clár’ for Congress and I was very disappointed that in Congress here in Killarney it was ruled out. That cast a huge damper on proceedings in what was an outstanding Congress overall. The timing was favourable with Lansdowne Road closed and no real venue for rugby and soccer internationals. We had a state-of-the-art pitch and full facilities to cater for 82,000 spectators in Croke Park, so why not provide the facilities for the Irish teams?

When I took over as Uachtarán of the GAA in 2003 I deliberately made no mention in my address of plans to abolish Rule 42 and that was strategic.

 

As expected the ‘No Surrender’ flag was raised by Ulster, particularly by Micheál Greenan, Chairman of the Ulster Council, who could not stomach the thought of the foreign enemy games desecrating the sacred soil of Páirc an Chrócaigh. He branded you as traitor. Not surprisingly the Rebel County of Cork, and their beloved Michael Collins, opposed your mission, especially Christy Cooney. You stood out on a limb because you felt it was right, but you got a lot of stick for pushing your head above the parapet.

I did get a lot of criticism from within some sectors of the GAA as you have outlined, with nasty letters and phone calls, some of which were very bitter and personal. Luckily for me there was no social media at that time, so I was spared the invective so easily delivered at present through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram etc.

 

I recall you saying in one of your speeches that you were taking Johnny Cash’s advice and that you would walk the line, but keep your eyes wide open all the time, especially for your enemies within the GAA. How did you negotiate with Bertie, Mary Harney and Charlie McCreevy? After all didn’t Bertie have his dream of Bertie’s Bowl, which would have blown your idea out of the water?

In fairness to them they said that ultimately opening up Croke Park was a matter for the GAA itself. Bertie wanted to build that 80,000-seater stadium in Abbotstown and that would have been in direct competition with the GAA for big events such as concerts. The country could not afford an 80,000 stadium and an 82,000 one. A key man backing my proposal was Cahersiveen man Minister John O’Donoghue. He was so supportive and crucially for me I had access to him all the time and he could not have been more helpful.

 

You had to work Congress strategically and were lauded by the press, typified by John Fogarty, (Ireland on Sunday) who said “Kelly leads sport out of the dark ages”.

I was very aware of the sensitivities of the first occasion, so I ensured that rugby was first, a 32-county game, as distinct from 26-county soccer, which could be divisive. And also that Ireland’s first rugby game would not be versus England. That took some negotiating with IRFU and FAI but it was agreed before I left office and handed over to my successor Nicky Brennan.

 

So, mission accomplished. You got your way and Croke Park was to be opened up for soccer and rugby internationals. Take our readers back to those international match days in Croke Park. The first international played was France v Ireland (rugby) in their Six Nations on February 11, 2007. What were your feelings like in Croke Park that day?

A very proud man when they played the national anthems; proud, relieved and satisfied that what I set out to do several years before was now achieved. There wasn’t a guffaw or a single indication of disrespect from the huge attendance of 81,000. It was exciting and fulfilling that we had moved on to a more progressive organisation in the real spirit of sport. Van the Man (Morrison) was right: ‘nobody told me there could be days like this’. The perfect summation of Sunday, February 11. There was a huge build-up in the media to the England game, the old enemy and how could we tolerate the playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ in Croke Park. There were protest marches and I was vilified on placards. Seán ‘Judas’ Kelly, West Brit, and a lot worse than that. Could we forgive and forget? 83,000 spectators attended and Ireland won 42-13. Van the Man’s line once more.

 

[caption id="attachment_37212" align="aligncenter" width="708"] MOMENTOUS: Ireland and England engage in a scrum during the historic Six Nations match at Croke Park in 2007. Pic: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile.[/caption]

 

Rugby was tolerated because of its 32-county status, but soccer, the real foreign game, must have been an even bigger challenge. Was the staging of the soccer internationals more demanding?

It presented its own challenges but a full house turned up in a game that Steve Staunton, the late Bobby Robson and their team had to win. Significantly, I noticed that there were far fewer of the GAA hierarchy of the GAA present, unlike the rugby internationals. The game went off without any incidents or protests. We got off to a great start as Ireland were able to grind out a 1-0 win against Wales and a similar winning result four days later when we beat Slovakia on the same scoreline.

‘Olé, olé, olé’ of the magical Charlton days rang round Croke Park with the same passion. In 2007 Ireland played international games in Croke Park between rugby and soccer, winning three and they were just pipped in the other game.

 

Could you visualise the Fitzgerald Stadium being used for a high-profile soccer or rugby game, maybe a once-off occasion?

I see nothing at all wrong with it, but each request would have to be judged on its own merits. There would be no problem playing these games in Killarney, as long as they didn’t interfere with the GAA games programme.

 

I admired you for doing what you felt was the right thing to do and for your tenacity to take on entrenched views from, within the GAA and succeeding. That was great but even better still you extended the All-Ireland Club Football and Hurling Championship competitions to include junior and intermediate levels. Now even the smallest GAA club can aspire to play in Croke Park. You must have been particularly proud to see Kilcummin, your own club, win the All-Ireland IFC in Croke Park in 2009?

Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh said that extending those All-Ireland Club competitions, catering for all three grades, was my greatest legacy from my term as Uachtarán. I insisted that all finals would be played in Croke Park. I faced all kinds of excuses to take the games out of Croke Park. Who would turn up for an insignificant junior final, maybe a few hundred followers in this huge stadium where you need upwards to 39,000 paying spectators to pay for the opening up? The first year of the finals were played in Portlaoise. I was bucking but I made sure that from then on the finals were played in Croke Park and that is there to stay.

 

In your present role as MEP and viewing sport from a European perspective, do you think that the All-Ireland Club competitions can go global? How about the incentive for clubs in all grades to progress to a World Club title?

The concept is great, particularly with the Irish diaspora cultivating their Gaelic games in so many places around the world. Wouldn’t the champions of Dubai love to play in such international competitions. There are some big difficulties such as expense, distances, languages and others, but these challenges can be faced up to, if the will is there and someone with vision to drive the project. I’d be all for it.

 

Perhaps Larry McCarthy, the new GAA president, would take up that suggestion. His record at club level in the PE College in Limerick and in his native Cork, as well as in New York in recent years, would promote that proposal. In fairness to him, he hardly has his legs under the table and the fall-out from Covid-19 is the major concern at present. However, when we do get back to normal…

You have been a great advocate of promoting hurling since your days as a player with Sat Pat’s East Kerry and your hurling brief at that stage being vice-chairman of the Kerry County Board.

Historically. hurling played second fiddle to football in Kerry. It was confined, for the most part, to a small number of clubs in North Kerry. When I took over in 1982 there was no hurling in East, West, South and Mid Kerry with some exceptions such as Kenmare and Kilgarvan. We founded St Pat’s East Kerry with the help of great stalwarts such as Pa Doyle, Dan Kelleher, and later Pat Delaney. St Pat’s have been competing ever since and that’s nearly 40 years ago. It was great to see Dr Crokes win the Kerry Intermediate Hurling Championship in 2020 and now they are going senior. That is progress.

 

You will have noticed that the role of ladies in the GAA as players and as administrators has blossomed in recent decades. In one of my interviews with Micheál O Muircheartaigh for On the Ball over a decade ago, he said his one big wish was to see a lady Uachtarán in the GAA. It hasn’t happened.

Not yet, but I am greatly encouraged to see the involvement of ladies as players and as officers, not just at club level but up along the ranks, and I share Micheál’s dream. Cork County Board would be classified as conservative, but they still elected Tracey Kennedy their first female cathaoirleach a few years ago. She did a great job and women of that ilk are well worthy to lead the GAA from the top. The ladies in the clubs are fully accepted and recognised for their work ethic and ability to manage and to lead.

 

Any views on the present Kerry GAA scene?

I think that eight teams in the Kerry Senior Football Championship is far too little and this should be addressed. The hurlers are going well and were unlucky to lose a few national titles in 2020. There was fierce criticism of the Kerry senior football players, the management and the county board when we lost to Cork. I was disappointed, but so much of the criticism was unfair. It was a once off on an awful day and Kerry have bounced back before from defeats. The good working relationship between the county board chairman and the team manager is crucial for success. In my 11 years as chairman of Kerry County Board, I worked with four managers: Mick Dwyer, Mickey Ned, Ogie and Páidí Ó Sé. All different, but all fully committed. We won some and we lost some, but we worked well together.

 

Finally, Seán, have you spent most of the last 13 months in Gortroe, working remotely as an MEP?

Pretty much so. I have only been in Brussels three times in that period so, like so many others, most of my work is conducted via Zoom .It’s great to have it, but it’s not as effective as being in the Parliament meeting up with people and getting things done. The vaccination programmes worldwide are paying off, as we see here in Ireland with less than 400 daily admissions. More new vaccinations, inter-country cooperation and we will get back to normal in the not-too-distant future.

Go néirí go geal leat, san Eorap anois, a Sheáin. Fís le torthaí agus gaisce mór ar son CLG.

 

 

 

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New-look Lakers ready for big tip-off

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Last year the Scotts Lakers were left to rue a slow start when they missed out on the playoffs by a single basket. With that in mind, starting off on the right foot is sure to be a priority this time around.

The Lakers get their 2022/23 National League Division 1 season up and running on Saturday, October 1 with a home game against the Limerick Sport Eagles. When they take to the court at Killarney Sports & Leisure Centre there will be a new enough look to the team.

Foreign imports Godwin Boahen and Emilian Grudov have moved on during the off-season and have been replaced by American shooter Eric Cooper Jr, Dutch ball carrier Esebio Strijdhaftig and Ukrainian big man Dmytro Berozkin.

Cooper Jr is a graduate of Pepperdine University and his eye for a basket has been evident in pre-season. His 84 three-pointers in a single season is the third best haul in Pepperdine’s history. Bosman player Strijdhaftig plays point guard and he was very adept in defence and in taking the ball to the rim at his previous club Almere (Netherlands).

Berozkin will be endeavouring to use his 6’10” frame to his advantage in both offence and defence. He has represented his native Ukraine at U16, U18 and U20 level. Now based in Killarney, he will be looking to settle quickly into the pace of the league.

Rui Saravia – the Portuguese player who signed last season – is staying put and with local lads Mark O’Shea and Paul Clarke also committed (GAA commitments in the short term allowing), the Lakers are expecting to put out a strong starting five.

Teenagers Jamie O’Sullivan and Senan O’Leary will be looking to add minutes to their court time and, the more he played, David Gleeson improved immeasurably as a force at both ends last season.

The squad will be further boosted by the presence of Irish underage international Ronan Collins, who, like Gleeson, is a Gneeveguilla native. Collins had a very impressive record in the green of Ireland and once he settles into the league he will be a real asset to the squad.

Marko Benčić, the son of former Lakers coach Vojkan, contributed hugely to the scoring effort in the latter part of last season’s league campaign. He will be looking to push on again in 2022/23.

The club will, as always, be looking to harvest the potential of their outstanding underage structure and young guns Mark Sheahan, Jack O’Sullivan and Eoin Carroll – amongst others – will be involved with the squad. Another addition to the squad is Jamie Cooke who is well known for his basketball prowess with the Kerry Stars club.

That sluggish start in 2021 was mitigated somewhat by players being unavailable and the fact that their home venue was being used as a makeshift vaccination centre (their first four home games were staged at alternative venues).

There should be no such excuses this time around and coach Jarlath Lee will be hoping for a positive opening month that includes three home games here in Killarney. The other Limerick side, the Celtics, will visit the town on October 22 and Cork outfit Fr Mathews will cross the county bounds on October 30.

The sole road trip in October is to Waterford to take on the SETU Waterford Vikings October 8. The league is a little more arduous this season in terms of travel; with away days in Donegal and Dublin, a large, functioning squad is vital.

St Paul’s have once again expressed their gratitude to the team’s main sponsor, Maurice O’Donoghue of Scotts Hotel. The O’Donoghue family’s legacy in supporting Killarney basketball goes back over 40 years.

The club is also seeking additional support via the following initiatives: Season Ticket (€100) – Admission to all nine home National League and cup games; Patron Ticket (€150) – Admission for two adults to all nine home National League and cup games; Game Sponsor (€300) – Admission for two to all nine home National League and cup games, your business name featured on the front of your sponsored game programme, and your business name attached to all advertising for the game on social media, local written media and on Radio Kerry previews and reports.

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A closer look at sport’s occupational hazards

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In Part 1 of a new series, former Kerry goalkeeper Eamonn Fitzgerald examines the complicated world of sports injuries

Injuries are an occupational hazard for players in all types of sports.

Injuries to elite sports stars hit the headlines. Of the Kerry team that won the 2022 All-Ireland, Joe O’Connor, Gavin White and Micheál Burns are out of action with long-term injuries.

Just back is Dara Moynihan, who was most unfortunate to sustain an injury during Tuesday night training before the All-Ireland final. Talk about hard luck for the Spa flyer. I am sure he would have started if he had avoided injury.

Fellow clubman Dan O’Donoghue was also unlucky. He was playing great with Kerry during the league and was shaping up so well to nail down a position at corner back. Injury denied him that privilege and up sprung Graham O’Sullivan to get the corner back position.

Injuries are also heartbreaking for the regular sportsperson at club or individual levels.

They suffer the disappointments of missing the National Indoor Championships, the All-Ireland Cross Country, the National League games in basketball, the Celtic v Athletic local derby in the cup, the county final, the O’Donoghue Cup and many more occasions. Missing out on the next race or match is a worry and if the injury is serious enough they may well lose out for the rest of the season. That is hard to take after the enforced inactivity during COVID.

PERSPECTIVE

While researching for these articles, I talked with players and athletes from a wide range of sports about sports injuries. It also proved interesting to get the perspective and perceptions of trainers, managers, selectors and others involved with the injured competitors. What I learned from these people I relayed to doctors, physios, dieticians, and other medics. In all cases, I offered them anonymity and, with that assurance, they spoke freely. That wish is guaranteed. I am indebted to them all for being so willing and helpful to engage in the process.

The athletes/players I have contacted have been very forthcoming and helpful because injuries are so much part of their lives.

“I knew straight away it was serious and wondered if this knee injury would mean that I would miss out. I was devastated,” Player A said.

The contributions from all will help me to clarify opinions of my own on sports injuries, how they are caused, prognosis, diagnosis, treatment, remediation, rehabbing, and a return to action. The big question for the competitors is ‘when’. When will I be ready to play again?

In the case of a very serious injury, the question (and the pleading) switches to ‘Will I be able to return to the sport I love?’.

The consultant/doctor/physio may well have to explain to the injured party the difference between the urgent and the important. It is urgent for the athlete to be able to play in the cup final in two weeks’ time; it is important for the medic to emphasise that risking a return to play after two weeks rehabbing in a four-week programme is too risky, when further damage will most likely be caused. In some cases the harsh reality is that the person may have to end their career, or switch to a less demanding leisure activity.

Participants suffer injuries in non-contact sports, high-contact sport and collision sports. Go to any game and in most cases some player has to be substituted because of an injury sustained and not because the player in question is playing poorly.

REFEREES

Fortunately, in modern day sport, the referees suspend play while medical attention is sought to determine the extent of the injury and whether the player is fit to continue or to be substituted. Most teams now have a person in their backroom team with some medical expertise

That can be the relatively straightforward ruling where a player has to leave the action temporarily and a blood sub is allowed. The injured player may return to the action after the medics have done running repairs.

Which are the most dangerous sports? Are males more at risk than females? What goes through the mind of a sportsperson when he/she suffers a career-threatening injury? How are their domestic and professional lives affected? Are their dangers for young players being over-taxed and pushed on too early? Are individuals and teams training demands too high at intercounty, club and individual levels?

So many questions to tease out.

At grass roots level the most common injuries are soft-tissue and muscular. Then there is the unmistakable hamstring. Injuries to ligaments and joints are common. One cannot forget breaks, of course, and lacerations.

The high profile one now is the ACL .The journey to Santry Sports Clinic, or elsewhere, will cost in the region of €5,000 and that is just for the surgery. There are other considerable costs such as travel, accommodation, physio sessions, and missing work.

In some cases, the injured party will be covered for wages, but what about the self–employed plumber?

Most sports associations at national level have player injury insurance, but that only offsets some of the expenses incurred. The remainder, which can be quite considerable, falls on the individual. Her/his club may or may not be able to lessen the load.

There is also the mental health and well-being of the injured athlete to consider in the long rehab programme before returning to action.

HOSPITAL

A high percentage of games are played at weekends and it is surprising to find that sports injuries accounted for nearly one in three visits to the A&E departments of hospitals for minor injuries like cuts, sprains, or broken bones playing sport. Add this to the usual many hours of waiting in the A&E for other ‘emergencies’.

Weekend is busiest, of course, but the x-ray departments are also very busy on Mondays.

That is just one more common scenario that beggars belief why such a busy town as Killarney does not have full x-ray and MRI scan facilities for locals, visitors, and in this case for injured competitors. For many years Councillor Michael Gleeson fought a real battle to have a one-stop facility in Killarney for many services including the facility for detecting and diagnosing sports injuries. Conversion and adaptation of St Finan’s was one proposed location.

It is not too late yet to provide that facility in Killarney for all, including the worried player who wants to know as soon as possible if the right hand is fractured. If so that has huge implications if it is close to the Leaving Cert exams or the finals at third level.

A whole new language has emerged in the weekday sports reporting and previewing of games. What exactly does ‘a clean bill of health’ mean when managers indicate that ‘everyone is available for selection’ or that ‘we have a few niggling injuries’? What exactly is a niggling injury? Are the players in question fit to play or not?

If they are not fit to start why are you holding them in reserve with every intention of springing them into action at a strategic time in the game? What does 90% ready mean and why is the player still rehabbing?

These and other terms favoured by the team managers in their guarded responses to the queries of sports reporters make it a mind game. Yes, we can read behind the lines and the jargon, but what is the reality?

I will be looking at these and other questions and responses in the coming weeks after speaking to those at the receiving end of injuries and the people who assist in clearing up the injuries so the players return to action fully recovered.

DANGEROUS

Car rallying, motorbike racing and high altitude mountaineering are very obvious dangerous sports, so there is a high level of mandatory safety precautions. But what surprised me in the team games is that basketball is always at the top or very high up in the statistics for injuries.

I put that very point to a well qualified person in the medical scene, suggesting that poor quality footwear and constant landing on a hard surface over the years must have been very hard on the ankles. The playing surfaces for the game are much improved from those in the past, but still basketball ranks high on the risk factor for injuries.

Those professionals that I spoke with agreed that these were causative factors, but pointed out the specific demands on players in basketball.

“It is a game of high forces, changes of direction, high speed and high skill factors. These are key factors in the high rate of injuries in basketball.”

Then there is the eternal question: is it dangerous and inadvisable to send a talented young player into the senior ranks too early?

It will be interesting to follow the progress of 15-year-old Ethan Nwaneri who became the youngest player in Premier League history. He came on as a sub for Arsenal as they returned to the top of the Premier League with a comfortable 3-0 win at Brentford on Sunday last. If he was here in Ireland, he would be studying for the Junior Cert, even too young to go into TY (Transition Year).

Of course, Wayne Rooney was still only 16 years old in 2002 when he scored a magnificent goal for Everton against Arsenal. He progressed to a hugely successful career with Man Utd and with England. I think he is still the highest goalscorer with Manchester United and with England. Local soccer aficionados will surely update me, if that record has been bettered. He also holds the record for the most appearances of any outfield player for the England national team.

These are elite professional players, but how about the talented 16-year-old in a small, rural club in Kerry who are caught for numbers to make up a team. For the love of the parish often rears its head and in he or she goes to make up the team. It’s the modern-day Matt the Thrasher O’Donovan leading his team to victory with the war cry ‘Up Tipperary’. Substitute Tipperary with St Pat’s/Fossa/Mastergeeha/Ballyhar Dynamos/Killarney Valley AC/Workmen’s/The Valley.

Yes, you are doing it all for the love of the parish.

EXCEPTIONS

At the other end, you have men like Dan Shanahan. He retired from club hurling just this year aged 45 after winning four Munster Championships with his beloved Waterford and three All-Stars (but no All-Ireland medal).

Closer to home are the Dooleys of Ballyduff. Father John Mike and his son Gavin played on the Ballyduff team in the 2022 Kerry Senior Hurling Championship final. They are the exceptions.

I wonder what age was Dan Kelleher when he hung up his boots and hurley. And is there any end to Jim O’Shea the Masters champion in the long jump and in the high jump in London? Modesty and humility are the qualities of this Firies native. No éirí in airde in this man, who has celebrated a very significant birthday ending in a zero. The first digit will surprise you. While other sports enthusiasts settle for spectating and watching sport on TV, Jim just continues to excel. High or long, it doesn’t matter for the greatest lepper alive, in what for him is active retirement. Keep raising the standards Jim. Is fearr léim maith ná droch–sheasamh.

That and more on injuries in future editions.

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