Aged 11 he had his first feel for what it was to represent the Rockies, the pride of Tralee and so often the pride of Kerry, a much smaller but no doubt equally as ferocious Kieran Donaghy marched alongside his future team-mates as Austin Stacks won an 11th Kerry championship back in 1994.
Twenty years later and the 6ft 5inch three-time All Star led the club to their long-awaited 12th title, at this stage himself the "Great Duke of Tralee", he now goes in search of what will 'only' be this famous club's second ever Munster championship.
Central to Austin Stack’s history of 12 county titles, four All-Ireland winning captains, and 200 All-Ireland winners’ medals are the Rockies. The staunchly proud supporters of the club have lit up this year’s championship with their colourful pre-match marching, a tradition which has in fact been in the club for over thirty years.
Where it all started
”I remember marching back in 94’ when I was 11 out in Killarney for the replay against the Crokes and that’s where it all started,” explained next year’s Kerry captain.
The tradition of Austin Stack’s marching to the stadium before games is one which really came to life in 1994, when the modern-day colour that’s now associated with support within the GAA began to materialise.
“With the Stacks, all of a sudden you’re marching, then all of a sudden you’re playing with the u16s and then all of a sudden you might be a minor and then you’re trying to get into the seniors, so it’s a good way to get people involved in the club and make them feel a part of a big day when the normal fan in the county would just drive up to the stadium and go into the game,” says Donaghy.
“Where ours would feel more of a part of it and obviously it’s great support. They’re very loud and they keep singing no matter whether we’re winning or losing and I remember we were down by fifteen points in the county final last year against the Crokes and they kept singing right through.
“So when you see them singing it’s not just jumping on the bandwagon, it’s something that’s been deep in the club for 20 or 30 years so we’re just lucky to have them on our side.”
The Great Duke
Timmy Sheehan, a lifelong club supporter and member of the famous team of the 70s with four county titles and a Munster and All-Ireland club medal to his name, explains the special bond between the supporters, the team and especially their ‘Star’ Kieran Donaghy.
“It’s definitely a sporting family, when Kieran walks through the middle of Tralee he’s like the Great Duke of York, or Tralee, everyone spreads to both sides.
“They feed off it and the night of the county final the players and the supporters celebrated alone together like a big family, there’s a huge connection there. Even the last game the team went over to them before going into the dressing rooms and they do feed off the energy big time.”
Sheehan, the father of Laois footballer Billy Sheehan, says that while the club has always had unrivalled support, it was the 70s before the huge numbers began to converge as one to the stadium. While it would be the "unorganised, organised" marches of the early 90s which really set the tone for the "sometimes 3000" who have since the turn of the millennium marched to every one of the club's big games.
“You’re coming from a huge tradition, so when you’re coming from that long tradition there’s a huge kind of out pouring of joy.
“What’s interesting about the club is that there’s this particular pride. Our success has always coincided with Kerry’s.
“The Rock dominated particularly in the era of 1928 to 1932 and then the 70s when Kerry too completely dominated. Kerry won two four-in-a-rows at a time when the Rock completely dominated the club scene, so we like to think we gave Kerry a major boost during their golden eras.
“The Rock comes from that kind of a background and some might say that we shout a bit louder than most, but if you look at the club and the number of All-Irelands across the board, there’s 200, we’re built up on that and there’s huge expectation.”
Sheehan notes the 1973 championship triumph which ended a 37-year drought, and the famous Munster championship clashes with Nemo Rangers in which up to ten All Stars would have been on display, as special times in the club’s history which helped ensure the pride instilled in today’s younger supporters.
It’s not off the cuff
Central to the participation and coverage of this year's support is social media, both in broadcasting the action via YouTube and organising it via Facebook and Twitter.
“They have their own songs made up, their Indian headgear, the drums and the particular banners for Donaghy or whoever, which they make themselves, so it’s different to any intercounty team as they would never bring the same support or organisation as ours, it’s not off the cuff.”
O’Connell street takeover
If they can turn over Waterford champions The Nire this weekend the club will be just one win away from Croke Park on St Patrick’s day - for which plans are already being put in place.
“Next Sunday there are more than ten buses I think gathering at Cork Con, which I think is quite close to Pairc Ui Chaoimh and they’ll all gather there and march up to the pitch through the town.
“They’re already talking, it’s a bit presumptuous at this stage, that they’ll disrupt the St Patrick’s day parade in Dublin and march through O’Connell street if we reach the All-Ireland.
“It’s up to the powers to be but the whole showpiece of it all would be lost in Croke Park I think, our supporters would be better shown in Parnell Park.”
So with the weight of expectancy on his broad shoulders, nothing unfamiliar at this stage for the 31-year-old, Kieran Donaghy insists that he’s nothing but grateful for all this trojan support.
“Support is what the GAA is all about, it the most important thing, and club support is just huge because it’s actually family members, cousins, uncles and aunties and again it just grows and grows, and grows.”
No doubt The Nire will be desperate to spoil the party on Sunday, and put traditions to bed, the action commences in Pairc Ui Chaoimh at 2pm.