James Crombie/INPHO Former GAA President Sean Kelly.
# Grassroots
Ex-GAA President set to see his Kerry club realise Croke Park dream
Seán Kelly introduced All-Ireland finals at Croke Park for lower grades and now his club Kilcummin are playing there.

SEÁN KELLY FREELY admits that this was a day he always had on his mind.

The man synonymous with the seismic step taken to open the doors of Croke Park to soccer and rugby, also broke new ground elsewhere during his tenure as GAA President.

And the marvellous impact of that pioneering move can still be witnessed.

It was Kelly who sought to introduce a pathway for every club in the country to contest an All-Ireland final in Croke Park, to ensure it was not just the preserve of the senior heavyweights in counties. 

National deciders for junior and intermediate clubs first took place at headquarters in 2006. Since then they have become special spring dates in the GAA calendar, a date for all to aspire to reach.

Eight more clubs venture to Dublin this weekend and for Kelly there is a personal touch to the fixtures with his homeplace Kilcummin contesting for intermediate football honours on Saturday afternoon.

“Absolutely it was one of the things I was thinking of when I was putting forward those competitions.

“And the reason was we won the county junior championship when I was playing and there was very little made of it. Then I could see with the senior championship that the opportunity to play Munster and All-Ireland level raised the profile immensely.

“So I said why couldn’t it happen for junior and intermediate clubs? It was a factor. I always hoped one day my own club would be there and now they’re there.”

AIB GAA Club Championship Media Day Eóin Noonan / SPORTSFILE Kilcummin's Sean O'Leary and St Enda's Peter Healy before Saturday's final. Eóin Noonan / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

Kilcummin are maintaining a rich tradition amongst Kerry clubs. They are the clear market leaders since the inception in 2006 with a Kingdom representative in nine junior finals and seven intermediate deciders.

They’ve won 12 titles in that time frame with Ardfert (3) and St Mary’s Caherciveen (2) strikingly proving to be serial winners. Kilcummin and Beaufort swell the Kerry numbers further on Saturday.

There is a similar trend in hurling with Cork and Kilkenny clubs having proved frequent visitors to this stage.

Kelly had envisaged a greater spread although the presence of Antrim’s St Enda’s and Sligo’s Easkey strikes to the core of what he sought to achieve.

“Naturally while that’s great for Kerry, I thought that it would be more equal that more counties would get the opportunity to be in Croke Park through the clubs.

“But that’s the way it worked out. There’s a reason for that as Kerry have only eight senior clubs, so therefore we’d be number nine whereas other counties would have 16 or more senior clubs so the intermediate champions would be number 17.

“For example Cork have over 20 senior clubs and then they’ve premier intermediate and intermediate. So that’s something that might be of interest in due course.”

The heights scaled by other Kerry clubs and the days in the sun that they experienced naturally prompts some envy. Kilcummin featured at senior level for several seasons before suffering relegation but recovered to lift the intermediate title in 2018 in Kerry and then grasp the opportunity as they moved outside their county boundaries.

Cork’s Fermoy were accounted for in a Munster final and then they squeezed past Kildare’s Two Mile House in a tight and tense semi-final last month.

Their qualification adds to a sense of local achievement. Saturday’s junior finalists Beaufort and Dr Crokes, busy preparing for a senior assignment on 16 February, are neighbouring clubs also operating on All-Ireland mode.

“We’re all within a radius of a couple of miles really, it’s extraordinary,” says Kelly.

“Beaufort, while they’re in a different division in mid Kerry, they’re just the other side of Killarney and we’re to the north-east of Killarney and the Crokes of course are in Killarney. It’s very much a local venture for three clubs, different populations etc but all the same spirit and all the same love of football and commitment to it.”

These days Kelly’s job as MEP for Ireland South revolves around work in Brussels but for Saturday his agenda has been cleared.

“We had to shift a few things alright, this was priority number one and that’s what it was going to be no matter what came up. Be it other events or parties or conventions or you name it, this is number one.

“We’re all looking forward to being there and actually quite a number of people are coming from all over, from America, from Australia, from England, from the continent.

“That has been the trend over the last number of years because I’ve seen when I’ve gone to Croke Park for these finals, people are attending who even from a county like Kerry would never have attended Croke Park before and probably never will again.

“It’s an experience of a lifetime and it’s great for the club. You’d hope every club would get to have it once.”

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