BY CHRIS MCNULTY
JIM McGuinness doesn’t have to be told about the importance of football in Kerry.
In a previous world, the Donegal manager spent three years studying at Tralee IT. McGuinness remained true to home during that time. The lure of Austin Stacks presented itself to the Glenties man, but McGuinness commuted, making the trip back to play for Naomh Conaill and Donegal.
Kerry football was in the process of re-inventing itself at that time – and it co-incided with a golden period for Tralee IT. They won three Sigerson Cups in a row, with McGuinness captain for the third, in 1999.
Famines in Kerry football are all-too rare, but ‘97 heralded a first Sam Maguire in eleven years – unthinkable barren years in the Kingdom.
“It is religious. It is the number one thing in Kerry. The county team is number one,” says McGuinness.
McGuinness played alongside Pa Sullivan, Mike Frank Russell, Willie Kirby and Seamus Moynihan, among others.
“To have an inside line on that and to understand it, I wouldn’t say is an advantage to us, but it helps us see where Kerry are coming from.
“We are passionate about football ourselves in Donegal, though, and this is a great opportunity for Donegal. That can only be a good thing.’
Kerry didn’t invent Gaelic football, but it is they who taught the rest.
‘How To Play Gaelic Football’ was published by Kerry great Dick Fitzgerald in 1914.
“Gaelic football of the present day is a scientific game,” he wrote. “There was a time, indeed, when the game was anything but a scientific exposition. This was the case some twenty years ago, when the rough-and-tumble and go-for-the-man system obtained.
“The better exponents of the science of the game are nearly always sure to come out on top.”
One wonders what Fitzgerald would make of the current game…
Those lean years between ‘86 and ‘97 saw the rise of the ‘northern’ soul. All-Irelands made their way to Down, Donegal and Derry, while Tyrone came close. Not long after, Armagh and Tyrone became challengers to Kerry’s crowns.
Now, the Kingdom stands wearily alongside a Donegal team that no-one seems to know what to make of it.
But what is before this Donegal team was in front of no other in the history of Gaelic football: Kerry in Croke Park at the height of the Championship.
Consider the history. Kerry have won 36 All-Irelands and have 127 All-Stars to their name; Donegal have ‘92 as their sole success with 19 All-Star awards coming to these parts.
Football is the big show in town in Kerry.
When Páidí Ó Sé was appointed Kerry manager he was asked what his job description was.
“My job? To stay faithful to my beliefs, stay faithful to football. Keep the Green and Gold as close to the top as is humanly possible,” he responded.
“What drives me? Kerry. It’s always been Kerry, since I was a kid. The Green and Gold lured me from childhood. Everything else took second place.
“In most counties, in most regions, success is quite often judged by individual brilliance – to have played for your county, to have caught a great ball in Croker, to have rammed home a great goal in a provincial final.
“In Kerry, if you fail to land the ultimate prize, they remember. Individually, collectively, they remember.
“The bar never stops rising in Kerry. Rich traditions. We all drink from the same well. Basics. Catching, kicking, taking scores, making scores, tight defending, heart, courage. Stamp of football in the county.
“It’s in your soul, it’s spiritual.”
Kerry are the masters of the cocky and cute hoorisms. Then again, their record decrees that they have every right to be. There is a certain aura that comes with them to the capital.
Sunday will be a special experience for Donegal’s players – who, in fairness, will hardly fear Kerry.
Take Patrick McBrearty and Martin O’Reilly for examples.
McBrearty turns 19 on Sunday. He has two Ulster medals in his hip pocket and many believe him to be the youngest to achieve such heights in Ulster. McBrearty celebrates his birthday in Croke Park for the second time. Six years ago, when Donegal played Cork in an All-Ireland quarter-final, McBrearty played at half-time with a group of school children.
How his story has evolved.
Thirteen months ago O’Reilly watched from sunny Spain as Donegal won Ulster for the first time in 19 years. Now, the MacCumhaills man has pocketed an Ulster medal himself and has played his part in the success. That his ambition towards the end of 2011 was to make the Donegal U21 panel in 2012 is enough to chart his meteoric rise.
The stories of Donegal’s training have grown legs during McGuinness’s reign as manager. Twelve times a week, they tell us, Donegal players are training. Myth and reality have become hard for people to separate.
It was the same when Tyrone burst through a decade ago. It irked Jack O’Connor – not least because Mickey Harte’s boys had the upper hand.
In his book, Keys to the Kingdom, O’Connor gave an insight into his thoughts – with more than a hint of Kerry arrogance in dismissing what ‘northern’ teams had been doing.
“They talk about how they did it, they go on and on about this theory and that practice as if they’d just split the atom,” wrote O’Connor.
“They build up a mythology about themselves. That doesn’t sit well in Kerry, where a man with four All-Irelands would quietly defer to another man who has five.
“Add up the number of All-Ireland titles the Ulster counties have won and it’s less than a third of Kerry’s total.
“If we lose a game I find it hard to look people in the eye when I walk on the street in Cahirciveen. They know. Everyone knows.
“In a good year in Kerry we win the All-Ireland. In a great year we reclaim the All-Ireland in style or we retain it for the second or third or fourth year.”
In 2002, Joe Kernan and Armagh weren’t taken by the hype surrounding Kerry. Oisin McConville had missed a penalty early in the game, but when he netted with his second penalty 16 minutes from time spurred a comeback that took Sam to Armagh.
“You could sense that the Kerry players were worried,” said then-Armagh boss Joe Kernan.
“They weren’t reading from their own script anymore. There was doubt in their minds. We were expanding and they weren’t responding.”
When Jim McGuinness talks Kerry, there’s respect in his voice. Nothing more. Not awe. McGuinness has his own treasure trove of memories he wants to recapture as a manager.
“I was lucky enough in 1992 to be among our own Donegal lads winning Sam Maguire,” he says.
“To be in the dressing room with Brian McEniff and the various characters he had around that squad and to be a part of that journey was amazing. Winning Ulster and then going into the All-Ireland and being part of it all, it goes without saying was fabulous.
“Seeing the Cup come into the dressing room…achieving that is something that isn’t easy and it has actually become more difficult.
“At the same time we must believe. If you don’t believe you shouldn’t enter the competitions.”
The old gunslingers come to their Kingdom on Sunday. It’s where they usually shoot the lights out, but the new kids in town have a gunslinger’s grin this time.