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The Big Interview: Darragh Long explains how the Kerry ladies are shifting our perceptions of women in sport

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In this exclusive interview, our sports editor Adam Moynihan chats to joint Kerry ladies manager Darragh Long

Darragh, you’ve had some time to to reflect on the All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin. How do you feel about it now?

Hugely disappointed. Sport is cruel and we all know that when we get into it. That’s just the way it is.

How are the players coping? Are they holding up alright?

Ah yeah, they are. A lot goes into it, you know. A lot of sacrifice and a lot of dedication. This was our fourth year. The first two years we were building and in the last two years we’ve really taken off. So they’ve put their lives on hold for the past 24 months, each and every one of them. We weren’t cocky or anything going into the All-Ireland but we were very confident in what we had been doing. But we never got going on the day. It was just one of those days.

It certainly wasn’t the kind of performance we’ve come to expect from this team. What do you put that down to?

We haven’t really had the chance to go back and watch it. I won’t be watching it for a couple of months I’d say! We just never got out of the blocks. In the last three or four games we started really well. But Dublin rattled off two scores within 60 seconds. We had the goal chance with Louise [Ní Mhuircheartaigh] that went over the bar…

But the prep and everything was brilliant. Physically the girls are in the best shape they’ve ever been in. The likes of Louise would testify to that. I think she’s probably played the football of her life over the last two seasons. Hopefully that might culminate in an individual honour with a Player of the Year award in a couple of months’ time. I think that would be richly deserved.

We’re not sure what happened (on the day). I’m guessing if I was (Dublin manager) Mick Bohan I would have targeted the first quarter to go after us because we had been getting such good starts. I don’t want this to sound like sour grapes but the foul count was 26 to 14. That accumulated over the course of the 60 minutes and look, we’d be feeling a little bit aggrieved that there wasn’t further punishment at times.

But that’s sport for you. The better team won on the day. I thought we had a good second half, we just left ourselves with too much to do.

Dublin’s tactical fouling was definitely noticeable. They committed 91 fouls in their last three games – over 30 fouls per game – while their opponents committed 40. I don’t want to put words in your mouth but is there something wrong with the rules if a team can foul that much and go unpunished?

I don’t know. I suppose the stats are there for everyone to see. There’s definitely a bit of coaching gone into it. It’s gamesmanship. If we had done it, we’d be saying that we pushed the rules to the limit of what the ref is going to allow.

There are plenty of clips from the last day of players soloing, dropping the ball with the right hand, and the left hand is being pulled back. Whether that’s men’s football or ladies’ football, that’s a foul. I know have been calling for changes in what’s allowable in terms of physicality, but even so we’d still be calling for that to be a foul. We can’t go down the road of changing everything but that’s just a blatant foul.

And if those accumulate in the ladies’ game, that’s a yellow card. But the count shows that fouls were given for other things but there’s no punishment.

I did some research and a yellow card was issued in the men’s All-Ireland series once every 4.7 fouls. In the women’s All-Ireland series, a yellow was issued once every 72.8 fouls.

[laughter] Are you serious?! I mean… That’s mad. That makes no sense because it’s three ticks and it’s a yellow (in ladies’ football). Going back to that game in Parnell Park, I’m not going to name anyone, but there are certain players who made six, seven, eight fouls, and there was no yellow. And we had two players sent to the sin bin. Am I saying there’s favouritism? I’m not. But there is definitely a lot of wiggle room within the laws of the game. We paid the price for it.

Are there fewer yellows in ladies’ football because the consequences are different? A yellow in ladies’ football sends a player to the sin bin for ten minutes. Are refs reluctant to do that for pushing and holding fouls?

Yeah, maybe so. Everyone has a different interpretation of the tackle rule in ladies’ football so it’s very hard, unless you define it in black and white. And I really don’t know how to do that. Like, that charging rule in ladies’ Gaelic football is one of the most frustrating rules there has ever been.

But, again, the main point is that the better team on the day won. We can talk about tackles and coaching of tackles all day long but, unfortunately, it’s not going to change the result.

Some Kerry players are expected to retire between now and next season. Do you know how many at this point?

We have no idea at the moment, Adam. I suppose, invariably, myself and Declan Quill’s future is connected to some of the more experienced players’ futures as well. We’ll have to see what happens over the next couple of weeks. We’ve been on the road with this group for four years. If you add another year on to that, it will be five. That’s a long time. We’ve sacrificed a lot, same as the girls.

The girls can walk down the streets of Tralee and Killarney with their heads held high after what they’ve done for ladies’ football in this county.

I have no doubt there will be retirements. Who and how many, we don’t know. Whatever happens, there’s enough respect and honesty within our group that there will be phone calls made to talk things through before any decisions are made. In a couple of weeks’ time, we’ll see where we end up. It will be made public then at that point because I don’t think we can drag things out for too long.

Kerry ladies’ football was there before myself and Dec and it will be there long after us. We have to make our decision with Kerry’s best interests in mind.

Is there any possibility of one of you staying on? Or are you a tag team forever?

[laughter] Well, we’re definitely a tag team for the Kerry ladies. I think it would be very hard for one of us to stay on. As Dec said in some interview, what we do is very different to what Jack O’Connor does. When Jack rocks up, the bibs are washed, the balls are ready, the cones are there, the sponsorship is sorted – he doesn’t even know about it. Everything is done.

Whereas, in our case, we wash the bibs, we pump the balls, we sort the jerseys, we do the fundraising. There are huge time commitments for us and for our families too. Dec has three kids and I have two. My young fella was three when we started with Kerry and he’s nearly eight now. He has grown up amongst 36 fantastic ladies, who are fantastic babysitters too because he’d go off with any of them at any stage!

I would say, whatever our future holds, if it’s with the Kerry ladies, we’ll be together. If our decision is to step away… Look, there might be no one who wants us either! Our decision will be solely based on talking to our experienced core of players, our leadership group, and making the best decision for the group that’s there.

Do you have ambitions to manage other teams whenever your time with Kerry comes to an end?

Oh yeah. Definitely. Myself and Dec have always talked about it. Five years ago our roles would have been with our clubs and with development squads. You develop a grá for the managing side of things and it’s definitely something we want to build on. If any other teams want us, there will be discussions at that stage. The two of us would be hugely ambitious on the management side of things.

But right now we’re joint managers of a hugely successful Kerry ladies team so we have to decide our future with this group first.

How much progress has been made in the ladies’ game over the past four years, both nationally and locally?

Nationally, I think it has grown immensely. I think it’s a hugely attractive sport to watch. The way the men’s game has gone with the over and back and in and out, it’s not what it was. The speed of the ladies’ game and the conditioning… Dublin started it and Meath took it to another level. That has added to the pace and power of the game – and I think the laws have to reflect the conditioning of the players and the work they’re doing in the gym.

Locally, I think the legacy that this group of girls will leave for girls around the county is absolutely phenomenal. Four years ago the ladies were at a bit of a low ebb. Things weren’t going well for them and maybe it wasn’t the happiest group of all time. What they have done over the past four years is incredible. The crowd that travelled to see them in Croke Park was huge and he support from around the county, both male and female, was massive.

The number of players is increasing because now, instead of a young girl saying David Clifford is her hero, she can say that it’s Louise Ní Mhuircheartaigh, it’s Síofra O’Shea, it’s young Amy Harrington. I think Kerry ladies’ football is in a hugely positive place at the moment.

You mentioned Síofra, we were all shocked to see her take to the field in the final after she tore her ACL just a few weeks ago. What actually happened there?

I think it was the best kept secret in the country that Síofra was going to play. There were no mind games or anything like that. The reason we kept it quiet was that the knee could have gone in training before the final so we didn’t want the whole country thinking she was back, and then to put her through the highs and lows of that again.

She’s going for her operation next week. She has a torn ACL. But we were able to get her up to Santry - Colm Fuller from Killarney was very helpful – and they took a look at her and she passed every test that they put her through. If it was any other game and not an All-Ireland final, the risk wouldn’t have been taken. We had discussions with Síofra’s parents and with Síofra, and we kept it away from the group until the week after the Mayo game because we didn’t want it to be a distraction.

She played 30 minutes of football in the Fitzgerald Stadium the day of the meet and greet with the fans. We just got her off the field and changed before ye all came in. She played another 20-25 minutes on the Tuesday night and she was absolutely lifting. The people in Santry called her a medical wonder, but that’s a testament to the effort and the work she put in after her last ACL injury. Her muscles around that area are just so strong. As the team’s captain she was willing to take the risk and she really wanted to help us try and win the game.

There is precedent there: Ciara O’Sullivan of Cork did the same thing and Henry Shefflin did too. Once the doctors and Síofra and her parents were okay with it, we talked to the group and they were okay with it too. To get to run out as captain for the final with Louise by her side was a huge thing for her. And it was great for the team because we all hold Síofra in very high regard. That girl is probably going to go on to become one of the greatest players of all time, that’s the potential she’s got.

We have no doubt that she’ll put her head down, she’ll work hard, and she’ll be back playing for Kerry next year.

Is this team shifting perceptions about women’s sport in general? In the last few months I have certainly noticed more men talking about the Kerry ladies with genuine interest.

Definitely. We were in O’Connor’s pub in Kenmare on Tuesday and the amount of old fellas drinking their pint or their hot whiskey wanting to talk to the players and wanting pictures… It’s phenomenal. Even my own father, I don’t think he missed a game this year. Down at my club, Austin Stacks, they’re talking about the team - they’re all experts now! Twelve months ago they couldn’t name five players on our panel. Now they know them all. That will tell you where ladies’ football is at.

The support that the men’s team has shown our group as well has been massive. Anything they do, the rest of the county will follow. Earlier on in the year when that picture was taken in Currans of the boys standing side by side with the girls, I thought that was brilliant. Kerry were the first county team to put that kind of picture out. They had no hesitation in standing in and putting their names to that and supporting the girls.

As I said, we’re just in a hugely positive place and it’s up to all of us to keep that going.

Darragh, well done on a great season and thanks for your time.

Not a bother. Thanks, Adam.

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Top Kerry GAA prospect Cillian Burke still weighing up AFL switch

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by Adam Moynihan

Highly-rated Kerry youngster Cillian Burke is set to travel to Australia later this year with a transfer to the Geelong Cats still potentially on the cards.

Conflicting reports sent the rumour mill into overdrive earlier this week with Burke said to be either AFL-bound or simply moving to Australia for a number of months before returning home at some point in 2025.

Although no official statement has been made by any of the relevant parties, the Killarney Advertiser understands that the talented 21-year-old is weighing up his options and he will make a decision on his future after spending some time Down Under in the latter part of 2024.

It is hoped, from a Kerry perspective, that he will decide against the switch, but it is feared that his head may already have been turned.

While few (if any) Kerry supporters would begrudge him his move, they would undoubtedly love to see the athletic middle-third player back in green and gold next season after he caught the eye as a substitute in recent matches. Despite his tender age and lack of experience (this was his first year on the senior panel), the Milltown/Castlemaine man was a game-changer in the All-Ireland quarter-final victory over Derry.

He was also influential in the semi-final against Armagh last weekend, scoring an important point in extra time and setting up another as favourites Kerry fell to an unexpected defeat.

With his impressive size, athleticism and ball skills, Burke could potentially have the makings of a future All-Star so losing him to the AFL would be a significant blow to The Kingdom and their chances of regaining the Sam Maguire trophy.

Geelong have a history of poaching Kerry talent. Pádraig Lucey (Killarney Legion) signed for the Cats in 2014, Mark O’Connor (Dingle) in 2016 and and Stefan Okunbor (Na Gaeil) in 2018.

Lucey and Okunbor later returned to Ireland having not made the inroads they would have been hoping for. Tralee native Okunbor has featured intermittently for Kerry since coming back but his progress has been severely hampered by a series of bad injuries.

O’Connor, meanwhile, has built a fine career for himself in Australia, winning the AFL Grand Final with the Victoria-based club in 2022.

Previously, Tadhg Kennelly (Listowel Emmets) and Tommy Walsh (Kerins O’Rahillys) played for the Sydney Swans. More recently, Rob Monahan (Ardfert) signed for Carlton in 2023.

Burke isn’t the only Kerry starlet currently on the radar of AFL scouts. Two members of this year’s Kerry U20 team, Charlie Keating (Dr Crokes) and Tomás Kennedy (Kerins O’Rahillys), are reportedly considering offers.

It is also believed that Aussie teams have their eyes on as many as four other Kerry prospects.

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‘There’s definitely more in me’ – Leahy feeling positive after close-run thing at nationals

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Kerry woman Sarah Leahy chats to Adam Moynihan about her recent outing at the National Outdoor Championships in Dublin. The Killarney Valley AC sprinter competed with the best of the best, including new Irish record holder Rhasidat Adeleke.

Adam Moynihan: You recently took part in the 100m final at the National Championships. How was that experience for you?

Sarah Leahy: Atmosphere-wise it was absolutely amazing. Just very good energy all around. And coming out for the final, obviously, Rhasidat brought a massive crowd. So that was really cool to be a part of because I don’t think there’s ever been a crowd that big at nationals before. To be in the final where so many people were there to watch her was obviously amazing.

What about the race itself?

I came fifth and ran a time of 11.74. On the day, with the whole excitement of it all, I was actually really happy with that. I was a bit disappointed but I was like, it’s a great day overall. I ran well, didn’t get a medal but I was really close. I didn’t get the perfect start like I did in the heat. So I was a little bit behind, but I just managed to come fifth in the end.

A week on, the excitement has kind of worn off, and I think there’s definitely a lot more in me. I could’ve pipped the third place But yeah, it is what it is. It was still good. I’m happy with it.

It was very tight for third place, wasn’t it?

Yeah, it was two-or-three-hundredths of a second and it was a blanket finish for four of us. So it was close but no cigar. Not this time. I came fifth last year as well, so I was hoping for at least fourth this year, but it ended up being the same. At least it wasn’t sixth! And there’s definitely more in me as well. Time-wise I’m just waiting for it to kind of happen a little bit. I believe it will. It was amazing to be in a race where a national record was broken.

And the standard was obviously very high across the board. All the big names were there.

It was a very high standard, yeah. Going in we kind of knew that first and second were gone (to Adeleke and Sarah Lavin). Everyone else was battling for that third medal and only one person could get it in the end. (Mollie O’Reilly got the bronze.) We were all close.

But overall I was super grateful to be in the mix, especially in a race that was that big. It’s one that will go down in history. It was a massive weekend and it was very enjoyable.

Rhasidat is a massive superstar now. What’s it like to run alongside her?

Rhasidat is a great athlete and a very nice girl. As you can see in interviews, she’s very humble. So to compete next to her, to literally be running in the lane right beside her, was amazing. I couldn’t have asked for more from the day in that respect. I thought she might have ran sub-11 because she did it before but she still got a national record. To be part of that race was a big deal for me.

Athletics in Ireland seems to be in a good place, particularly after the success the Irish team had in the recent European Championships in Rome. Does it feel like the sport is getting more attention and more recognition these days?

Oh 100%. Support for athletics has grown hugely in the last few years and I think it’ll continue to grow, especially with the success that Ireland had at the European Championships. I think the Olympics this year is going to drive that on even more because we have such great athletes going. The support is growing and rightfully so. The athletes are really getting the recognition they deserve. I think the future is very exciting for athletics in Ireland.

What about your own career? What’s next for you?

I have one last race of the season left, which is at the AAI Games on Sunday in Dublin. I’m hoping to just get a good run out, a good time, and execute the race well. Training will continue until the end of July, I’ll get a month off, and then we’re back training for indoors next year. I love indoors. I think I excel at that. There’s European Indoors and World Indoors next year, so to qualify for them would be a huge, huge goal.

As for outdoors, I’d like to get on the Irish relay team, but I’ll be focussing on indoors first. It should be a good year.

Are you enjoying it?

Yeah, I’m really enjoying it. I think sometimes you might put too much pressure on yourself and try to get a PB in every race but this year I’ve really learned that I’ve done the training, so it will happen when it happens. Just go out and run and let your body do its thing. And I’m actually really enjoying competing this year. I know I’m going to continue enjoying it for the next few years.

With the surrounding support of the club and coaches and my training group, it’s all going really well for me at the moment. I have no complaints at all. I’m very lucky.

Thanks for your time, Sarah, and all the best for the rest of the season.

Thank you very much, Adam. It was lovely talking to you.

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