Aug 08, 2023

Kerry’s nine

NINE IN A ROW: Today in the Rose Hotel, Tralee this trail-blazing group and their manager Mick Fitzgerald were honoured by the Association of Sports’ Journalists in Ireland for their contribution to Irish sport. The ten players who featured in all of Kerry ladies' nine in-a-row were: Marina Barry, Marion Doherty, Mary Jo Curran, Phil Curran, Margaret Flaherty, Eileen Lawlor, Margaret Lawlor, Bridget Leen, Annette Walsh and 
Dell Whyte. Pictured at todays lunch Back Row (L-R) Margaret Flaherty, Phil Curran, Eileen Lawlor, Annette Walshe, Mary Jo Curran, Margaret Lawlor, Marina Barry Front Row (L-R) : Bridget Leen, Marion Doherty, Michael Fitzgerald manager, Tony Riordan (selector) and Dell Whyte.(trainer and player).Pic : Lorraine O'Sullivan

Every superhero needs an origin story. In 1974, a small note appeared in the bottom corner of the Kerryman newspaper. There would be a meeting at Austin Stack Pavilion to form a ladies’ football board. Step one was to create a team. Step two, conquer the sport.

Mick Fitzgerald hailed from the Galway hurling heartland of Killimor and after qualifying as a garda, he was transferred south. He helped hurling in Lixnaw and camogie in Castleisland. Then he turned his attention to ladies’ football and posted that notice. Fitzgerald subsequently operated in various roles: trainer, administrator, president for a spell.

By 1982 he was Kerry’s manager as they strived to break new ground. That excavation mined gold. The greatest of all time, nine consecutive All-Ireland senior football titles followed. On Friday some of those players gathered at the Rose Hotel, Tralee for the Association of Sports’ Journalists in Ireland (ASJI) Legends’ Lunch. Commemorating and reminiscing on the time of their lives.

Their recollection of the games is hazy; the spirit and sense of fun is still distinct.

“I was mad to play. Growing up I’d just be kicking ball around the place,” recalls Margaret Lawlor. Between herself and her sister Eileen, they share 20 All-Ireland medals.

“Would you believe I still have that cutting from the paper. People don’t understand, there basically wasn’t any football until that. Only a little carnival in Ardfert. They’d put on girls’ football as a novelty act. I was delighted to meet other girls who were thinking like I was. We’d get on the bus and talk about the football or rugby match that was on the night before.”

Gradually, clubs started to sprout and produced green shoots. Castleisland, Beaufort, Stacks. A county minor side came to the fore and would go on to backbone the nine-in-a-row. Lawlor already had one All-Ireland medal by then from 1976. “I was like their mother,” she says with a smile.

“We didn’t just come through together, we grew up together,” explains 10-time All-Star Mary Jo Curran. The LGFA Hall of Famer contested all nine finals alongside her sister, Phil. A midfield sensation and a full-back powerhouse. Their power stemmed from one consistent source, an overwhelming passion for football. Women and the ball, a piece.

“There was no media or television,” says Curran. “Nothing like that. I just loved playing. That’s what it was about. We all loved it and did it together.”

As the day unfolds, they flick through a meticulously kept scrapbook and share countless anecdotes lauding the feats of their former team-mates while playing down their own. What exactly made this stunning achievement? The same components that underpin any truly great team. A crystal-clear comprehension of what it takes to be successful and absolute dedication to delivering it.

Only the Kingdom’s most powerful entities could stop them. Lawlor laughs as she recalls the 1977 All-Ireland semi-final versus Roscommon in Castleisland. A funeral at St John’s and a football match at Austin Stacks conspired with the lack of a Tralee bypass to delay their car. They arrived at half-time but were unable to claw back the deficit. One that got away. There would be many more.

“What I remember most is that everyone turned up for training,” Lawlor says. “It was 100% commitment. Then there was a telepathic passing. Everyone knew you were trying to get the ball in as quickly as you can. It didn’t matter who scored. That was the beauty of it.”

Trace through the years. Esteemed journalist Cliona Foley, current ASJI committee member, started her career while that team were in their pomp. Why is no one writing about this remarkable outfit on the verge of eight in a row, she wondered. So, she did it. On the day of their final training session before the All-Ireland final, Foley travelled to Austin Stacks only to discover they’d been moved from the pitch for a boy’s underage blitz. Eventually, she found them on a nearby field and penned a preview.

The 1984 final versus Leitrim was played in Timahoe. They chuckle at just how basic the facilities were. It soon becomes apparent basic is a generous description. Back then the ground didn’t even toilets. A year later the decider took place in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and they made the front page of a local newspaper for the first time. By 1986 the final was a fixture in Croke Park. Talk soon turns to magic witnessed there.

Mary Lane is the mother of current midfielder Lorraine Scanlon. Mary Jo Curran can still vividly see the 45 Lane kicked in HQ, the ball still rising as it sailed over the bar at the Canal End. Lane’s explanation is typically modest.

“A windy day and Charlie Nelligan’s rugby boots.”

Media attention was generally sporadic, although collectively they did not care. The only coverage that mattered was that of Kerry’s legendary scribe, Con Houlihan. Always ahead of his time. Often the entire team rushed for copies of the Evening Press in the aftermath of their triumphs.

“He was our voice,” Marina Barry explains. “The lads knew him because he was from Castleisland but the way he wrote about our wins like poetry, it made us feel like queens. We were indebted to him.”

Members of their management team were also honoured. Tony Riordan was a selector for the entire nine in a row. He burned out several cars driving players to training and matches. He also provided their peculiar nutrition: “I’ll tell you the difference between our day and today. We won All-Irelands with marmalade in the sandwiches. Today they need steak in them.”

Listening and smiling all afternoon was Fitzgerald, seated beside the current Kerry management and the LGFA CEO. Still in awe of the tribe.

“If I was to sum it all up, they were a wonderful group of girls. Loyal, determined, skilful, they had everything. They often described themselves as a family. They were an extended family to me too.”

Much has changed since Kerry’s last All-Ireland in 1993. They were the change. Friends and family have gone on to wear the green and gold. They’ve been involved in senior backroom teams and are still active coaching clubs and development squads around the country. They made history but now are desperate to pass it on. Trailblazers willing the current crop towards another summit. Some of them came together in the 45,326 at Croke Park and cheered on Kerry as they came up short against Dublin recently.

The sub-headline on Foley’s feature before the 1988 final read as follows:

“No cheers. No flags. No spectators. It’s women’s football.”

Not anymore. Thanks to them.

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