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'There is 50 involved that went here' - Kerry football nursery is key for 2019 county final

St Brendan’s Killarney past pupils dominate the Dr Crokes and East Kerry squads.

David Clifford, Evan Cronin and Michael Potts are all recent Hogan Cup winners with St Brendans.
David Clifford, Evan Cronin and Michael Potts are all recent Hogan Cup winners with St Brendans.
Image: INPHO

GARY MCGRATH HAS been crunching the numbers.

Tralee may be the setting for Sunday’s battle for football supremacy in Kerry but it is a final pairing that has a strong Killarney influence running through it.

In one corner is Dr Crokes, the club adjacent to Fitzgerald Stadium that have been the Kingdom masters of this decade, collecting seven titles. In the opposite is East Kerry, the divisional outfit contesting a first final in two decades, their team made up of lower-ranked clubs dotted around Killarney and one in Spa that are based in the town itself.

Common ground can be found at the Sem in Killarney, the site of second-level education – both academic and football – for the bulk of players involved in the 2019 decider.

McGrath, a PE and Geography teacher in St Brendan’s who has been coaching the school’s Gaelic football teams for almost two decades, sketches out the scale of the influence.

garry-mcgrath St Brendan's trainer Garry McGrath. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“I was looking at the match programme, going on the Crokes starting team from last Sunday in the semi-final replay, 13 out of the 15 went to school in St Brendan’s, Johnny Buckley and Daithi Casey being the two exceptions, they went to school in Killorglin.

“Then out of the East Kerry team, we’ve 12 out of the starting fifteen. Then on the two panels, just looking at the 60 lads, there is 50 involved that went here. It really is a unique occasion.”

Dr Crokes have been serial participants in finals of late, East Kerry operating out of the limelight since they last won in 1999 and completed the three-in-a-row in the process with a side backboned by Sam Maguire winners Declan O’Keeffe, Seamus Moynihan, Donal Daly and Johnny Crowley.

East Kerry provide the novelty here, drawing players from Spa, Fossa, Firies, Glenflesk, Gneeveguilla and Listry. They had Kilcummin part of their ranks last year before their elevation to senior, will have Rathmore players available next year after their recent relegation and Legion are the other club in the division without a runner in Sunday’s race.

The recent products from St Brendan’s have underpinned the rise of East Kerry, pushing on from the Hogan Cup wins of 2016 and 2017, half of the school’s overall national tally. David Clifford’s exploits lit up that decider three years ago as he blitzed St Pat’s Maghera in Croke Park. The suspicion that a special talent was developing has been confirmed several times since, the latest being his electric form of late at local level in Kerry.

Other East Kerry figures from those sides are Evan Cronin, the 2016 captain, the impressive defensive duo of Chris O’Donoghue and Niall Donohue, and Spa players David Spillane and Niall McCarthy.

On the Dr Crokes teams, Michael Potts played both those years while David Naughton and Jack Griffin also picked up medals. But for injuries the school representation from then could be greater on Sunday’s as David Shaw (Dr Crokes) and the East Kerry pair of Daniel O’Brien and Dara Moynihan are all absent.

david-shaw David Shaw in action for St Brendan's in Croke Park in 2016. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

“The first year the school had the Hogan Cup success, David Clifford’s year, that was one of the smallest Leaving Cert years we had in school numbers wise,” says McGrath.

“They were just a very, very talented bunch. They all fed off each other and encouraged each other and as a result there was a great mentality amongst the group, a great winning mentality. They trained hard and listened and always wanted to learn.

“It never surprised us. They were totally absorbed in it. They all wore the green and gold of the Kerry minor jersey so the obvious step up was they’d play senior with their divisional boards.”

The wave of All-Ireland minor glories that McGrath references is also linked to this final. From the four titles that Kerry strung together between 2014 and 2017, there are 16 players that featured in those final wins – 10 East Kerry and six Dr Crokes – who are part of the respective squads on Sunday.

Four of those – Clifford, Moynihan, Micheal Burns and Gavin White – all saw senior game time this summer in Kerry’s march to September. It seems inevitable that they will be joined at that elite level soon by more of their former minor team-mates.

gavin-white Gavin White in action for Dr Crokes in the All-Ireland club final last March. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

But the St Brendan’s links have not just been forged in a modern fashion. Go back to the 2005 Corn Ui Mhuiri final the school were defeated in and Dr Crokes players John Payne, Michael Moloney, Brian Looney and Kieran O’Leary were all involved. Fionn Fitzgerald lost a similar Munster decider in 2008, Burns and Tony Brosnan were part of a luckless team at the final hurdle of 2013. The familiarity between these groups of players will be high.

“They would have sat next to each other in school for five years,” says McGrath.

“They’d have played obviously on the same school football teams,  the same soccer teams, basketball teams. Probably lived together in college, working together now some of them. It’s a really unique pairing for us.”

And that has heightened the sense of anticipation around the game in a traditional football hotbed in the county. McGrath hails from Beaufort, he was part of their backroom setup when they won the All-Ireland junior club last February at a time when nearby Kilcummin and Dr Crokes were also on the national club trail.

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They operate in Mid Kerry but situated only six miles from Killarney gives him a good appreciation of the local rivalries. East Kerry S&C trainer Arthur Fitzgerald was involved in coaching schools teams with him and previously had a role with Dr Crokes. Current player Burns is on the teaching staff in St Brendan’s.

“Around the town of Killarney and in the school there’d be an awful lot of interest in this. For a lot of the lads from the so-called smaller clubs in East Kerry, it’s given them a chance now to rub shoulders with Dr Crokes which they normally wouldn’t do in a county final.

“Traditionally a lot of these lads in school would have suffered a lot of underage defeats to Dr Crokes and I’d say they’re looking at it now as a chance to get one over.”

michael-moloney-brian-looney-kieran-oleary-johnny-buckley-daithi-casey-john-payne-and-ambrose-odonovan-celebrate Dr Crokes players celebrating last year's Kerry county senior final win. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Perhaps this level of talent should be of no surprise. St Brendan’s have a storied history with marquee names like Pat Spillane, Páidí Ó Sé and Colm Cooper amongst the star-studded list of football alumni.

Sunday in Austin Stack Park represents the chance for a new generation to shine. Well-acquainted with both camps, McGrath will be an observer sitting firmly on the fence.

“We’ve been fortunate to have so many great bunches of lads. The clubs have been very good to the school, we’re all reaping the benefits of it now.

“The slagging has been good in school during the week and we’re all looking forward to it. If I was to call it? I really don’t know. I think I’ll just sit back and keep quiet because no matter who I cheer for, I’ll be in trouble! We’re going to enjoy it.”

We thought there might be a post-World Cup comedown, but then Saracens went and Saracened. Andy Dunne joins Sean Farrell and Gavan Casey as the pod segues from the international to club season.

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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