Kerry pioneers the kings of the urban-rural frontier


While Dublin made hay in football’s early years, Kerry’s dominance has since been pronounced, writes SEAN MORAN, Gaelic Games Correspondent

UP UNTIL the 1924 championship Dublin had won 14 All-Irelands. The remaining eight have taken 78 seasons to accumulate, one a decade. It wasn’t until the 1903 All-Ireland that Kerry won their first title by which stage Dublin had eight; it took Kerry less than 40 years to catch them.

The first meeting in the 1892 All-Ireland final was at a time when the GAA was still in a state of flux – over the number of players on a team, the value of a goal (which when worth more than any number of points led to teams cramming their goalmouth; so if anyone says Donegal brought defence to a new extreme . . . )and the effects of the Parnell split were still vivid.

But there were portents of the future. Dublin not for the last time had innovated a different style. The Young Irelands team – All-Irelands were then contested by clubs – had developed catch and kick tactics as opposed to kick-and-chase and were defending champions.

Laune Rangers from Killorglin were trained by JP O’Sullivan, an athletics champion who empanelled many of the team from construction workers employed on the railway line to Cahirciveen. The Kerry men were aggrieved at the partisanship of the crowd which included “street urchins” booing frees awarded against Dublin who won with a late goal.

O’Sullivan was the father of Dr Eamonn O’Sullivan, later to become one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of football coaching, taking charge of Kerry teams intermittently over 40 years and winning eight All-Irelands.

The initial era of the rivalry ended in the 1923 championship – by which stage Dublin had recorded half of their six victories in the fixture’s history – with Dublin recording the county’s third and final three-in-a-row, clinching it with what would be the last All-Ireland championship win over Kerry until 1976. Contemporary reports put the attendance at 25,000.

Kerry were strengthened by the availability of their strongest team after the release of Civil War internees and they went very close in the final, losing 1-3 to 1-5 – the margin preserved at the very end by a great save from Dublin ‘keeper John McDonnell.

A year later the tables had been turned and Dublin entered a barren era, the longest spell without an All-Ireland in the county’s history – 19 seasons until 1942. The current team is 16 years into a similar sequence.

Dublin teams were still significantly supplemented by exiles from other counties, who lived and worked in the city but who ideally would have liked to play for their own county. The experience is best summed up by Murt Kelly, who after being dropped by Kerry threw in his lot with Dublin where he was a teacher.

In 1934 he ended up captaining his adopted county in an All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry down in Tralee. In what was the last stand for the home county’s four-in-a-row team of 1929-32, the visitors won 3-8 to 0-6.

According to Princes of Pigskin – A century of Kerry footballers, by Joe Ó Muircheartaigh and TJ Flynn, Kelly’s reaction to following in footsteps of Coriolanus was pragmatic. “The Kerry crowd wasn’t happy and the Dublin lads didn’t hang about after the game. They made a quick exit.”

Kelly’s story had a happy ending when he returned to the green-and-gold colours and kicked a late equaliser against Dublin in the 1941 All-Ireland semi-final and dominated the replay, which Kerry won well.

The modern era began in 1955. The famous All-Ireland final drew a then record crowd and caused British Rail to schedule extra trains to Holyhead because of the feverish excitement to see the match between Dublin’s team, dominated by home-grown St Vincent’s players and playing a new, unconventional game built around Kevin Heffernan’s roving full forward take on Eamonn O’Sullivan, the high priest of orthodox football.

It didn’t end well for Dublin but the disappointment drove Heffernan to lead another revolution in the 1970s, based on ratcheted-up levels of fitness and a style of play based on working the ball into the danger area and aiming to eschew long-range, speculative shooting.

A year on and the rise of a younger Kerry team under Mick O’Dwyer set the stage for what burned as an intense rivalry for a few years in the 1970s before Kerry matured into the unstoppable force that ended up with eight All-Irelands in 12 years.

The 40 years between 1955 and Dublin’s most recent All-Ireland title 16 seasons ago also defined one of modern football’s most prominent frameworks, the clash between the capital city and everyone else.

That urban-rural frontier wasn’t invented by the GAA but the rise in the 1950s of Dublin’s first indigenous teams, as opposed to the residence-based sides of previous decades, helped create the definitive sporting expression of the differences between city and country.

Televising of All-Ireland championships gave the matches an immediacy that they hadn’t enjoyed previously and led to the enhancement of the GAA identity in the capital.

Recent years haven’t been kind to the rivalry. The counties met five times in the last decade but Kerry were rarely troubled and two years ago gave a devastating display to win by 17 points. That match, like 1955, prompted much soul-searching in Dublin and tomorrow’s team has in that sense been assembled to take on Kerry.