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Dara Ó Cinnéide: Why captaincy tradition can’t imprison Kerry

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Dick Fitzgerald, in his seminal 1914 book How to Play Gaelic Football has an entire section dedicated to the captaincy of a team. Fitzgerald, a name revered and remembered to this day, is a man whose insights on captaincy hold true, being one of only four two-time All-Ireland winning captains in Kerry.

“The selection of the best man for the position of Captain of a team is a matter of no little importance,” suggested Fitzgerald at the beginning of chapter VI.

The tradition of allowing clubs choose the county captain has served us well in Kerry and will continue to do but tradition needs to evolve too, writes Dara Ó Cinnéide.

“The finest players are often sacrificed if they be placed under an incapable leader,” he continued and over the next two or three pages Fitzgerald suggests that all captains should possess natural leadership qualities, be one of the better players on the team and, ideally, play in a central position.

Centre-forward or centre half-back, and in either of those places he can do a great deal to lead the team to victory.

Fitzgerald concluded his essay on captaincy by stating that “it may happen, for one reason or another, that the team wish to bestow the title of captain on a player who may not be able to discharge the duties in the manner described.

“In such circumstances we may suggest, perhaps, that it would be well to depute some other man on the side to assume command to a certain extent.”

We have known for some time that Fitzgerald’s ideas on the game of Gaelic football, although far-reaching, were of their time. His notion of captaincy, however, comes into focus once again this week with the elevation of David Clifford and with the debate and vote on the captaincy issue that looms into view ahead of Kerry County Board’s monthly meeting on Monday night.

As one who benefitted from the system of choosing a captain for the county team in the past, I should have strongly held convictions on the vexed issue of Kerry captaincy.

David Clifford
David Clifford

Like many more before me, everything I have done in the game since my retirement from the inter-county game has been geared towards the promotion of club football and the sometimes vain attempts at strengthening club football.

Ordinarily, I would resist any move to diminish the prestige of the club unit. There is no doubt that taking the captaincy away from the county champion, be that a club team or a divisional team, would diminish the club game and the county championship in some small way.

Had anybody suggested in 2003, as some did when I had the honour of being nominated Kerry captain, that the county champion’s right to nominate the inter-county team captain for the following year be removed, I would have been less than impressed.

In the intervening years, however, my thinking has evolved to the point where my conviction on the issue is not as steadfast as it used to be and, like many politicians on the canvass these days, I am not averse to making a complete u-turn.

My change of heart might suggest personal expedience and a ready willingness to pull the ladder up after benefitting from the status quo in the past.

Like everything else in life and in the GAA in particular, it is a bit more nuanced than that.

Before making a decision on the issue, delegates at Monday night’s meeting have a duty to assess all of the information available to them.

They must also have an awareness of as many of the current and historical facts relating to Kerry captaincy so as to inform their thinking. If, as was the case with me, they learn something new and previously unknown to them, they must surely abandon earlier convictions and vote accordingly.

Kerry is now only one of two counties — along with Kilkenny — that persist with this traditional added bonus for their county champion.

David Clifford and Colin Fennelly are the two players nominated to hold the honour in 2020 and, of course, there is every chance that if Peter Keane and Brian Cody had their way, both Clifford and Fennelly would be their preferred choice too. It just so happens that the hit and miss system that exists in both counties threw up good choices this year.

The fact that Kerry and Kilkenny lead the way in both football and hurling would also seem to suggest that the traditional strongholds and standard bearers are in rude good health and it may well be right to leave well enough alone.

The recent history of the senior team captaincy in both counties suggests otherwise, however.

Jackie Tyrrell, one of the great defenders of the modern game, said in his recent autobiography, that the captaincy placed a huge weight on him when he was at a stage where he was trying to establish himself on the Kilkenny team in 2006. It became something he resented.

“The last thing I wanted, or needed, was more pressure,” Tyrrell said.

I didn’t want the captaincy. It just heaped a burden on me that I carried around like an anchor.

Though he made a memorable acceptance speech, Lester Ryan was a non-starting captain when Kilkenny won the Liam McCarthy Cup in 2014. That same year, Kerry captain Kieran O’Leary only came on in stoppage time even though his team might not have been in the decider but for his semi-final contribution.

The following year, captain Kieran Donaghy didn’t start the All-Ireland final. The last five Kerry captains — Bryan Sheehan, Johnny Buckley, Fionn Fitzgerald, Shane Murphy and Gavin White — all spent significant periods during those 2015-2019 seasons on the bench.

Kieran Donaghy and Colm Cooper celebrate in 2007
Kieran Donaghy and Colm Cooper celebrate in 2007

At a time of history and pre-eminence for the Dr Crokes club in Killarney, it became a matter of resentment and rancour that others in the county could entertain the notion of addressing the captaincy issue when Dr Crokes had established and earned the right to it through their on-field dominance.

Those advocating for change in recent years would argue that their desire for change had nothing to do with Dr Crokes and certainly nothing to do with the personality or character of those chosen by the club to captain the county.

Two of the great 21st century Dr Crokes players, Eoin Brosnan and Colm Cooper, both of whom were instrumental in the architecture of the club’s story over the last decade, would have their own experiences of Kerry captaincy — Cooper (wearing the famed but ill-fated No 13 shirt) with one hand on Sam Maguire in 2011 only to be cruelly denied by Stephen Cluxton’s late intervention and Brosnan, a decade earlier, when timing and circumstance made it unsuitable for him to assume captaincy.

It was decided then to stick with Seamus Moynihan — the previous year’s and, to my mind, the best captain I ever saw.

That decision to go with Moynihan over Brosnan came at the mid-point of my own Kerry career and it was the third in a series of captaincy clusterf**ks since I made my championship debut in 1995.

Liam Hassett regrets to this day that it wasn’t his brother Mike that lifted Sam Maguire in 1997 but injury and general mismanagement put Mike out in the cold at the tailend of that year.

A few years earlier the Austin Stack club had won the 1994 championship and were it not for injury, Pa Laide would have captained the Kerry team in 1995. Laide’s Rockie teammate, Darren Aherne, in his one and only championship appearance, led us out that day in Limerick.

Anthony Gleeson of John Mitchels captained the team against Tipperary the next day and Morgan Nix of Kerins O’Rahilly’s went up for the toss in the Munster Final against Cork. The shared captaincy was a rare example of ecumenism and uneasy accord amongst Tralee’s big three but also a glaring example of what can go wrong when management don’t have a captain of their choosing.

Go further back to 1953 and to Jas Murphy who got the captaincy by default. In 1953, John Joe Sheehy, who himself had captained Kerry twice, was one of the county senior selectors and his son Paudie was a wing-forward. Lore and legend have it that John Joe left the room in the interests of impartiality when it came to selecting the half-forward line.

When he returned his son was dropped.

Jas Murphy, a Kerins O’Rahilly’s man and teammate of Sheehy who played with John Mitchels, found himself nominated to take over as captain.

He reluctantly accepted, lifted Sam Maguire but strangely the following year, Murphy himself was dropped and never played with Kerry again.

In 1946, Paddy Kennedy of Annascaul lifted Sam Maguire but he was their fourth captain that year alone.

Ambrose O’Donovan’s captaincy in the Centenary Year of 1984 is one of many illustrations of the hassle created by our appointments procedure in Kerry. I have childhood memories of the combined Killarney team that won the county title in 1983.

Diarmuid O’Donoghue of Legion was the choice for captain that year and played against Tipperary in the opening round of the Munster Championship.

Before the Munster final against Cork on a scorching day in Killarney, O’Donoghue was dropped and those charged with finding an alternative settled on a young Ambrose because he was an East Kerry man.

The rest is history, but it helps to be on the right side of that history.

The history of Kerry football captaincy is littered with stories of misfortune and confusion but it also throws up some epic narratives that might inform us when it comes to the reluctance to dispense with the tradition.

In his wonderful account of wartime and post-Civil War Kerry football, In the Name of the Game, J.J. Barrett writes of his Republican father, Joe Barrett, who “handed over his captaincy in 1931 to Captain Con Brosnan, a Free State Army Officer, who was a member of the Army which had incarcerated Barrett in various locations for almost a year and a half.

Brosnan and Barrett played on opposing sides in the famous Ex-Internees v. Kerry match in 1924, which was to set the foundation stone for Kerry’s successes of the 1920s and even further ahead”.

It might be a tad simplistic to interpret Barrett’s handling of the captaincy issue in 1931 as the defining act of reconciliation in post-Civil War Kerry but the handing over of the captaincy almost certainly contributed to a sort of healing.

What is patently clear is that the captaincy of the Kerry football team is not something to be trifled with and those voting at Monday night’s meeting won’t do so lightly.

You will have delegates from places like Dromid, Finuge, Tuosist, Beale, Valentia, Moyvane, Glenflesk and my own beloved Gaeltacht club voting on Monday in the full knowledge that those memorable homecoming nights at the parish hall or local pub would never have been possible but for the system and the tradition that has existed in Kerry as far back as they can recall.

The 38 different clubs who have supplied captains to winning and losing Kerry senior teams over the years might wince at the proposed change.

The GAA units and officers who give pride of place in their clubhouse to old pictures of any of Kerry’s 33 All-Ireland winning captains might baulk at the notion too.

Tradition has served us well in Kerry and will continue to do so but even back in 1914 in telling us How to Play Gaelic Football, Dick Fitzgerald was letting us know that the game was a scientific one that was constantly evolving. Our traditions evolve too. Traditions guide us and inspire us.

But they should not imprison us.

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