‘You couldn’t pick two better people as captains’ – The club producing Kerry’s new football leaders

THE CLOUD SWEPT in over them instantly, the silver lining would take some time before swinging into view.

In October 2019 the Rathmore club saw their senior membership end after 20 years, falling through the relegation trapdoor in Kerry club football.

It was a setback they had to absorb. Last year didn’t produce a quick rebound as they went no further than the intermediate group stages, but it did pave the way for something else.

Last Monday evening the Kerry county board rubber-stamped the selection of Paul Murphy as their senior football captain for 2021. After his role in East Kerry’s success last autumn, he was the divisional team’s choice when it came to nominations.

Congratulations to Paul Murphy wishing you the very best in the year ahead, fantastic achievement and a proud day for all here inRathmore G.A.A 💚💛💚💛💚💛💚💛 pic.twitter.com/YW5MmHpPaK

— Rathmore GAA (@rathmoregaa) January 25, 2021

On Wednesday afternoon the Kerry ladies football board announced a captaincy proposal that was cut from similar cloth. Aislinn Desmond will take on that mantle, a by-product of Rathmore’s ladies football title win last September.

Congratulations to @aislinndesmond on her selection as Kerry Senior Ladies captain. @kerryladiesfoot From everyone in Rathmore LGFA we wish you and the Kerry Ladies the very best of luck on the upcoming season. pic.twitter.com/gK7TrAupe0

— Rathmorelgfa (@Rathmorelgfa1) January 27, 2021

One club producing two captains for the flagship Kerry football teams for the year ahead.

In a January where there has been a dearth of good news, this raised a flare of joy in their community hard on the Cork-Kerry border.

“It’s massive news,” says Aidan O’Mahony, the serial Kerry All-Ireland winner and Rathmore natvie.

“With Paul and Aisling, it’s unique to have both from the same club. In the current lockdown, it was a big boost for the community having two of your own made captain.

“You couldn’t pick two better people as captains for the county teams, that are suited with their attitudes and personalities.

“It’s like the flip of a coin. Very disappointing for our club to lose our senior status but on the positive you’re seeing Paul Murphy captain Kerry seniors and a few of our lads won county senior championship medals last year. That was a great thing.”

The pair fitted the criteria due to their roles in 2020 victories on the local front. That relegation saw Murphy dragged into the East Kerry scene where he was part of a star-studded outfit, along with club-mates Brendan O’Keeffe and the Ryan brothers, Shane and Mark. Their glory made him eligible to become the first Rathmore man to be appointed Kerry senior captain.

If the decision captaincy is largely the preserve of managers around the country, the Kerry football and Kilkenny hurling way of doing things is greeted with puzzlement and attracts plenty attention from the outside.

It is a tradition embedded in the fabric of their club game and raise the stakes in these local matters. O’Mahony remembers a campaign 22 years ago when he was a teenager starting out on the football road. In the month leading up to Christmas, Rathmore met neighbours Glenflesk on three occasions, a series of battles for supremacy that were freighted with great importance.

He had been involved when East Kerry completed three-in-a-row in the county senior championship that year. It was left to the divisional December action to settle the debate over who would captain Páidí Ó Sé’s team for what transpired to be a Sam Maguire-winning season at the start of the millennium.

“What it used to come down to was the O’Donoghue Cup, the East Kerry championship, if the division had won. In ’99 we won the intermediate county with Rathmore and beat Glenflesk in the final. Then in the O’Donoghue Cup Glenflesk beat us after a replay in the final.

“So Seamus (Moynihan) then captained Kerry, it was between him and Declan (O’Keeffe). I think Declan did captain Kerry in the league one year. In 2016 I was captain during the league and Tom (O’Sullivan) I think did at some stage as well.

“I know myself, it’s nice for your family and your parents, just for that honour, I remember being above in Clones in 2016 leading out against Monaghan.”

Aidan O’Mahony in action for Kerry against Monaghan in 2016.

Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

O’Mahony has different connections to Kerry’s new captains.

“I started out training with Paul’s Dad (Donal) in our club above in Rathbeg. Back then there were four cars at four corners of the pitch with the lights on for training to see your way around when you were doing laps.

“I played with his uncle Padraig as well then and his son Dan has been with Kerry minors in recent years. Then Aislinn’s father Denis would have trained me U21 and he trained us senior as well.”

Paul Murphy’s rise to be inaugurated as Kerry football leader was not well signposted. He strikingly did not make a South Kerry U16 team or the Kerry minor squad. When it came to the U21 grade he got pulled in for his last year in 2012, a run that ended in Munster final defeat after extra-time at the hands of Cork.

Yet there were ingredients to work with. His talent has flourished on the biggest stage despite that unheralded beginning and a diminutive presence.

“I do work with development squads through AOM Fitness,” says O’Mahony.

“Young people there would message me saying, ‘Look I didn’t play minor, I didn’t play U20, what hope is there for me?’

“Whether it’s club or county, here’s a typical example of a fella that hasn’t played minor. All of a sudden, 2021, he’s the Kerry captain. There’s always hope there if you put the head down and work hard. 

“That’s one of the main attributes of Paul. He works hard. You don’t know is he right-legged or left-legged because he works so hard on the skills of his game. He’s one of those versatile players, you could play him anywhere.

“And if there’s a 60-40 ball on the ground, he’ll put his head in there. A great reader of the game as well. A big heart and a big engine, they’re more important than size.”

Seven years ago O’Mahony saw his career intersect with Paul Murphy’s in a neat and heartwarming fashion for them. A pattern had developed in Rathmore over the years of man-of-the-match winners being churned out for Kerry on the biggest day in the Gaelic football calendar. 

Din Joe Crowley in 1969 against Offaly, O’Mahony in 2006 against Mayo and Tom O’Sullivan in 2009 against Cork. That trend was maintained by Murphy’s display in 2014 against Donegal, further personal recognition followed with an All-Star after a dream debut year.

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Paul Murphy in action for Kerry against Donegal in the 2014 final.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“Eamonn would have had him with the U21s,” recalls O’Mahony.

“I had the conversation with Eamonn when he rang me about coming back playing myself for the 2014 and we spoke about Paul. He was very consistent fo rRathmore underage and started improving when he came into the seniors, that was probably a shop window for him as well.

“Eamonn brought in the mantra if you played McGrath Cup or National League and you played well, you held onto the jersey. Paul was one of those guys that nailed down a jersey.”

The Rathmore pair roomed together, a partnership of experience and enthusiasm that left them settled off the pitch, translating to positive impacts on the pitch.

“When I came in first I had the likes of Seamus Moynihan, Declan O’Keeffe, Liam Hassett, Darragh Ó Sé and these guys, they were great to put the arm around you.

“When I started in 2003-04, I was rooming with Paul Galvin, we were two young, eager men that time to put on a Kerry jersey. 

“With Paul (Murphy) then in 2014, it was nice to have someone from your own club. For away games, you can talk about something outside the GAA from home. He was very driven from the start.

“It was great to share that journey with him, when I had done it with Tom before for years. That’s what you look back on, not about medals and stuff, you’ll think about the journeys you were on.”

Aidan O’Mahony and Paul Murphy celebrate Kerry’s win over Tyrone in 2015.

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Desmond’s arrival at senior level with Kerry was not accompanied by such instant success. She made her debut for the Kingdom in 2009 but only graced Croke Park once in her first nine seasons when they reached the final in 2012. They lost that to Cork, in contrast to Murphy’s career path she has seen her team live in the shadow of their more dominant neighbours.

Disappointments against Dublin are a common experience, the Kerry ladies side knocked out by capital opponents three years on the bounce from 2017.

But a trio of Munster medals and an All-Star in 2015 have provided highlights for Desmond, and this latest responsibility is another milestone.

“Her father Denis rang me this year before the day of the senior ladies county final to go over and talk to them,” says O’Mahony.

“He was training them. Just a fantastic guy that’s been involved with all teams, both male and female, for the club. I sent him a message there the other day about Aislinn, I’d be delighted for him.

“They’re the people that should get rewarded for the hard work they put in. When we’re above in Croke Park playing, maybe they think we’ve forgotten about them, but we don’t. He’s put a lot of work into the club and it’s very fitting to see his daughter go out then and captain Kerry in 2021.

“She’s one of the most experienced players with Kerry. You see down through the years, she’s a go-to player for marking by any of the main forwards. I think she’ll be a great captain. It’s inherent in the family, very driven. They’ve Darragh Long and Declan Quill over them, and I think they’ve made great strides.”

Valerie Mulcahy and Aislinn Desmond in opposition in the 2012 All-Ireland final.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Some years Kerry have had regulars in the captaincy role, other seasons it has been fringe operators. Murphy falls into the first category yet this role is unlikely to weigh down on him.

“I don’t think it’ll change anything, the mantra of captain has changed over the years,” says O’Mahony.

“Before there was maybe bigger responsibilities.  In 2014 we had Fionn (Fitzgerald) and Kieran O’Leary as joint captains, and you’d always have had someone in the dressing-room down through the years that’ll talk.

“Declan O’Sullivan was fantastic for it. Seamus as well before, they mightn’t have been captains but they had that captain material. When they spoke in the dressing-room, they always made sense.

“I don’t think it’s going to change Paul’s style. There’s some big leaders in that dressing-room, the likes of David Moran and these lads. So he won’t be on his own there.”

The contributions of Murphy and Desmond down throught the years at home will ensure they carry plenty support. In 2015 Rathmore won a ladies football senior title when they were joined up with the Spa club. Last September they succeeded on their own, capping a swift rise from the Junior B ranks. They lost a pair of consecutive senior deciders before their 2020 breakthrough, Desmond centre-back for that moment with Murphy’s sister Sarah team captain at full-back.

Aislinn Desmond in action against Cora Staunton in 2015.

If his profile has spiked with Kerry, Murphy has always understood what is valued in local currency. In 2014 he gave up the All-Stars tour to Boston to help Rathmore win the O’Donoghue Cup, a crown they had seized only once in the previous 30 years, in a final replay.

In 2015 they successfully retained it. For the semi-final victory, Murphy sat an accountancy exam on a Saturday morning in Bishopstown in Cork before jumping on a helicopter to make throw-in in Killarney, along with a club-mate Conor Jenkins who also had an academic test that morning. The current Kerry captain shot 1-3 from play, a valuable scoring return after his club’s investment in the travel arrangements.

The only downside to the week’s developments is it’s anybody’s guess in Rathmore when they’ll actually get to see their new captains leading out a team.

The GAA fixture uncertainty persists. O’Mahony turned 40 last summer but is intending to have another shot this year at club football. He is involved in the S&C work with the Kerry minors, working in tandem with Mark Evans from Dingle. They won Munster before Christmas with the date for their All-Ireland semi-final against Roscommon still unknown.

It all adds up to the waiting game being played in Kerry.

“We’d all love for it to go ahead sooner rather than later,” admits O’Mahony.

“But in the current climate, you just have to stick to the guidelines. You’d be hoping that April or May, there’ll be a call that we’ll start going back and might get to play a few league games, and then you’re into championship.

“No different to last year, from GAA point of view, then if it goes ahead, it’ll be fantastic and it’ll be great to support Paul and Aislinn.”

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