Second Opinion: Kerry have special reason to stop Gavin’s trailblazers
Dublin are on verge of breaking a record set by forefathers of Kingdom football dynasty
The Kerry All-Ireland winning team of 1930. Back Row, from left: Jack Walsh, Dee O’Connor, JJ Landers, J Barrett, J O Sullivan, J Riordan, Tim O Donnell, Dan Ryan, Eamonn Fitzgerald. Middle: Jack McCarthy, Paddy Whitty, Con Brosnan, Paul Russell, Tommy Barrett, Dan O’Keeffe, Miko Doyle. Front: Jackie Ryan, Bob Stack, Eddie ‘Pedlar’ Sweeney, John Joe Sheehy (c), Tim Landers, Con Geaney
We’ve never been great ones for numbers in Irish sport. The idea that a single number could tell the full story of a person’s career, or a club’s history, doesn’t really resonate with us. Joe Di Maggio’s hitting streak of 56 games; or Hank Aaron’s dogged pursuit of Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714; or Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game. These are all sacred numbers in the US.
Maybe, when time moves on, we’ll hear the number 68 and think of our prodigious international goalscorer Robbie Keane. But for now, numbers are rather inexact methods of explaining greatness to an Irish audience.
This weekend, however, we are presented with a truly startling figure to contend with. The Dublin Gaelic footballers stand on the brink of a 34th game unbeaten in league and championship, an achievement that would put them alongside the Kerry team from the late 20s and early 30s.
One wonders if the history teacher in Éamonn Fitzmaurice has come out in him in recent days. The Kerry manager said during the week that “this is what makes football great and what makes sport great. Everyone and anyone is going to be talking about records and can Dublin be stopped. But that doesn’t impinge on us. It is not as if I’m going to be hammering the table in the dressing-room beforehand talking about records. We are going to try win a game. We try and win every game.”
That may well be so. But this record doesn’t belong to just any old Kerry team. When they began their winning streak in 1929, Kerry were not the kings of football – they had just seven All-Ireland titles, compared to Dublin’s 14. John Joe Sheehy, patriarch of one of the great Kerry families and a man who fathered three sons who won All-Ireland medals in the 1960s, was a central figure in that Kerry team, having earlier served as a high-ranking member of the Anti-Treaty forces in Kerry in the Civil War.
Members of the IRA
He also received one of the most notorious funerals in recent Irish history from his comrades of a different generation in Tralee in 1980 – when it was alleged that members of the IRA fired shots over his coffin, acted as marshals for the funeral and took over the running of the town from the Gardai, a claim the police force strenuously denied at the time.
Sheehy had already captained Kerry to an All-Ireland in 1926 when he led them again to another victory in 1930. He was succeeded as captain, on his retirement at the end of that season, by Con Brosnan, who served as a captain of a different sort in the Free State Army in the mid-part of the 1920s. It was Brosnan who famously ensured safe passage to and from Kerry football games for his Anti-Treaty team-mate Sheehy, who was on the run in the months after the end of the Civil War.
If there’s an “origin story” for the success of Kerry football, then these four-in-a-row winners are it. The primacy of football in the county, ahead of even religion or politics, comes from that team. It is a pretty remarkable group of men Dublin are seeking to emulate this weekend.
Can we say that a number or a record like this is truly a big deal if we wouldn’t have been able to tell you who held the record until Dublin moved within touching distance of it? The Kerry team of that time didn’t need this record to be immortalised. They are in the history books for their All-Ireland four-in-a-row, achieved only two other times in football history, not for the level of consistency also required in the league to set this record in the first place.
Jim Gavin and his men don’t need this record either to go down as probably the best Dublin team of all time – but they’re gunning for it now, without doubt. The fact that the game to level the record is against Kerry, and with a struggling Roscommon to come in their final game, means this is a unique chance to take a scalp that not many Kerry people might have known about before the middle of February, but which has assumed quite a bit of importance now.
Kerry need to win on Saturday for more than historic reasons. They wouldn’t be short of motivation even without being asked to defend the honour of John Joe Sheehy and Con Brosnan. They were the last team to beat the Dubs, on March 1st, 2015, in Killarney, but will feel like another win against them, of any stripe, is pretty badly needed to quieten growing local concern . . . then again, that’s what Mayo were saying a couple of weekends ago too, and it didn’t seem to do them much good.
“Obviously, with Dublin, there is huge motivation there from our point of view, more so than any other team.” Éamonn Fitzmaurice the history teacher, and Éamonn Fitzmaurice the football manager, knows that better than most.