Last year, after growing clamour, the Kerry County Board came to the conclusion that the quality in its County Senior Football Championship simply wasn’t high enough.
So how would they rectify this issue? Limit the teams playing in it was their answer.
What followed was the decision to reduce the number of teams by four (from 20 to 16), relegating three club sides and one divisional team. (Note: In Kerry, intermediate, junior and novice clubs are represented in the Senior Championship by regional district teams and these are called divisional teams. Divisional teams then take their pick of the region’s intermediate, junior and novice players).
This obviously had a massive effect on the 2016 Senior Championship, which is already under way.
Admittedly, the quality was excellent in all eight games. However, this move also had huge ramifications for the intermediate championship, which now became even more hotly contested.
In case you’re unfamiliar, GAA Championships are tiered, from senior, down to intermediate, down to junior and down to novice. In every year prior to this one, the Intermediate football champions in Kerry would be rewarded two-fold. Firstly, they represent Kerry in the Munster Intermediate Championship, but they’d also be promoted to the following Senior Championship. Last year’s Intermediate Football Champions in Kerry, who went on to win the All-Ireland crown in that grade just 3 months ago, were St. Mary’s.
Alas, by the time the Senior Championship this year threw in for the first time, they were already out of championship action for the year.
We caught up with St. Mary’s player Liam O’ Connell to get his view on the situation.
To begin, let’s go back to February of this year.
It’s every GAA player’s dream to make it to Croker on All-Ireland final day and Liam was no different in that respect.
“It was an unbelievable year to be honest. We won the South Kerry Championship as well before winning the Intermediate Championship so it was a great year all round for the club.”
Many, over the years, have been able to claim they’ve graced the hallowed turf on Jones’ Road, but Liam’s experience included a point from play, which made it extra special for him.
“It was unbelievable, unreal. I had to pinch myself like to be honest, it was crazy enough. I came on there with about 10 minutes to go and just, even the chance to play in Croke Park was unreal. It was my first year of senior actually, so like it was a great experience for me.”
This was added to by the fact it was achieved alongside those he grew up with.
“They were my friends growing up, we went to primary school, secondary school together. There was a few lads there who I was playing football with at under 12’s, under 14’s, 16’s, minors it was pretty special”.
However, as they embarked on an historic campaign, they had no idea of the local disappointment that was coming their way. Liam explained how late it was when they first found out they weren’t being promoted to senior in Kerry.
“I think it was around the All-Ireland semi-final. We were so focused on winning the intermediates all year like, we never really thought about what would happen next. Although especially after winning it out in Croke Park, I suppose it was kind of disappointing really we didn’t get to senior after all the hard work”.
So how did it feel, for a St. Mary’s man, to be told the reason for their exclusion was to improve the quality of the Championship?
“It was tough to take alright in fairness. I think there were 11 senior clubs in the Kerry Senior Championship last year and three were relegated so it was tough to take alright, because with (only) eight clubs in the Championship this year, it’s disappointing that we couldn’t go up to senior but we have to take it.”
As mentioned above, the Kerry Senior Football Championship began without St. Mary’s, who had already seen their Championship season come to an end, after a 2 point loss away to Ardfert in the first round of the Intermediate Championship. The irony that stemmed from this game was quite staggering.
Ardfert won the 2014-15 All-Ireland Intermediate Championship and were among the teams relegated from last year’s Senior Championship. In another year, the two could have been playing in the first round of the Senior competition. The loss ended St. Mary’s championship campaign because there’s no back door in the Intermediate Championship. There is in the Senior grade.
When talking about this loss, Liam was quick to point out just how competitive this competition is in Kerry.
“It was tough alright, getting knocked out in the first round, after all that hard work. It’s crazy really, I suppose in Kerry the Championship is so competitive like it’s hard to get out of there. Even the toughest part of winning it out last year was getting out of Kerry, like we got through a few tough games against Listowel, Waterville Castleisland Desmonds and Spa Killarney in the final then. It was so tough, I think the competition in Kerry is so strong, it’s so hard to make your way out of Kerry. But ya, it was a kick in the backside not getting out of Ardfert with a win like”.
The divisional team that represents St. Mary’s and the surrounding intermediate, junior and novice clubs is South Kerry and predictably, Liam’s side is to the fore in that team, with Kerry captain Bryan Sheehan among the St. Mary’s contingent with them. However, for the club man that wasn’t picked for South Kerry, like Liam, it’s almost as if their exploits in last year’s Kerry Intermediate Championship never happened and they now have to wait until 2017 before they can get the chance to move up to Senior status again.