Johnny Culloty - A lifetime of service to his county

May 1st, 2013
by Weeshie Fogarty

"In Dr Eamon's time things were very different than they are now. To day a manager is appointed at the start of the year and fulfills his duties for that year. Not so with Eamon. I remember in 1955 the first All Ireland I was involved in there was no training for the Munster final, we trained for about a week for the semi final against Cavan, that was a draw and we trained about the same for the re-play. However we trained full time for the final, twice a day. Now contrast that with the present time where they train the whole year around and you see the huge difference in the different generations.

Dr. Eamon o Sullivan was a man before his time. He wrote books about football and occupational therapy and we must remember he was RMS of St Finan's Hospital when there were eleven hundred patients there. He must have been a genius not alone at the football but also in the psychiatric field as well. He was able to activate all those patients every day of the year, it was a massive undertaking for the man. Where he got the time for everything I just didn't know. As regards the training of teams he was completely different to the trainers of to day. Now they are all pacing and running up and down the side lines, not him, he was cool calm and collected at all times. As a matter of fact he had nothing to do with the picking of the Kerry teams he trained. In 1955 Kevin Heffernan was the big name on the Dublin side and he was the talk of the place but I never heard Eamon not even once mentioning Heffernan's name, or how we would mark him or plan for him. He trained his own team to the best of his ability, told us what he expected us to do and put us out on the field to do the job for Kerry. Now in that line he brought his psychiatric expertise into the training of all his teams. In my book he was an expert trainer and I firmly believe he would be still the best if he was here to day. It's great Weeshie to see you getting his many achievements down in print for posterity.

My grandfather worked in the hospital from 1905 to 1950 and one thing he always spoke about was the great work the patients put into the building of the Fitzgerald Stadium. I remember talking to some patients who had worked on the project in the old days back in the hungry thirties for very littlie reward and they told me that they found it a great break from the tedium of being confined in the wards of the hospital. It was free and easy and there was great camaraderie between the workers and it helped to bond a great relationship with the staff members. The field itself was sodded with sods cut by hand by the hospital patients, can you imagine the amount of work alone that entailed. This should never be forgotten.

We are told that up to fifty patients from St Finan's helped in the project and it is sad that we do not have a record of their names, however those were the times when everything was not recorded. I began working in the hospital in 1956 and there was practically no medication of any sort and all the emphasis was on recreation and rehabilitation and trying to get the patients out working on the hospital gardens and farm. Now the one thing that always struck me when I took up my nursing career in the hospital was the number of great workers that were amongst the patients. Fine strong athletic fit fellows that were from all over county Kerry, they could turn their hand to anything. Now if they were completely confined to the hospital wards it would have been a very long soul destroying day for them and it was in this area that Dr. Eamon was so far ahead of his time and occupational therapy was a big thing for him, and rightly so. And of course if they had back then what they have now, the vast availability of medication those patients would not have been in hospital at all".

Johnny Culloty came under the expert guidance of Dr. Eamon at just eighteen years of age. One of the most versatile Kerry sports men ever Johnny had just come out of minor ranks in 1954 when he was immediately added to the Kerry senior panel in 1955. That of course was the year that Eamon guided his county to their most famous victory of all and the young Culloty was one of the stars when he lined out at left corner forward. It was the beginning of a remarkable career. The Killarney man injured his knee the following year while playing in a Railway Cup match against Ulster. He then began a long innings in goal for the Kingdom and guided by Eamon won two more medals in 1959 and '62. He was also a member of the team of 1964 beaten by Galway in the final, Eamon's only loss as Kerry trainer.

Killarney is famous the world over for its great natural beauty. Its lakes and mountains have been the subject of many poems and songs and even the great Bing Crosby crooned about them. The town still boasts an enormous tourist trade but, in a more parochial context, it is also famous for producing top-class footballers.

Johnny Culloty was arguably one the town's greatest achiever in the county jersey. He won five All-Ireland SFC medals and was the winning captain in 1969. And he won no fewer than 12 Munster SFC medals including a magnificent eight in-a-row from 1958 to 1965.

Although he will always be remembered as one of the game's top goalies, it was not as a net minder that he first came to the attention of supporters. Nor was it ever his favorite position! Nor was football his favorite game!

In fact, Johnny was an above average hurler whose major regret is that Kerry were unable to make an impact in the Munster Championship during his years on the team. He won an All-Ireland Junior hurling medal with the Kingdom in 1961 when they beat London in the final having beaten Meath in the 'Home' decider. Johnny scored two goals against Meath from the right corner-forward position. He played in goal for the county minor hurlers at the age of fourteen and was a county minor for four years and played at adult club level from 1951 until the 1980's. Apart from the All-Ireland Junior success in 1961, the victory that gave him most satisfaction was Killarney's lone SHC title in 1969. That glorious day for Killarney Culloty almost dragged Beauties Home to victory on his own. Many would agree that he was good enough to grace any inter county hurling side in Ireland when he was in his prime.

His first encounter with big-time football was in 1954 when he was centre-half forward on the Kerry minor team that was beaten by Dublin in the All-Ireland Minor final. Among his colleagues on the team were Tom Long, the poet Brendan Kennelly, Teddy Dowd, Frank o Leary, Brian Sheehy, Freddie lynch and George White. It was one of the most heart breaking of all minor defeats for The Kingdom. Five points ahead with just five minutes remaining Dublin stunned Kerry with two late injury time goals to snatch the title. It was a totally forgettable day for Kerry supporters who also saw their senior team go under to Meath. There was some consolation for Culloty when he lined out at right-half forward on the team that beat London in the All-Ireland Junior final some weeks later. Team mates of the rising young star that day included, Tom Spillane, Eddie Dowling, Tom Costello, Dermot Dillon, Pop Fitzgerald and Sean Lovett.

Johnny had impressed sufficiently to warrant a call-up to the senior panel for the 1955 championship and was corner-forward on the team that faced Dublin in the All-Ireland final having required a replay to get the better of Cavan in the semi-final. That memorable year he first appeared as a Kerry senior as a substitute in Killarney in the Munster final

The showdown between Kerry and Dublin was the first to attract the degree of 'hype' which is so much a part of the modern game. Dublin, with their highly-vaunted half-forward line of Des Ferguson, Ollie Freeney and Cathal O Leary, and with Kevin Heffernan at full-forward, was installed as favorites. Kerry's rating as outsiders had much to do with their hugely disappointing performance against an 'old' Meath team in the previous year's final.

The official attendance was 87,102 but two gates were broken down and hundreds poured through. It wasn't the greatest of finals but the last four minutes helped to make it memorable. Kerry had dominated throughout but a late Dublin goal left only three points between the teams and there was tremendous drama and excitement in the closing stages. Kerry held out to win the title for the 18th time. All six Kerry forwards including Johnny, got on the score sheet while only three Dublin attackers managed to register.

One report of the match said that young Culloty was the star of the full-forward line. Despite a distinct disadvantage in height against his marker Mick Moylan; he fared better in the fielding stakes.
A cartilage injury sustained in a Railway Cup game in 1956 was a serious setback but his somewhat gradual transformation from corner-forward to goalkeeper occurred in 1957. As with most of such dramatic switches, it happened purely by chance.

Kerry were due to play Galway in a 'Gaelic Weekly' semi-final and the selected goalie, Marcus O Neill couldn't make it on the day. Johnny was placed between the posts and although he subsequently played in a number of League games in outfield positions, the switch became permanent in late 1958 when, once again, the selected goalkeeper did not show. >From that point onwards, Culloty became the first name to be penciled in on the Kingdom team.

In his first championship year as goalie, 1959, Johnny won his second All-Ireland SFC medal but expectations of continued success were punctured by the arrival of Down's great team of that era. In 1962, Down faltered in Ulster and Kerry took full advantage by beating Roscommon in the All-Ireland final. It was Johnny's third medal but just as Down had proven to be something of a bogey team for Kerry at the turn of the decade, a new and powerful force emerged from the West in the mid-'60's. Galway won three successive All-Irelands beating Kerry en route to all three titles. It was one of these defeats that saw Dr. Eamon relinquish his position as Kerry trainer in 1964. It was his only All Ireland final defeat out of nine appearances.

Cork emerged from Munster in 1966 and '67 and Johnny's next All-Ireland experience was against old rivals Down in the 1968 decider. The game will always be remembered for Sean O Neill's goal when he beat the Kerry custodian from close range after the ball rebounded from the upright. The goal emphasized the genius of O Neill. There was little that Culloty could have done, especially as his defenders were not as alert as the Down man.

Having won his second of four county SFC medal in 1968 with East Kerry, Johnny was made captain of the Kerry team for the 1969 campaign and the Kingdom footballers went all the way, with victory over Offaly in the All-Ireland final providing the Killarney man with the opportunity of being presented with the Sam Maguire Cup. His brilliant full length diving save from Sean Evans just after half time sent Kerry on their wining way to their 21st senior All Ireland. In March 1970 he led Kerry on an unbeaten tour as his side played a series games on a memorable world trip which took them to Australia, New Zealand, America, Fiji Islands and Hawaii.

His fifth All-Ireland medal came in 1970 when Kerry defeated Meath in the final. The former psychiatric nursing office played in nine senior All Ireland finals.

It appears to be forgotten these days but when Johnny retired from the inter-county playing scene he became manager or trainer as it was then called of the Kerry team. He held this position for three years. It was as expected a major disappointment in his first year in charge Kerry lost to Offaly in the replayed All Ireland Final of 1972. Mick o Dwyer had punched a point to give Kerry a deserved draw and in the re-play it took one of the most remarkable goals ever seen in a final to bury Kerry's hopes.

Early in the second half after going two points up, came the score that deflated Kerry's hopes and buried Johnny's dreams of training The Kingdom to victory. It was as bizarre as anything that has ever been seen in Croke Park. The Offaly corner forward Paddy Fenning, lobbed a high center in the general direction of the Canal end goal and as Paud o Donoghue and Eamon Fitzgerald were caught frozen in a state of indecision, the ball hopped in the square between them and ricocheted into the roof of the net. This was in all probability the one single score that decided Johnny's fate as Kerry trainer. Such is the paper thin line between victory and defeat. Although Kerry lost the Munster finals of 1973 and 1974 he guided them to successive League titles in 1972-73-74 bringing much needed cash to the coffers of the Kerry county board.

And its little wonder that few people remember as team managers had such a low profile at the time that the All-Ireland final programme of 1972, draw and replay, fail to mention the manager of either the Kerry or Offaly teams! How times have changed! Johnny retired as trainer following defeat by Cork in the Munster final played in Killarney in 1974. This game also signaled the final appearance in a Kerry jersey of the magnificent Mick o Connell.

Shortly after this Mick o Dwyer became Kerry trainer and the golden era of Kerry football was about to begin. However it has been completely forgotten and completely ignored by writers and GAA historians alike that under the guidance of Johnny Culloty the seeds of that greatest side ever had already been sown. Culloty one of the shrewdest brains ever on the Kerry football scene had seen the light and began to introduce young blood to the side. On that 1974 team beaten by Cork he included Paudie o Mahoney, Paudie o Shea, John o Keeffe, (Captain), Ger o Keeffe, Paudie Lynch, Mickey o Sullivan, Ger Power, John Egan, Jackie Walsh and Mickey Sheehy.  It must also be pointed out that all of these up and coming young stars helped Kerry win the 1973/74 league title under Culloty and one Pat Spillane won his first league medal as a substitute the same day. The winds of change for Kerry football were well and truly blowing. The Killarney Legion man had laid the most firm of foundations. 

Johnny's team won three successive National Leagues in 1972, '73 and '74 but they couldn't get their hands on the Sam Maguire Cup.

Following a successful stint with trainer Paudie o Shea as an under 21 selector Johnny again answered the Kingdoms call when Jack o Connor became senior team manager and with his many years of experience and he directing the thinking of the management team of Pat Flanagan, Ger o Keeffe and Jack o Connor Kerry entered another glorious era of victories. They won the All Irelands of 2004 and 2006 together with two League titles. Any true blood Kerry supporter will tell you that the Killarney mans vast experience was vital as he directed operations from the side line. Now his direct involvement with Kerry had stretched from his minor days in 1951 to 2006 an amazing fifty five years. And during all this time he continued to train and coach his clubs under age and adult teams and still continues to do so this day.

He has won practically every honour the game can bring. How many players can boast five senior All Ireland medals, twelve Munster championship medals, an All Ireland Junior Hurling and Football medal, five National Football league medals and four Division Two National Hurling League medals. And of course at home in his beloved Kerry he has won top honors in all competitions during his illustrious career. Amazingly when he collected his five Kerry senior county championship medals, four football with East Kerry and one hurling with Killarney he was playing outfield while being the regular net minder for Kerry. Such was his versatility. It is extremely doubtful if any other player in history could match a record such as this.

His playing career coincided with that of many Kerry greats including Mick O Connell, Donie o Sullivan, Pat Griffin, John Dowling, Paudie, Niall and Sean Og Sheehy, Jerome o Shea, Liam Higgins, Seamus and Sean Murphy, Tadghie Lyne, and Mick O' Dwyer. Many of the forwards he faced went on to become legends of the game. Johnny Culloty was also a legend and will be remembered as a great servant of Kerry football and of the Legion club in Killarney. And all of this despite the fact that he was a most reluctant goalie, preferring to play in outfield positions and a slightly reluctant footballer, preferring hurling as a game!

It must also be recorded that he can be rated as one of the greatest all round sports men that Kerry has ever produced. As well as his expertise at football and hurling he was prolific at basketball, golf, rowing, snooker and billiards. Johnny Culloty's life has been consumed by Kerry football. Unassuming, quite spoken, a non drinker and smoker he is married to Joan and they have two daughters, Brid and Orla and two sons Donal and Sean both of whom wore the Green and Gold. He has served his county with honor  dedication and distinction and as he himself as said. "Among the people I admired greatly was Dr. Eamon o Sullivan, he was years before his time and I certainly learned much from him".

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