Monday, April 21, 2008

Kerry on the Cusp of Everlasting Glory

Dara Ó Cinnéide has a fascinating – and frightening, for those who can read the runes – piece in Saturday’s Foinse about Kerry and their three in a row chances this year. On the face of it, Ó Cinnéide was talking down their chances, but the subtext of his piece was clear for those with eyes to see – Kerry are basking in the bright dawn of another golden era, and it’s not three in a row they’re thinking about. It’s five.

The Kerryman, as we all know, is a creature incapable of telling a lie. The only thing is, he tells more than one kind of truth. This is what makes dealing with one so difficult; this duality is what enables the Kerryman to condemn the roughhouse Northern tactics from one side of his mouth, and appoint Paul Galvin as his captain with the other. Therefore, when An Spailpín studies and reflects on Ó Cinnéide’s pieces – and Ó Cinnéide really is the best analyst of football writing or broadcasting today – it’s important to remember that An Cinnéideach speaks to two constituencies, the country and the Kingdom. And while he says the same thing, what they hear – or are meant to hear – in the country is not the same as what they pick up in the Kingdom.

This week Ó Cinnéide is writing about how premature it is to talk of Kerry as three in a row contenders. He marshals three arguments against this contention:

  1. Tyrone looked like being lords of all in 2005, and look what happened to them.

  2. Monaghan should have beaten Kerry in the quarter-final last summer.

  3. Sometimes the best team still loses; vide, 1982.

How endlessly fascinating. Firstly, it can be a source of comfort to the good citizens of the O’Neill and Faithful counties that they managed to annoy the Kerrymen to such an extent. Secondly, and possibly more germane to our current analysis, Ó Cinnéide here offers an unguarded insight into the Kerry mentality.

One of the reasons that Kerry are as successful as they are is that Kerry want it more. Jack O’Connor said after the 2006 All-Ireland that Kerry’s one year of hurt was a greater goad to them than the fifty-years-and-counting were to Mayo, and O’Connor was correct. Thirty-plus All-Irelands or no, every single loss stings the Kerryman. Not only are they bitter about Tyrone a few years ago or that crushing loss against Offaly in 1982, they’re still sore about losing to Down in the sixties. Pat Spillane was bitching about Down in the sixties and they things they didn’t do to poor Mick O’Connell on George Hook’s radio show once; Hooky isn’t enough of a GAA man to ask Pat how he knew, as he would only have been a child at the time.

The bitter tang of defeat is as much a part of the Kerry football heritage as catch-and-kick, Paddy Bawn and Valentia boatmen. Like the Spartans of old, Kerrymen like to see character, and nothing builds character like adversity. As Marvin “Shake” Tiller remarks in Dan Jenkins’ classic American football novel, “Semi-Tough,” it’s not a question of who wants to win, because everybody wants to win. It’s a question of who fears losing the most that makes the difference.

Long time readers of Ó Cinnéide – and it’s to his pieces that An Spailpín always turns first on a Saturday morning – are aware that Ó Cinnéide is sore about the break in the Kerry football tradition that occurred in the late eighties and early nineties, when the golden generation hung up their boots and it wasn’t quite clear who was going to replace them. Ó Cinnéide’s own generation learned that winning is not a right, and traditions don’t just happen, they must be carefully maintained. And the reason that An Spailpín is both swept away by Kerry’s dedication and cowed for his own hopes of seeing his own county win an All-Ireland before it’s time to dance with the Reaper is that Ó Cinnéide clearly senses that Kerry are on the verge of Great Things, and the chance mustn’t be let slip from their grasp.

Ó Cinnéide’s piece on Saturday wasn’t about counties other than Kerry’s chances of winning an All-Ireland this year – it was a call to arms for Kerry to screw their courage to the sticking-post, and prepare for great deeds ahead. Not only have Kerry the best football team in the country, as Ó Cinnéide himself admits, they have profound talent coming through. And they enjoy an advantage that Mick O’Dwyer’s teams did not have, and that is the ridiculous back door system that comforts and protects their imperium. Reader, do you really think that, if the back door existed in 1983, Tadhgie Murphy would not have been fully punished for his temerity later in the summer, or that twelve Dubs would have pushed Kerry around the way they did Galway?

There are a few teams in contention this year. Galway could come good, Derry have been knocking at the door and, being of his generation, An Spailpín Fánach can never quite bring himself to write off Meath. But not only must they match Kerry for players, they must match them for heart. The most chastening thing for the rest of country, looking at Kerry and their football tradition and their tremendous desire and pride in their colours, is that if the current Kerry team do indeed win five in a row, they’ll more than likely deserve it.

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