Does anyone remember the the third of April 2005? You should do, because it was the last day that our senior team did anything to get up the noses of the Kerrymen. This date might strike you as a little odd, given that we’ve beaten them in the league three times since then but none of those wins caused the Kingdom any kind of angst. Two of them – in 2006 and 2007 – were inflicted in the opening round of the NFL, a round in which Kerry have routinely lost in recent years, while our 2008 win over them in Castlebar was little more than a minor irritant to the Southern aristocrats, with flying spoons and Kieran Donaghy’s v-signs the main focus of attention afterwards.
April 2005 was different, though. Firstly because we didn’t actually play them that day but more importantly because the performance we put in that afternoon denied them something they thought was their right to achieve. Here’s what happened. Both of us were in the hunt for the same NFL play-off place and what was going to decide who got it was our relative performances in our final matches, with our lads facing Westmeath in Castlebar whereas they were up against Tyrone down in Killarney. Wins for both would mean that it would come down to points difference but we needed to beat the living shite out of the Lake County lads and hope that the Red Hand, who had already qualified for the semi-finals, would either beat the Kerrymen or run them close.
We kept our part of the bargain, thumping Páidí Ó Sé’s charges by fourteen points but the match was still in progress in Killarney after the final whistle had sounded in Castlebar. Kerry were seven up and so a point up on us on the points difference but then Mark Harte knocked over a free for Tyrone five minutes into injury time to cut Kerry’s winning margin to six points. The result sent GAA administrators scrambling for their calculators as the two results meant that we’d ended up level on points difference (at +17 each) and so the tie-breaker used was to give the semi-final place to the county with the higher number of points scored over the campaign. When the totals were added up, we emerged as clear winners in this metric, with 122 points compared to their measly 117 and so we got the NFL semi-final place that year at their expense.
In the overall scheme of things, that little (indirect) victory over the Kingdom won’t ever go down as one of the great triumphs in sporting history (not least because we went on to lose to Armagh in the NFL semi-final a few weeks later). But it was significant in that our efforts denied the Kerrymen something they thought was, yerra in all fairness like, their due. Even better, their failure to make the playoffs that year, and so benefit from a few hard games at just the right time of year, was later cited by Jack O’Connor as one of the principal reasons why they weren’t in sufficiently good shape to deal with those pesky Nordies when they met again on All-Ireland final day. So, we can claim some small credit in the fact that Kerry only have 37 All-Irelands to their credit and not 38.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, this Sunday we have the opportunity – directly this time – of ending Kerry’s interest in this year’s NFL. They’ve lost twice already in this campaign and so another defeat will mean they won’t be able to make it into the top two. It’s obvious – not just from that 2005 example – that Jack O’Connor likes winning the NFL: every year he’s won the All-Ireland with Kerry, he’s first guided them to an NFL title. But it’s not just Jack that’s interested in the league in Kerry because, as I noted some months back, every single time the hoors have won the NFL in the last 25 years, they’ve followed it up with Sam as well. Stopping them winning the league doesn’t, of course, mean that they won’t win the All-Ireland dish ear – there’s plenty of years they’ve won it without first tasting success in the spring – but it would annoy them a little to be out of the league title race with two rounds still to play.
Last year, we crept into Austin Stack Park almost apologetically, expecting nothing from our meeting with the Kerrymen and although we clearly didn’t deserve to win that day, we still had an opportunity right at the end to pinch the points from under their noses. After their sluggish start to the 2010 NFL campaign, they’re now on a bit of a roll and after last weekend’s demolition of a truly hapless Galway outfit, they obviously fancy a bit of afters by sticking it to us as well. I know we can make all the excuses in the world about how and why we won’t win on Sunday but this is a match we can and should be aiming to win. We’ve started the year positively, Johnno has even said he’d like to reach the NFL final and a win on Sunday would be an important step towards reaching this aim. And it’d cause the Kerrymen a tiny bit of grief – what other incentive do we possibly need to go out the next day and do one on them?