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Balls Remembers... Kerry: The Lost Years 1987 - 1996

Balls Remembers... Kerry: The Lost Years 1987 - 1996
By Conor Neville
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For most of his career, Maurice Fitzgerald looked destined not to win an All-Ireland. He was the right man at the wrong time. He walked into the Kerry side in 1988.

It was like arriving at a party when everyone else was already conked out on the sofa or staggering into taxis outside. And it quickly fell to him to inject some life back into the whole scene.

The year before, Kerry's golden era side looked to have extended their hex on Cork by stealing a remarkable late draw in Pairc Ui Chaoimh after Mikey Sheehy finagled a late goal out of nothing. The word went out that they had done it again. They had, almost knowingly, toyed with disaster for 68 minutes. But with all the confidence and mental strength that comes from winning bucket loads of All-Irelands, they had coaxed a rabbit out of the hat in the final moments. Now, the purists cackled that they would surely win the replay in Killarney.

The following week it wasn't even close. Kerry could only muster a measly 1 - 5 and were flattered to lose by five points.

Mikey Sheehy didn't hang around for the decline, retiring from inter-county football immediately after the defeat. Pat Spillane and Jack O'Shea did. There is something poignant about watching them still soldiering away in the early 90s, the glory days well and truly gone. Those who began watching football in the mid-90s and associated these lads with All-Ireland Gold footage from the late 70s and early 80s were surprised to learn we only missed them by a couple of years.


After the '87 championship defeat there was a dispute at management level. One of Mick O'Dwyer's selectors, Kerry's captain in 1975, Mickey Ned O'Sullivan, had his eyes firmly fixed on the future.


Kerry had been relying on roughly the same group of core players for about a decade at that point. The average age of the Kerry team that won the 1986 All-Ireland final against Tyrone was 29. The team contained a grand total of zero under-21 players.  Soon the golden era would have to retire en masse and what would Kerry be left with? The age balance of the team was all out of whack.

While there were a number of youthful insurgents who were ushered into the team just in time to scoop a few All-Irelands (Ambrose O'Donovan, Tom Spillane, Timmy O'Dowd and Willie Maher), there was a sullen block of 24 and 25 year olds who were shut out of the team as the golden era side were allowed grow old together.

Mick McAuliffe, who as a 16-year-old captained Kerry to the 1980 All-Ireland minor title, was employed as a winter warrior during the fag end of the golden era, only togging in dreary League encounters. It was only once Mikey Sheehy and Ogie Moran decided to call it a day, that he was given a start in a serious championship encounter in 1988. Another of the class of 1980, Laune Rangers' Joe Shannon was dealt the same miserable hand during the 80s.


Matters came to a head in the summer of 1987. Mickey Ned pushed for change and Micko pushed against it.

You had a very successful team and a lot of younger players didn't see light at the end of the tunnel, because there was no room in the team and there was no conscious effort to bring in new players... I discussed this deeply with him in '87. I felt there was a major need to re-energise the panel and Mick wasn't willing to do this so I resigned.


Willie John McBride, when speaking about how he earned his first cap for Ireland in 1962, used to joke 'I think the previous fella died or something.'


During the 60s, 70s, and 80s, it was notoriously difficult to be dropped from the Irish rugby team. The only way one could surrender a spot on the Irish team was by either breaking one's leg or retiring.

Roughly the same system of squad rotation was followed, with somewhat more justification it has to be said, by Kerry in the 1980s.

For the 1988 Munster Final, circumstances forced Kerry to go with a newish looking forward line. Sheehy and Moran had retired, and Liston's knee was banjaxed. Maurice Fitz, Connie Murphy, and McAuliffe were all given starting berths. The only player who was 'kind of' dropped was the only half-injured Paidi O Se, and that decision was so momentous it was discussed on the Late Late Show last year.


The Irish Times match report on the game makes interesting reading for anyone who believes that cynical play is a modern phenomenon, belonging, as Pat Spillane might say, to the era of statisticians, dieticians and the rest.

Kerry, with their novice forward line, showed up reasonably well with the nineteen year old Fitzgerald kicking ten points. With Kerry trailing by a point going into the last minute, Cork's centre back Conor Counihan, truly 25 years ahead of his time,  'took (Jack) O'Shea down with a rugby tackle as the Kerry midfielder raced with the ball towards the Cork goal.' Before the 30 metre free could be taken, Counihan was knocked to the ground and the game finished with the kind of mass brawl that really should be on youtube.

There was another barney among the management team after that game. Liam Higgins, selector, former All-Ireland winner and brother of Joe Higgins, went on Raidio na Gaeltachta and demanded that O'Dwyer resign. Apparently, there was a row on the sideline over Cork's decision to move Larry Tompkins from centre forward to midfield when Kerry were leading the game. Higgins and fellow selector Kevin Griffin wanted Ambrose O'Donovan to follow him and Jack O'Shea to be moved out of there. Dwyer felt that Kerry were okay the way they were and used his veto. The tide turned and Cork won by a point.


The Micko show carried on for another year. For the 89 Munster final, Paidi and the Bomber were asked back and newcomer Timmy Fleming was brought in at wing forward.

Cork, on the back of two September defeats, were gunning for an All-Ireland and won by three points in Killarney. Micko realised that the glory years would never be re-captured and quit a week a later.


It was a horrendous time, to be honest with you... I was part of a team that got destroyed by 20 points in 1990. That was the famous day when the Cork supporters were shouting at the officials to keep the gate shut and stop the Kerry supporters from leaving.

Stephen Stack

Three defeats in a row to Cork and it was decided it was time for some radicalism. Mickey Ned O'Sulivan was appointed manager at the end of 1989. As a first order of business he decided to drop all the legends for the 1989-90 League. No Spillane, no Jacko, no Bomber. His reasoning was that he wanted the young lads to be able to assert themselves in the Kerry jersey unhindered by the potentially overbearing presence of 'the legends' with their stacks of All-Ireland medals and their intimidating reputations.

When Spillane was informed he wouldn't be part of the Kerry squad for the 1989/90 League campaign, he immediately slapped down the phone, fled the staff room and made a bolt for the solitude of his PE room where he cried his eyes out.

Spillane found it very difficult. Because when I went in I changed the style and I wanted young lads to get the opportunity so Pat wasn't picked on the panel initially. I wanted the young lads to develop themselves first before we brought in guys that imposed too much on them.

In his autobiography 'Shooting From The Hip', Spillane recalled how Mickey Ned was very clear about his reasons for dropping him.

Mickey emphasised to me, over and over again, the two reasons why I was dropped from the Kerry squad (a) I was giving out too much to the young players which was shattering their confidence (b) I had become an individualist on the field and wasn't prepared to bring the other forwards into play.

[cheers to Denis Hurley for the extracts]

Though he disputed the claims of selfishness, Spillane was surprisingly open about owning up to the fact that he was 'forever giving out' and that he 'made life hell for my fellow forwards'.

Mickey Ned determined that Spillane would only return to the fold on the condition that he shed these habits.

However, there was a problem which now became fully visible. Kerry were now having to fall back on players who hadn't exactly been pulling up trees at underage level during the '80s. In the midst of all the showtime glory in September, no one noticed that they hadn't won an U21 All-Ireland since they completed a three-in-a-row at that grade in 1977.

During his time as a selector, Mickey Ned may have been irked by Mick O'Dwyer's cavalier approach to succession planning and blooding new players ('Let the next fella worry about that', he once said in response to one of Mickey Ned's doom-laden prophesies), but it could be argued by O'Dwyer's defenders that the talent simply wasn't there among the succeeding generation.


Sean Kelly, who's onerous responsibility it was to be chairman of the Kerry county board for the whole duration of the dry spell, concedes that the underage set-up was allowed slacken during the golden years.

Naturally enough (during the early 80s) a lot of resources went into the senior team and maybe we took our eye off the ball at underage level.

As the annual summer meeting with Cork grew closer, the three older boys were ushered back into the squad. Liston and Jacko both started but Spillane remained on the bench, the focus of much media attention.

During that era, there was ferocious competition for the grand title of 'Low Point in the History of Kerry football.'

Any number of years put their hands up for consideration.

Most breezy potted histories of Kerry GAA pinpoint the 1992 loss to Clare as the low point. Because it was Clare. However, it would be hard to surpass the 1990 hammering by Cork in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Billy Morgan's team were in their absolute pomp. All-Ireland champions and on their way to another.

Kerry were a mixture of spindly ould fellas, with big knee bandages and bald patches and middle aged looking beards, and equally spindly looking young fellas who hadn't quite grown into the jersey. In Mickey Ned's view, the failure to blood new players at the tail end of the golden era was now coming home to roost.

We only had two or three players between the ages of 21 and 34. There was a whole generation lost.

Rather like the Galway side of 2013, they had just won the U21 All-Ireland (tellingly, their first in 13 years) and decided to throw a few of these players into the side only for them to get destroyed by their oldest rivals. 2 - 23 to 1 - 11 was the eye watering final scoreline. Kerry only revived a bit in the second half when the knee bandaged Spillane came on, kicking two points.


Strangely, between the slaughter of 1990 and the humiliation against Clare, Kerry rustled up two championship victories over Cork in 1991 and 1992. The 1991 victory in particular was a bolt from the blue which Stephen Stack attributes to the hurt from the previous year.

We were mortally wounded that day. I can remember what the feeling was like. We met the week before in Killarney in the Park Place Hotel and Ambrose and Jacko and Spillane were there and they really inspired us.

Debutant corner forward John Cronin scored 1-1 as Kerry won a scratchy game on a scoreline of 1-10 to 0-11. It was one of those rare days when Kerry got to experience the euphoria of the underdog victory. They secured a trip to Croke Park in '91 after scooping the Munster title, but their limitations were exposed in a poorish semi-final against Down.


Mickey Ned takes the two victories over Cork and, in particular, his success with the U21's as a vindication of his reign.  He had insisted on taking charge of the U21's when he took the senior job. It was the beginning of a rich period of success for Kerry at this grade. Under his stewardship, Kerry won the U21 All-Ireland in 1990, their first in 13 years.

Obviously, it wouldn't have been the place to be to be manager at the time but I knew that when I was going in there because I had been involved with Dwyer and I knew there was nothing coming through.


There was a lot of frustration and anger at the time. I remember after one Munster Final, I spent two hours of Radio Kerry taking abuse, defending the county board, defending the team, defending the management.

Sean Kelly, Chairman Kerry Co. Board, 1987-97

The first half of the 1990s, the Bermuda triangle of Kerry football, has largely been ignored by documentary and montage makers.

Ogie Moran, for instance, a regular talking head on Laochra Gael, has no interest in talking about his three years as manager from 93-95. After the  respite of 91 and 92, Kerry got used to losing to Cork again, the only difference being that this Cork team weren't All-Ireland winning material. If admissions to psychiatric hospitals go up in Kerry in years when they don't win All-Irelands, then there must have been serious overcrowding in these places in those years.

The older lads began shuffling off the scene, their final bows striking a violently discordant note to what had been the general tenor of their careers. After seven All-Irelands, Jack O'Shea told journalists he was calling it a day from the wreckage of the Kerry dressing room after the 1992 Munster Final.

It was another bracingly unfitting finale for Liston who was brought out of retirement by Ogie Moran for the Cork game in '93, only to be substituted before the end, with Ger Canning editorialising from the commentary booth that the experiment had failed.

That 1993 loss to Cork in Killarney was particularly depressing. Cork won a bad match by three points, despite missing a hat-full of chances. Kerry were only ever hanging in there and never looked like winning. The Irish Times GAA writer Paddy Downey grandiosely devoted a good deal of Monday's match report to the emotions of the surrounding mountains. 'Even the reeks were bleeding. This must have been the saddest, bleakest day in the whole history of Kerry football,' was his cheery opening. It was about as upbeat as he got about Kerry's performance that day.


With Liston slipping back into retirement, the final playing link to the 70s/80s team was severed and the 1994 Munster Final saw the rarest of rare things, a Kerry team devoid of All-Ireland medal winners take the field in the championship. A neatly taken goal from Timmy Fleming couldn't prevent a two point loss.

Kerry had settled into a losing pattern at this stage and were invariably out of the championship in early July. The late 80s/early 90s was an era of bustling physicality in Gaelic football. Stack reckons the preponderance of lightish wide players in Kerry over dominant central players was a big factor in their repeated Munster losses.

I think, through the 90s, like, on any successful team, you have a very strong spine, and in that time we didn't have a player who dominated the no. 3 position, the no. 6 position, no. 8 and 9, we didn't have a series of players who dominate those central positions over a period of 5 or 6 years. We had a lot of players who were good to play in wing positions. And that's probably no fault of anyone...


Paidi O'Se had taken over as U21 manager before the 1993 season. The success enjoyed at this level intensified in this period. They picked two titles in a row in 1995 and 96. And, while the successful 1990 U21 team provided only a smattering of players who would go on to achieve success at senior level,  the 95 team bequeathed a rich inheritance to the Kerry senior side of the late 90s. No fewer than seven players from that side featured against Mayo in 1997, including Darragh O'Se and Barry O Shea. And the management team that guided them to the u21 title graduated with them.

Stack, who returned to the side in 1996 after a four year absence, reckoned this batch of players were the critical ingredient in turning Kerry from perennial Munster bridesmaids into All-Ireland conquerors in two short years.

The younger fellas that came through were coming through with a base of great confidence having won those U21 All-Irelands. They weren't a bit intimidated by some of the teams we were intimidated by. They were winners when they were 21 and 22 in the same way as Dublin are now.

They seemed to draw strength from Cork's decline. Kerry got the better of them in Pairc Ui Chaoimh in '96, and while they were upended by Mayo in the semi-final, they were back in the big time the following year. Maurice Fitzgerald delivered his most celebrated performance as Kerry beat a jaded Mayo team in an otherwise rather dreary and forgettable All-Ireland final.

Stack was the only player to bridge the gap between the 86 and 97 sides.

I went from 19 to 31 without winning an All-Ireland. It was a horrendous time to be honest with you. But lookit, I played in a very lean time for Kerry. But bad and all as that was I was still managing too play for a team averages one All-Ireland in every three... I can say it was a tough time but it was nothing as tough in other counties. Some of those fellas were putting in the same effort as we were and they weren't getting any big days...

It made you realise in that period, 'okay it's tough, but by jesus it's very tough in other counties'. So I wasn't feeling sorry for myself, I was saying 'we'll keep working away at it, and some day make the breakthrough...'

Read more: The Strange Decline Of Galway Football



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