Famous Games

The Untold Story of the Game that saved Kerry

by Weeshie Fogarty

As Kerry set out on their quest for three-in-row all Ireland titles this year the comparisons between the present squad of players, the mood of supporters in the county is like chalk and cheese in relation to that of forty years ago. In fact the situation differs so much that one might seriously wonder if we are discussing the same county at all. That year of 1968 saw mighty Kerry wallowing in the depths of despair as they struggled to put together some kind of a team that would bring a little bit of pride back to the county. The previous five years had been a disaster for Kerry football. Galway were too good for us in 1963-64-65, winning two finals and one semi-final. Dr Eamonn o Sullivan the legendary trainer had retired following the '64 defeat. County board chairman Jim Brosnan came in as trainer with Teddy o Connor, Mick o Dwyer, Johnny Walsh, Fr Curtin and Murt Kelly as his selectors.  Cork had beaten Kerry in the Munster finals of 1966 and '67 and most of the league displays around this period had been nothing short of a pathetic.  One national newspaper probably summed up the mood of the county when in November 1966 Louth beat the Kingdom in the knock out stages of the league in Tralee.0-6, to 0-5. The headlines screamed out the depressing message. "Kerry Footballers lose To Louth". It continued. "In truth this is a merciful result as it saves them from demoralizing destruction in the later stages of the league". 

Things were coming to a head at the end of '67 and following a heavy defeat to Down in a Cuchulainn Cup Tournament final in Croke Park and the scribes.(as always with Kerry when in trouble) went to town and comments such as the following must have been very hurtful to everyone involved at the time. "I saw one man, Mick Fleming who remotely resembled a Kerry footballer-the rest were pathetic". The renowned Irish Independent GAA writer Mitchell Cogley was damming in his opinion of the Kerry footballers when he wrote. "Without the least reservation, this was the most pathetically feeble and wretched display I have ever seen from a team carrying the famed green and gold. The team was utterly devoid of either elementary skills or spirit. Hardly a ball was cleanly fielded, hardly a kick was well directed, and hardly a challenge was offered to win possession". Imagine such stuff been written about the players of to-day?

Mick o Connell, Johnny Culloty, Seamus Murphy and Mick o Dwyer had retired and their departure had left a massive void in the Kerry set up. Mick o Dwyer had in fact topped the poll in the race for Kerry senior selector and was acting in this capacity as 1968 dawned. The Waterville man had also acted as selector the previous two years.  And then amazingly as if by magic '68 was to see a complete reversal of Kerry fortunes as the team marched to the All Ireland final where Down were the victors in a pulsating final. So what brought about this complete reversal of standards all those years ago? Well the first thing that should be said is that we are talking about Kerry and everything is possible when you talk about this county. The pride, the passion, the tradition and the expertise of men who have won buckets of All Ireland medals will always bring Kerry to the ultimate honors. Of course no team in any sport, no county can be successful every singly year. The lean times are always around the corner.

Those were indeed dark and troublesome days for Kerry football. Never before had I heard the men in green and gold booed of the field by their own supporters. This sad affair occured following a two point league win over Wicklow in Tralee in November 1966. Kerry failed to score in the first half. One of the survivors of Kerrys famous 1903 win Denny Curran exclaimed afterwards. "Lord bless my soul, I never saw worse in my life".  The situation was at rock bottom. Then a simple challenge game between thirty Kerry footballers and the appointment of a new trainer once again changed the course of Kerry history. On the 18th February 1968 Mick o Dwyer organized a challenge between past and present Kerry players in Tralee. The past won 2-13 to 3-8. I was among the two thousand in attendance and it was as serious an exhibition game as you could get. That day hastened the return from premature retirement of Mick o Connell and Mick o Dwyer. Johnny Culloty and Seamus Murphy would also return later for the championship. It marked Niall Sheehy's last appearance in a Kerry jersey following a magnificent career as both a hurler and footballer. The great Tom Long also played his final game in the green and gold that day. Jackie Lyne then accepted the position as trainer in May of that same year and the revival was under way. And so inspired by this seemingly nondescript exhibition match in the dark and dreary debts of winter the county's fortunes were reversed in probably the most astonishing manner ever. Three Munster championships, 1968-69-70. Three All Ireland final appearances, 1968-69-70 winning Sam Maguire the latter two years. And three National League titles, 1968-69-70, which swelled the coffers of the county board. And to cap it all a once in a life time trip as the team and officials circumnavigated the globe in a five week trip.

Most of the men who played that February day forty long years ago in Austin Stack Park are now long forgotten; nevertheless in my opinion they deserve special mention. They, probably more than any previous Kerry players certainly saw both sides of the proverbable coin. They rose gloriously to a challenge thrown out by the Kerryman's esteemed GAA correspondent John Barrett as he threw down the gauntlet in no uncertain manner. "Let the New Year flash the lights of a Kerry revival. Let GUTS be the banner under which our footballers march. Let us, at least, set the proper headlines for the youth on the sidelines. In plain words, get rid of the non-triers!" Stirring words indeed! 

Past: Johnny Culloty, Pa Kerins, Joe Joe Barrett, Sean Og Sheehy, Mickey Walsh, Pat Moynihan, Tommy o Callaghan, Mick o Connell( 1-0), Brian Sheehy, Bernie o Callaghan (0-1), RIP. Mick o Dwyer (1-8), Derry o Shea (0-1), Tom Long, Niall Sheehy, John "Thorny" o Shea (0-3).

Present: Liam Higgins, RIP. Derry Crowley, Paud o Donoghue, Seanie Burrows, Tom Prendergast, Declan Lovett, Pat Aherne, Mick Fleming, John Bunyan, John Saunders (0-2), Pat Griffin (0-1) Paudie Finnegan RIP. Eamon o Donoghue (1-0) RIP, Denis o Sullivan (1-5), Tim Kelleher (1-0).

Referee; J. Connor, Blennerville.

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