IN THE WEEKS building up to the 1997 All-Ireland football final, as the stream of messages John Casey was receiving turned into a deluge, one piece of correspondence stood out.
The Mayo forward was gearing up to face Kerry, where he had been located over the previous twelve months, educating himself on the football fields and in the lecture halls.
One of his colleagues from college reached out from across the Atlantic.
“We got to the All-Ireland against Kerry, and I was playing five of my Tralee team-mates. Then a postcard arrived from Chicago before the game. I told PJ I was always going to let this out.
“He wasn’t even a Galway player at the time, but he says, ‘JC, best of luck, ye deserve an All-Ireland, I hope ye win it. Ye’d better this year because you can take it, I’m going to take Ireland by storm next year.’
“That was Padraic Joyce in ’97 and we all know what happened in ’98.”
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Source: Keith Heneghan/INPHO
By then Casey knew all about Joyce’s football talent. In the autumn of 1996, he hadn’t received that advance warning.
Word reached Casey about the prospect of heading to Tralee on a football scholarship.
“I remember Val (Andrews, Tralee coach) saying, you’re going to be living in a house with footballers from Galway and he said their names.
“I would have played underage against a Galway footballer called Padraic Boyce. I was late going down to Tralee because we drew with Meath in the All-Ireland and I wasn’t going down to college for a couple of weeks and then coming back trying to prepare for the replay.
“I remember being dropped off at this house, it was owned by a judge in Tralee. I walked in and all these fellas were waiting to see this Mayo fella. I’m looking around going, ‘Where the hell is Padraic Boyce?’
“Little did I know it was Padraic Joyce. So that was my first time ever setting eyes on PJ. We have remained firm friends since.
“I soon got to know all about him. I remember myself and (Seamus) Moynihan doing a piece for TV before the Sigerson weekend in 1997. Moynihan said to the camera, ‘I’m sure John is absolutely delighted Padraic Joyce isn’t involved with Galway.’
“I’m kind of going, ‘Shut up, in case they get any ideas!’ “
Mayo’s John Casey.
Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO
Joyce was not the only one to use the competition as a springboard to sporting stardom.
It’s 25 years since that milestone win, the first time the Sigerson Cup had been brought back to Kerry after years being the preserve of the university ruling class. They operated as Tralee RTC in 1997, IT Tralee for the following two years and the outcome was the same. Champions. No college has done three-in-a-row since.
Tonight the current vintage, under a new label as MTU Kerry, take to the field in Rathkeale, the first time a Tralee outfit has reached the Sigerson Cup semi-finals since that golden era of the late ‘90s.
The bar was set high by their predecessors.
A group of Gaelic football galacticos from around the country and moulded together to form a dominant force.
Consider the roll call of names. Tralee’s first Sigerson team in 1996 saw Joyce joined by Meath’s Mark O’Reilly and the Kerry pair of William Kirby and Gene Farrell.
In 1997 they were joined by the Kerry pair of Barry O’Shea and Seamus Moynihan, and Casey. 1998 brought Mike Frank Russell, Damien Hendy, Michael Donnellan and Jim McGuinness into the reckoning. The 1999 title was achieved without the suspended Joyce but included the Laois pair of Noel Garvan and Colm Parkinson, and Kerry’s Noel Kennelly.
Seamus Moynihan and Noel Garvan.
Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO
A core of future senior county class was always anchoring their challenge. There was also promising local fowards – Pa O’Sullivan, Jack Ferriter, Jack Dennehy and Johnny McGlynn.
They wasted little time making their mark afterwards, becoming dominant figures in the county game. Joyce, Moynihan and Donnellan all claimed 3 All-Stars apiece and were Texaco Footballer of the Year winners between 1998 and 2001. O’Reilly, Moynihan and Joyce ensured that a Tralee alumnus picked up the All-Ireland man-of-the-match award each year between 1999 and 2001.
“It was just a great bunch of lads,” says Val Andrews, the Dubliner in charge on the sideline.
Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO
“We had our up and downs but they all enjoyed it. It was great for the college, the town, the lads and myself.
“You’d always look back with fondness. The first Sigerson game in Tralee, against Maynooth in 1996 and 3,000 people there in Austin Stack Park on a Wednesday.
“Ah Kerry is great, it was fabulous times.”
Life brought Andrews to Tralee in late 1993 as a lecturer. A move to North Kerry may not have been mapped out but when it did, he figured after an initial period of apprehension that it was best to immerse himself in the local sporting culture.
“A Dublin Northsider from Ballymun Kickhams hits Tralee. I’d be straight, I was sort of in awe going to Kerry. All-Ireland medals everywhere. I never envisaged that there’d be Ballymun fellas walking around with seven or eight All-Ireland medals now. It’s amazing the way things can go.
“Going down, I thought I’d learn from these boys. When I joined the college in ’93, it was Division 2 team and we didn’t have a set of jerseys. That’s where it started. It was the home of football, I was thinking we could surely do something here.”
A good trainer came on board. Pat Flanagan was taking his first steps in a GAA journey that would catapult him into an All-Ireland winning role alongside Jack O’Connor.
“John Kelleher came in as a full-time GAA Officer, that was key, Pat Flanagan then joined the Health & Leisure department. I knew him first as this fella from Waterford, who was a sprinter. I was thinking what use was that to us?
“But he was absolutely key in advancing everybody’s knowledge of how to train teams. Sure, he went on to huge things but he always laughs at that first introduction. An exceptional trainer, I learned so much from him. I think the only thing he got from me was madness.”
Andrews had been happy to take early morning training sessions with the Ballymun minors before he went to school, organising football at sunrise in Tralee was a natural step.
Flanagan introduced weight training and methods targeting improvements in speed and endurance. He showed the worth of training camps, once a year they would head off somewhere for a Friday night session, three on a Saturday and one on a Sunday morning.
“A lot of this stuff is just about bonding really,” says Andrews.
“You know the Kung Fu Panda thing, the secret is there is no secret. You get myths, if you win one, sure all the talk is they were training 700 times a year.
“You couldn’t do the training we were doing unless you were as skilled as Flanagan.”
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Different structures supported their football project. A new Health and Leisure course attracted more football players. Bill Kennedy from the local Lee Strand Co-Op was a strong sponsor, looking after some apartments to house footballers. The college provided a few football scholarships. In that maiden Sigerson voyage of 1996, they lost out to a UCD team powered by Trevor Giles, Brian Dooher and Derek Savage.
They learned and rebounded. Defeated UL in Coleraine in 1997, Jordanstown in Tralee in 1998 and Garda College in Belfast in 1999.
“Bill Kennedy was an absolute cornerstone to the whole thing,” says Andrews.
“Put faith in a fella he could barely understand his English! Everybody was saying we were breaking the rules. We didn’t. I was a Civil Servant working in the Department of Education, rules and regulations are something I’m good at.
“Some lads weren’t the greatest students but sure a lot of students are like that, it’s not just because they’re footballers.”
The best talent that they possessed?
“If I was to pick, I’d probably go for Joyce,” says Jack Ferriter, the Dingle native that was Player of the Tournament in 1998.
20 years since Kerry last won a All-Ireland Minor. Jack Ferriter was captain in '94 #famine
@NuachtTG4 @gaa pic.twitter.com/fw93ctgGzJ
— Seán Mac an tSíthigh (@Buailtin) September 17, 2014
“He’d be in the top three I’d have played with. Just everything about him, possession of the ball, spraying kicks, kicking points. An all-round leader. Michael Donnellan then would be different, he was probably the fastest player I ever played with. We actually beat Galway in the minor final in ’94 so I would have known these boys before I came to Tralee in ’98.”
Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO
“If you were to say one player that changed the course of history in Tralee, it was Seamus Moynihan,” reckons Andrews.
“An absolute legend of a footballer. He got us over the line.
“Joyce was a fabulously talented footballer. Would often tell you about fellas that we wouldn’t know of, he was tactically aware. The next big scholarship was Michael Donnellan. Really special talent. Have huge time for that man.”
Casey concurs in the endorsement of Moynihan’s football prowess.
“I’m leaving Mayo players out of the debate, but he was the best player I ever played with.
“Seamus, the Pony, is your Rolls Royce. The ball was like a magnet to him, he just seemed to know where everything was going to land. Lovely, quiet, unassuming fella but Jesus Christ above, put him in between the lines and don’t cross him. But a brilliant, brilliant fella.
“Seamus was in a car accident two weeks before that Sigerson weekend (in 1997), he wasn’t able to start the semi-final against Sligo. He had two things rammed up his nose because his nose hadn’t stopped bleeding.
“We were taking on a bit of water against Sligo and we had to bring on Moynihan to steady the ship and he did.”
Padraic Joyce and Seamus Moynihan in the 2000 All-Ireland football final.
Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO
The future impact of that Class of Tralee has not just been restricted to the playing sphere.
It is 30 years since Jim McGuinness was a teenage squad member as Donegal smashed through the barrier to lift Sam.
Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO
It is 10 years since he replicated that feat as a manager, a more profound achievement that reverberated around the Gaelic football landscape.
He sat his Leaving Cert at the age of 24 and then the Glenties native journeyed down the west coast to enrol for a sports studies diploma, curious to discover more about the rhythms of football in Kerry.
“I lived with Jimmy in Tralee for three years and Colm Parkinson as well,” says Ferriter.
“We’d a house down around Castle Street. The thing I’d say about him football wise is he only had one leg, the left leg all the time! But he was a great warrior in fairness, high fitness levels, a great character overall.
“He used to go back up to Donegal twice a month, but he often came back down to Dingle to us as well, we used to go out on the town at the weekend. He’s progressed a lot with his sporting career, you could see the potential in him.”
“He took his football seriously, a nice lad to deal with,” recalls Andrews.
“Jimmy, God love him, had lost his two brothers. He’d plenty stuff going on. He’s done exceptionally well, they’re two big things to be dealing with.
“Would I have seen him being the manager that he has become? Probably, no. Now don’t get me wrong, he was a great student of the game. But you wouldn’t know whether fellas would go into management.
“He was certainly bright enough. With the 1999 team, he was really leading then. Joyce was sent-off that year and couldn’t play, so that three-in-a-row was a huge achievement and Jimmy was central.”
Jim McGuinness celebrates Donegal’s 2012 All-Ireland final win.
Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
Casey only spent that single year in Tralee, studying Business Information Technology.
It was a slice of novelty at a time when his football life was consumed by Mayo’s efforts to reach the national peak. He was required him to park rivalries from county games.
“When I went down there, people were wondering how myself and Mark O’Reilly would greet each other. They were after beating us in the All-Ireland, I got the head knocked off me in that final. It was almost like a big meeting when we met each other.
“But Mark was a fine footballer, we were both in the half-forward line actually with PJ.
“We both left after ’97 and they replaced us with kind of two inferior players…Michael Donnellan and Jim McGuinness!”
Mark O’Reilly in action against Jason Sherlock in 1999.
Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO
Casey lived with Joyce and the Cloherty brothers from Carna, Michael and Seamus. That Galway crew were his companions for road trips in a time before bypasses as they ploughed through the main streets of country towns choked with traffic.
“I found the commute brutal. I’d a little Ford Fiesta car, £20 in diesel used to get me from Charlestown to Tralee, and back home again.
“After county league games, I used to get a lift back with the Mayo crowd to Charlestown, have an hour getting my stuff together and then head for Tralee. I used to be falling asleep in the car by Newcastlewest but the only thing is Joyce would keep me awake.
“In Charlestown, our business here in town is right on the main N17 road. After I left Tralee I’d look out on any given Friday or Sunday evening, and who would I see but the long, straggy, curly hair and the smig, sitting in the bus – Jim McGuinness, doing the commute. He’d give a big wave out the window if he was passing the shop here.”
“It was tough going but I’ve great memories from it all. I remember Val saying to me after the 1997 final, ‘I’m glad we brought you down. You had a good weekend JC.’
“It meant a lot. If a fella goes on a scholarship, you’re under pressure to perform.”
It was a time that shaped football identities. In Ferriter’s case, it almost nudged him to another part of the country.
“I probably was the only one in the forwards not starting inter-county games. I was on the Kerry panel for years but I found it hard to break through ahead of Maurice Fitz and all these fellas.
“Val approached me when he left Tralee to go to Cavan, he was manager there. I wasn’t getting much game time with Kerry. I was very close to moving. I ended up training for a weekend with them.
“Just last minute I pulled out, I didn’t bother with it. But that’s the influence Val had on me, he was great.”
He stayed closer to home and when he did move, it was nearby to Cork, where he played county finals for Bishopstown, and is still based on Leeside.
“I’ve great memories of Tralee. Got my sports course out of it, still doing that in the Radisson Hotel here in Cork, as a personal trainer in the gym and working in the spa.
“You build up great relationships with players. Like Cork are playing Galway now in the league in a few weeks, so I’ll meet up with Padraic Joyce after the game. I think that’s still the same. Like you’ve Sean Powter and David Clifford together with UL, they’ll be tearing skelps off each other in a few months.
“I was lucky to have my time in Tralee. Great scenes around the college, nights out, back to Dingle with the Sigerson Cup, up to Galway one weekend as well. It was a great old buzz.”
By the culmination of the last Sigerson win, Andrews had returned to Dublin. He passed the managerial baton on to a trio of Vinny O’Shea from Portmagee, Alan Ringland from Belfast and Fr. Pat O’Donnell from Ballymacelligott.
One game stands out from his time. The 1998 decider against a UUJ team spearheaded by the McEntees of Armagh and Derry’s Sean Marty Lockhart.
Their forward Gene Farrell from Annascaul, who now lectures in computing in Tralee, made his mark.
Source: © Tom HonanINPHO
“The one I derived the most satisfaction from. We were innovative, we stayed in Killarney because we knew all the other teams that weekend would be staying together, so we said we’ll mirror that.
“Gene Farrell was injured in the semi-final, couldn’t play in the final. He was standing beside me for the first half, not togged out at all.
“UUJ were the better team and things were going bad. Gene said to put him on, I was thinking in my own head that I would, he was a bit of a legend, the team and the crowd would get a lift. He ran into the full-forward line and scored the point to level the game.
“Then McGuinness got the ball on the non-stand side in Tralee, I’m shouting not to shoot because I thought the angle was stupid. He kicked it anyway and it went straight over the black spot.
“Showed how much I knew about football,” laughs Andrews.
The 2022 Tralee team has a more local feel to it. Aidan O’Mahony is the manager, 14 of the starting team are Kerry players, Tipperary defender Dean Carew the exception.
Their ambition is similar to land a medal that they will cherish.
“The whole team stopped in Charlestown on the way back when we won in ’97,” recalls Casey.
“There was blue peaked caps at the time with Tralee RTC, there’s a picture of my mother and Padraic Joyce in the living room from that time, she still has the cap.
“As a person that never got their hands on that elusive Celtic Cross, it’s probably apart from a few Connacht medals, all I’d really have to show for it. I was only messaging Barry O’Shea last week, we were saying we couldn’t believe it was 25 years.
“I think the thing a lot of people would say is you now meet the likes of PJ or Barry or any of that team who have All-Irelands, there’s no mention of those medals, it’s the friendships you make from it and the memories.
“It was a very special time.”
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