Taking the game to a higher level

 

In the autumn of 1993, Val Andrews, with his accent honed on the northside of Dublin city, packed his bags and moved south to Kerry where he believed Gaelic football was the king of all sports. "To me, it was like going to the home of football . . . like a rugby fella going to New Zealand to see how it should be done," recalls Andrews.

On the trip down, in fact, Andrews, who'd spent half a decade as chairman of Ballymun Kickhams, was worried that he wouldn't even be allowed to get involved in football affairs once he reached the Institute of Technology, Tralee.

What he discovered was a football unit at the college that was in complete disarray, without even a full set of jerseys, and his preconceived ideas were immediately put in their place. Welcomed with open arms, the Dub threw himself into reorganising ITT's footballing life.

Seven years on, the role that Tralee played in the evolution of many of today's modern stars is apparent. On Sunday, the two All-Ireland team captains - Seamus Moynihan of Kerry and Galway's Padraig Joyce - not only mark each other, but they will carry with them memories of a shared cause in their days as students in Tralee which delivered back-to-back Sigerson Cup successes for the pair in 1997 and 1998.

They're not alone. Michael Frank Russell and Michael Donnellan also played on the successful 1998 team, as did Jack Ferriter, Pa O'Sullivan and Genie Farrell and Donegal's Jimmy McGuinness while, the previous year, in 1997, Barry O'Shea (injured and unavailable to Kerry this year) and Willie Kirby, who also won All-Ireland medals that year, had backboned the team with Moynihan and Joyce.

Moynihan, it should be noted, was already something of a legend in Sigerson Cup circles before moving on to Tralee, having played in the competition with UCC (they won in 1995 and lost out to UCD in a classic semi-final in 1996), but the route that took him to ITT to continue his education was a reflection on how Tralee's football fortunes had improved so dramatically in the few years since Andrews arrived there.

"Lucky. Lucky to have players of such quality," is how Andrews - now back in Dublin, working in Blanchardstown Institute of Technology and manager of the Cavan football team - remembers those wondrous footballing days.

"The good thing about Tralee was the influx of players, from everywhere, that added something to the flavour, to the ethos, of the college." No segment, it can be said, benefited as much as the football section.

Padraig Joyce's route to Tralee, certainly at the time, was not a typical one for a Galway student to make. However, two friends of his, Michael and Seamus Cloherty, had already taken the step and, when his college offer took him there, Joyce had "a chat with Mick" which persuaded him it would be a good move. Originally studying Health and Leisure management, Joyce switched to computer studies after his first year.

"There's a great tradition down there. Of course, there's a big emphasis on football but you still have to get ahead with your studies and career. But, at the same time, everyone enjoyed the going training because you were training with good lads. The craic was good, and the banter," recalls Joyce, who was deprived of a unique three-in-row of Sigerson Cups when he missed out on 1999 after picking up a suspension for playing for Galway in a Connacht League match.

What Andrews recalls is the tremendous insight that such young players had into the game. "You couldn't but learn from them," he says. "They were disciplined and focused. They were fierce aware players for their years. You started to understand why people win All-Irelands.

"It was as much their mental approach as anything physical or the talent they obviously possessed. It was the way they could express themselves on the bigger stages, the length that they'd go to win. Kerry loves its football. They're mad, obsessed with it and to have players of such quality at the college was a manager's dream."

Still, one particular occasion stands out for Andrews, and it concerns a Sigerson Cup match against UCD in Belfield in 1997.

"We were playing into what was literally a hurricane and Padraig rifled over this free from 30 or 40 yards. It was an incredible scoring feat," recollects Andrews.

But such feats didn't surprise Andrews. Indeed, the surprise was that Joyce didn't get a call-up to the Galway team that year.

Of the following year's 1998 winning team, four of them line out on Sunday: Donnellan and Joyce for Galway, Moynihan and Russell (who'd played for University of Limerick against Tralee in the 1997 Sigerson Cup final) for Kerry.

For his part, Joyce recalls his days in Tralee as "good times". The bond that he has established with Moynihan transcends football but, come Sunday, their friendship, as he says, "will dwindle away".

"It's bad enough being good friends, but when you're both captains of teams it adds another bit of spice to it . . . if I couldn't get my hands on the cup," says Joyce, "he's the only fella outside myself that I'd like to see.

"But once you cross the whitewash and walk behind the band in the parade, he's representing his county and I'm representing mine and we have to do whatever we have to do to win. Once the ball is thrown in, that's friendship out the door for an hour and a bit."

Just the sort of discipline and focus that Andrews observed in the good, old Tralee days, really.