Brendan O Sullivan

Johnny Culloty

by Brendan O'Sullivan

"If ever there was an unassuming player, unspoiled by fame, that man was Johnny Culloty." I quote from sports writer Raymond Smith's account of the 1969 All-Ireland Football Final. Johnny had just captained Kerry to their 21st title in a tense match against Offaly. Kerry led by 0-5 to 0-2 at half-time having played with a strong breeze. Within seconds of the restart, the Offaly full forward Sean Evans caught the ball on the edge of the Kerry square, turned sharply and shot hard. It looked a certain goal but Culloty made a wonderful save. It may have been the turning point of the match as an Offaly goal might have given them the confidence to go on and win. Instead, Kerry retained their 3-point advantage and won by 0-10 to 0-7.

Captaining Kerry was the highlight of Johnny Culloty's career but he already had a long pedigree in Kerry football.  In 1954 he played  at centre forward on the minor team which lost the the All-Ireland Final to 2 late Dublin goals. But in the following year 1955, although only 19, he was talented enough to win a senior medal at corner forward on the team which defeated Dublin in that famous final.

Curiously, football was not Johnny's first sporting love, he preferred hurling. At the age of 14, he played in goal for the Kerry minor hurling team against Limerick and so impressed the famous Mick Mackey that Mick after the game congratulated him on his performance. One of his great regrets is that Kerry never had a senior hurling team which was sufficiently talented to make an impact, although he is proud of their display against the Munster champions Waterford in 1958 when Kerry held them to 4 points and he did win an All-Ireland junior hurling medal in 1961. Nor was his talent reserved to GAA sports-he excelled at basketball, snooker,  billiards, rowing and of course golf as the years went by.

After winning in 1955, Johnny suffered a serious injury and, when he next plays championship football, he is in goal and Kerry win the 1959 All-Ireland. He was the regular goalkeeper for Kerry in the 1960s. The decade was mostly depressing for Kerry supporters with the exception of 1962 when Roscommon were beaten in the final. Defeated twice by Down, 3 times by Galway, twice by Cork, the 21st title was proving very elusive. Senior players including Johnny were so disillusioned that they retired and the 1967 team did not include the names Culloty, O'Connell, O'Dwyer, Seamus Murphy. But they were persuaded to return the next year, the campaign again ending in disappointment with a loss in the final to Down, Kerry's fourth All-Ireland defeat in the 60s.

East Kerry won the 1968 Kerry championship and Johnny became Kerry captain. The 1969 League was won in a dramatic two-leg victory over New York and the championship campaign ended with that tense win over Offaly. Delight was mixed with relief in equal measure for Kerry followers as that 21st was a long time coming. Along with captaining Kerry to a League/All-Ireland double, East Kerry retained the Kerry title and Killarney won the Kerry hurling championship, making 1969 the most memorable year of Johnny's career. The following year he won his 5th All-Ireland medal in a high-scoring final against Meath.

In 1971 Johnny retired for a second time from senior intercounty football, having played 44 (championship) times for Kerry in a career spanning 17 seasons. He then became manager and 3 Leagues were won at a time when the County Board badly needed the financial injection which League successes provided. These years saw the introduction of many of the men who were to feature on the great team which would win 8 All-Irelands. But success in Kerry is not measured in League titles and his Kerry managerial career ended on that rain-soaked day in Killarney in July 1974 when Kerry lost to Cork, a day which also saw the last appearance of Mick O'Connell in a Kerry jersey.

But Johnny was to emerge centre-stage again in 2004 when the new manager Jack O'Connor named him as one of his selectors. Kerry had endured 3
difficult years - disappointing, even humiliating, defeats to Meath and Tyrone and a feeling of "one that got away" in that final against Armagh. In Jack's book "Keys to the Kingdom" he describes Johnny as a "father-figure to me, a living connection to the great Kerry coach, Dr Eamonn O'Sullivan." " When a man( Jack says) with 50 years experience of Kerry football tells you something, you listen." He tells of how Johnny would tone him down. "Johnny put manners on me." "When he tells me to do something, I do it."We may be somewhat sceptical about this last statement but there is no hiding his high regard. He states that Johnny was never happy with just winning, he wanted to win with style in the tradition of Kerry football. And perhaps his finest tribute-he describes Johnny as " a man with no ego." And the 3 years with Jack, Johnny and Ger O'Keeffe in charge were to see the pride restored to Kerry football with 2 All-Ireland and 2 League wins.

And so we honour a man whose service to Kerry is second to none. He won many honours in a long intercounty career and even longer club career. In his 70s he remains involved with his club Killarney Legion, assisting his son who is the manager. He is one of only 2 players who won All-Ireland medals both in goal and outfield. Yet I feel that the medals mean little to him. His motto was , "Never wallow in victory, never get too depressed in defeat. It's still only a game."After an All-Ireland final, win or lose, he spent most days of the next week fishing on the lake from dawn to dusk. When the week was over, the fuss was over. We salute Johnny Culloty, "an unassuming player unspoiled by fame", "a man with no ego".

Radio Kerry - The Voice of the Kingdom