Pace is set with dual control

 

Somewhere in the midst of the crisis it got lost. Michael and John Donnellan vented their grievances in the run-up to the Galway-Leitrim championship match and threatened to withdraw their services from the football panel. As the controversy blazed, the selection of Alan Kerins for the Connacht champions' first defence of their title became something of a postscript.

Yet, of all the counties with serious ambition in both football and hurling, Galway is the one where the phenomenon of the dual player has been least observed.

Kerins has been a significant inter-county hurler for the past couple of years. His pace, technique and shooting ability have been positive features of humdrum years for Galway hurling. Matt Murphy managed Kerins on the Galway hurling team for two years.

"As a hurler his strengths were pace off the mark and a good touch, which he's always had even since national school. He's a good reader of the game too. Last year against Kilkenny he cleaned Philip Larkin, the year before took five points off Liam Doyle. Consistency would be a problem. He always has a good game in him but putting two back-to-back is the problem - not just his, but Galway's."

Even within the reassuring context of the county's history in relation to duality, the hurling management would have felt especially unconcerned about the likelihood of Kerins embarking on a dual career.

Home is Clarinbridge where his mother's B&B is a regular stopover for Jack Charlton on fishing expeditions. Kerins's father Monty was an important figure in the coaching of Galway hurling and has been a selector for both minor and senior county teams. A footballer in Clarinbridge would be about as comfortable as an oyster.

Trinity College Dublin, the sole constituent college of Dublin University founded in 1592, is an unlikely platform for any inter- county career but it consistently crops up when the genesis of Kerins the footballer is discussed. Competitive up to a point in football, Trinity is fairly weak at hurling.

Into this cobblestoned world came Alan Kerins as a physiotherapy student. He did his best with the hurlers but was drawn to the more viable world of football. "I decided to have a crack at it," he says. "A lot of the lads I knew were playing football. I suppose it mightn't have happened in a stronger hurling college."

Hurling led to football one day at the annual colours day two and a half years ago. Having picked up the man of the match award in hurling, Kerins wandered up to UCD's Roebuck Castle pitch and lined out at corner back for the footballers. He marked his countyman Derek Savage and kept him scoreless. By his final year in college, he was captaining Trinity's Sigerson team.

Murphy isn't surprised at the player's progress. "Sigerson was a stepping stone. It's like hurling: if you can compete at Fitzgibbon you're only half a step away from inter-county. A good hurler will adapt to any game and this goes to show it. Most inter-county hurlers if they put their mind to it would make it with the footballers. A hurler has to master more skills than in any other sport. But it was a brave move by John O'Mahony to turn around and make the decision."

His views reflect the central reality about Alan Kerins. He was born with a particularly dominant sporting gene. Hurling and now football are but two games he has mastered. Dabbling in soccer and golf has led to his playing for Galway in the Oscar Traynor Cup and reducing his handicap to single figures.

"He was born in Clarinbridge so hurling was an accident of birth," says Murphy. "But he would have made it at anything and played at a high level in any sport. If he'd moved to Australia at the age of eight or nine he'd be making it in Australian Rules."

Whereas he doesn't dispute the player's talent, Murphy is sceptical about the practicality of a dual career nowadays. "It works both ways. There's many a football manager who wouldn't want his player taking up hurling. It drags a player two ways. He becomes a servant of two masters, loses control. If you're really being honest about it, you can't do both - certainly not in the long term. Alan has a couple of advantages. He's a student so he doesn't have to hold down a job and look after a wife and young family.

"And he's lucky it's only now it came. If he had been playing both at minor and under-21 he'd have a lot more wear and tear." Earlier this year Kerins was a spectator as Galway played Sligo.

Although football had become a more serious presence in his sporting life he wasn't taking it too seriously. "It was far from my mind. I remember watching them in a league semi-final with the championship game against Leitrim on the horizon. I little thought I'd actually be playing against Leitrim."

How he moved from a low-key Sigerson career to first choice on a team chasing the All-Ireland was a journey that took him through Salthill. In GAA terms the Galway city club is almost as anonymous as Trinity. An urban club with a fine premises, it is removed from the football heartland of the north county. Kerins joined, as Clarinbridge had no footballing outlet; his arrival and that of Mayo's Maurice Sheridan have strengthened the club's attack. Despite the dislocation, Kerins's displays started to attract attention.

Galway football manager John O'Mahony recounts how the idea of recruiting the player took root. "What put it in my mind was injuries first of all and the fact that we were always looking around for new players. Then there was the word that kept coming through about his football potential. The other thing was that he had a great ambition to make it at football.

"What we noticed about him was that he had a lot of pace, which is a major factor in the modern game. There's also a lot of bravery in hurling which is a great addition in football. Once he became involved with us he worked very hard. His physical work is done with the hurlers. There's no point in expecting him to do both so he has extra time to work on his skills. We're very pleased with him. He has worked hard to become a better player and when we lost Derek Savage, he fitted into that position."

Kerins himself says that everything happened quickly. "I was asked to play in a challenge against Westmeath to see how it would go.

After that I came straight into the championship panel so I wasn't involved in the physical training but I'd already had 10 or 11 weeks of that with the hurlers. There's an intensity to the preparations at this stage. The physical work is finished and it's all sharpening up now. It's easier to lose your hurling skills and I haven't that much football played so there's a lot of sharp work in both."

He admits that the decision to diversify his inter-county career would have been unexpected, particularly for Noel Lane and the hurling management. "At the start it was a shock to them but they've been very supportive. Hurling is my number one but both managements have been very supportive. I'd played a couple of games for Salthill and it was a new challenge.

"I had big-match experience with the hurlers and that did help. But the win over Armagh was only my second at Croke Park. I'm probably getting into the habit where I'll concentrate on whatever game is coming up. I could be in Croke Park for the next four weeks in a row."

So far his football displays have been encouraging. In the Leitrim match he played deep, scored a couple of nice points and crucially fired in some decent-quality ball to the inside line. As pockets of the Tuam heartland grumbled about a hurler walking straight onto the championship team, Kerins's case benefited considerably when Padraig Joyce, last year's captain and the team's influential full forward, let it be known that he had been impressed with the newcomer's distribution.

Since then, Kerins has been more restricted, in the right corner. He was no more culpable than anyone else and less culpable than a few in the disastrous defeat by Roscommon. When the qualifiers brought Galway down to Aughrim to play Wicklow, his contribution was noticeable and he rates it as his best display.

Sharp and pacy, he took a tricky goal chance with great aplomb and a rampaging solo run set up another goal for Jarlath Fallon. During the crucial win over Armagh he was subdued but had been suffering from flu and by his own account "didn't feel too strong".

Some have wondered whether he might be better equipped for a busier detail but the player himself is content. "I'm only new to football so I'm not a central figure on the team. In hurling, playing out the field I'm way more involved. As a corner forward I'm waiting for a supply from outside. It's a different type of role to when you've been playing for four or five years."

Four or five years represent a great deal of time. His future possibilities have in theory been greatly expanded by a nascent football career but the world is changing. With the hurling season set to extend its schedules just like football, it's no time to become a dual player. Kerins mightn't have unlimited time to make his impact on inter-county football. But he mightn't need it.