The Challenge Game That ‘Saved’ Kerry Football


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SEPTEMBER 1959. The man lifted his long frame into the weather beaten Currach. It was dark and a steady drizzle chilled the salt air the boat bobbed up and down, as the oarsman rowed into the gathering gloom.

The islander could almost smell home. The home fires would be burning a little more brightly tonight. Kerry had just won their 19th All Ireland senior football title.

Just a few hours earlier he had lifted the Sam Maguire Cup, in front of 80,000 souls. The kingdom’s captain and son of Valentia, rowed proudly onward.

He was unaware, that in a few short years Kerry football would plummet to the depths of despair!

Mick O’Connell was born on Valentia Island, on the 4th of January 1937. He mirrored everything that was good about Kerry football. He was tall and rugged as the stony walls of the island. The Young Islander’s club man was a stylish and skilful player; he soared like an eagle as his giant hands grasped the dropping ball. The catch and kick, a skill long gone from the modern game, was his forte.

WHEN HE collected a second All Ireland medal in 1962, it seemed inevitable that a third would shortly follow. Amazingly, O’Connell would retire in 1967 without having added to his collection. Instead of a feast of silverware, a famine ensued! 

Kerry football so often the standard bearers of the game had entered an unexpected slump. Cork became the dominant force in Munster and Galway defeated Kerry in two All Ireland finals and one semi-final. Legendary trainer Dr. Eamonn O’Sullivan retired after the 1964 defeat to Galway.

When Kerry failed to score in the first half of a league tussle with Wicklow in 1966, they were booed off the field. Defeat to Louth in the knockout stages of the National League that season would rub still more salt into the wounds. Kerry football was now at rock bottom. A host of stars joined O’Connell in retirement, including keeper Johnny Culloty, Seamus Murphy, and Mick O’Dwyer.

A rot had set into the green and gold. Players had become indifferent and were just going through the motions.

When O’Dwyer was appointed selector; he knew a root and branch review was not required. Kerry had talent in spades. They needed something to light the flame that once burned so brightly.

He knew O’Connell was central to any revival. Now that the shy and reclusive Young Islander’s club man had returned to Valentia, how could he coax him back onto the panel? 

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Then O’Dwyer displayed the genius, which would set him apart as a future guardian of Kerry football. He arranged a match between Kerry past and present team. The sight of the fabled of the green and gold jersey just might be enough to lure O’Connell out of his exile.

On the 18th of February 1968 the game took place. A curious crowd of over two thousand flocked to Tralee to see the duel between past and present.

O’Dwyer lined out with the past, along with O’Connell. It is recounted by Kerry scribes that the game had championship intensity No quarter was asked or given, as friends were mortal foes for sixty minutes.

The past won by 2-13 to 3-8. O’Dwyer starred as did the mighty Valentia man.

The plan had worked a treat. O’Connell returned to the fold, and was later joined by Culloty and Seamus Murphy.

For some, though, it was also the match that marked the end of an era. Dual star Niall Sheedy and the great Tom Long bid a sad farewell to their comrades.

MICK O’DWYER returned to the field of play, Jackie Lyne accepted the role of trainer in May of that year The County had a new sense of purpose. They reached the All     Ireland Final that year, losing to Down. The following year saw them reclaim Sam, by defeating Offaly, Johnny Culloty in goal made three memorable saves and O’Connell kicked two monster frees into the wind. They added the second of three league titles in a row, for good measure. 

1970 saw the Kerry juggernaut in full flight. They won the League again and defeated a gallant Meath, in the All Ireland Final.

The man’s oars dipped easily into the water. The sun slipped low over the horizon, as his beloved Valentia came into view. The dark days of the mid-sixties seemed a lifetime ago now. Mick O’Connell has long since rowed into immortality Mick O’Dwyer would join him there.

A challenge match in the depths of winter had stoked the Kingdom’s fires. A game between past and present had centred the future of Kerry football. 


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