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The Golden Years (Part 5): How Micko rebuilt Kerry after the heartbreak of ’82

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In the fifth and final part of our Golden Years series, Adam Moynihan reflects on Kerry’s infamous defeat to Offaly in 1982 and how their leader stayed on to build a new team of champions.

Losing to Offaly in the All-Ireland football final of 1982 will (hopefully) always be the most heartbreaking moment in the history of Kerry football. Whether you were there or not, losing an unprecedented five-in-a-row in such traumatic circumstances still stings 38 years later, and will likely sting forevermore.

“I think of it at least once a week,” Mick O’Dwyer admitted in the terrific RTÉ documentary 'Micko', which charmed viewers in 2018. “It’s still implanted in my mind.”

Kerry’s manager was distraught at the final whistle and the loss sent him into a state of depression. He agonised over the outcome for months, spending his days rewatching the tape and forensically analysing what had gone wrong.

“One could not help but notice how badly he looked, his face drawn and haggard, his voice trailing away at the end of sentences that were left unfinished,” his biographer, Owen McCrohan, recalled. “To all outward manifestations, here was a broken man.”

In the winter of 1982, O’Dwyer decided privately that his time at the helm was up. He would step down in the New Year. The Kerry Dynasty, already reeling, was now on the brink of collapse.

ONE MORE SHOT

Fortunately for Kerry, Micko’s ambition and love for the game gradually returned and by the springtime he had resolved to give it one more shot. Unfortunately for Kerry, more despair was to follow.

In the Munster final of 1983, The Kingdom were gunning for an unprecedented ninth provincial title in a row. Incredibly, just like the Offaly game, a last-minute goal by Cork’s Tadhg Murphy snatched a historic victory from Kerry’s clutches. The Rebels won by a single point.

Now the knives were really out for O’Dwyer, but more concerning for Micko was the fact that some of his players appeared to be totally burned out. “Ger Power, Mikey Sheehy and John Egan were completely out of it when Cork beat us in ’83,” O’Dwyer later told McCrohan. “Ogie Moran was going through a bad patch. John O’Keeffe, Tim Kennelly, Ger O’Keeffe and Paudie Lynch were coming to the end of the road. We needed replacements and we needed them quickly.”

Ger Lynch, Ambrose O’Donovan, Timmy O’Dowd, Willie Maher and John Kennedy were duly drafted in and the return from serious injury of key forward Pat Spillane was a massive boost.

After the disappointment of 1982 and 1983, O’Dwyer worked wonders in lighting a fire under his key players for the 1984 season and the results were immediate. Kerry won the National League by defeating Galway in Limerick and they made light work of the Munster Championship as they hammered Tipperary before beating Cork by seven points in the final.

A handy victory over Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final followed and now the old foe, Dublin, stood between O’Dwyer’s charges and a return to the mountain top.

Writing in The RTÉ Guide in the days leading up to the centenary final, Paul Desmond questioned Kerry’s chances: “Their current team is neither a settled side nor one full of potential – it is a cowardly blend of experienced players, has-beens and a few newcomers.”

On the train up to Dublin, County Board Treasurer Murt Galvin pulled out the article in question. The players were not one bit amused and were determined to show their detractors what they were made of.

In his pre-game speech, O’Dwyer called on his players to do it for a fallen comrade. “I want ye to win this one for Kerry and for me and for Mikey Sheehy!” Kerry’s star forward had gone down with a bad injury eight days before the final and was unavailable for selection.

With their trainer’s words ringing in their ears, Kerry flew out of the traps and after a dominant display they emerged victorious with plenty to spare (0-14 to 1-6). After a brief hiatus, the kings were back.

SPONSORSHIP

And O’Dwyer wasn’t finished yet. The Waterville maestro led Kerry back to the All-Ireland again in 1985 where once again Dublin were the opposition.

The latest instalment of the game’s greatest rivalry should have been enough to keep everyone entertained but, remarkably, all the talk the morning of the final was about a washing machine.

Kerry had struck a sponsorship deal with washing machine manufacturer Bendix in the run-up to the decider. On All-Ireland final day, Bendix published a full-page ad in the national papers that caused quite a stir.

“They arrived into Tralee from Dublin with a van with a washing machine in it," O'Dwyer explained.

"They brought it into the dressing room and when we finished training, players put their jerseys into the washing machine and that was the photograph that was in the paper the following day. They were all standing around half-clothed.

“We got something in the region of €15,000. That was the start of sponsorship by the counties. Croke Park were going on over that as well but I didn’t give a damn.”

Unperturbed by the furore their bare chests and controversial deal had caused, Kerry powered to a memorable 2-12 to 2-8 win.

BORROWED TIME

Speculation about O’Dwyer’s imminent retirement was widespread but ultimately unfounded. “I knew most of us were living on borrowed time but the experience of coming back with a blend of old and new players brought a marvelous feeling of fulfillment. It was like a drug. Once we had put Dublin behind us in ’85, I think everyone decided to keep at it. Winning three-in-a-row became the new target.”

It was a target they would reach by beating Tyrone in 1986 and although dreams of another four-in-a-row, and possibly the elusive five, kept O’Dwyer motivated thereafter, it would prove a bridge too far for his ageing stars.

Three successive defeats to Cork in the Munster final followed before the great man stepped aside. In the end, he readily admitted that he should have done so after ’86, but a few bad defeats could not detract from his legacy.

He took over for a year in 1975 and ended up putting together the greatest team in the history of the GAA. Micko, more than anyone, was responsible for Kerry’s Golden Years, and for that we owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Mick O'Dwyer's Record as Kerry Manager

Years in charge 15 (1975-1989)

Games 55 (Won 43, Lost 7, Drew 5)

Win Percentage 78%

League Titles 3

Munster Titles 11

All-Ireland Finals 10

All-Ireland Titles 8

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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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