Kerry football legend, Jack O’Shea, shares his memories from being the ball boy for his heroes in Cahersiveen, all the way to seven All-Ireland Senior Football medals and the great rivalry that emerged between Kerry and Dublin.

Out of the whole country, 30 lads get to walk behind the Artane Boys Band on All-Ireland final day. I was always well aware of what a massive privilege that was.

My approach to an All-Ireland final might have been a bit different to other lads. I lived in Dublin, so I’d drive up to the hotel in Malahide on the Saturday night before the game and meet up with the team.

At around half past nine we’d go down to the beach in Malahide and sit on the wall in the dark. You couldn’t see who was next to you. All you could hear was Micko’s voice.

That was our pre-match team talk – on the beach, in the dark.

The next morning, I’d go out with a few of the subs and play 18 holes of pitch ‘n’ putt. Then I’d get into my car with John Egan, Charlie Nelligan, Tommy Doyle and a buddy of John Egan’s from Cork. We’d follow the team bus into Croke Park. John’s buddy would sing songs the whole way in. I’d park under the old Hogan Stand and take my spot in the dressing room next to Mikey Sheehy.

I never thought about the match until that point.

I loved the build-up. I couldn’t wait to get behind the band, and I wanted to be in that position every year. I was enjoying it so much, if I saw someone I knew in the crowd I’d give them a wave. By the time I competed for the first ball I was relaxed and ready. Its why I can remember every moment of those games, none of it passed me by.

All Ireland Football Final, Croke Park, Dublin 22/9/1985
Kerry vs Dublin
Kerry’s Jack O’Shea
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

I had my few superstitions too. I always polished my boots the night before. I never moved until the national anthem was finished. I always wore a Celtic cross and chain that my mother gave to me.

During the 1979 All-Ireland final, I went into a tackle on the 21-yard-line over near the Cusack Stand and I felt the chain go from my neck. After the match the fans ran onto the pitch to celebrate, people everywhere. I met Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh and I told him what happened to my cross and chain. He went over to the 21 at the Cusack and about a yard in from the sideline didn’t he find it. I still have the cross and chain to this day.

All Ireland Football Final 22/9/1985
Jack O’Shea claps as Mick O’Dwyer smiles on
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

I was reared opposite the football field in Cahersiveen. Maurice Fitzgerald grew up 20 yards away. Brian Sheahan grew up 20 yards in the other direction.

The football field was my playground where I spent most of my time. I never wanted to go to the beach. I never learned how to swim. I’d go to every match and every training session and stand behind the goal kicking the ball back.

Mick O’Connell used to row across in his boat from Valentia Island and Mick O’Dwyer would travel the 10 miles from Waterville.  They’d train together and play their club matches on our pitch in Cahersiveen.

You didn’t get to see as much football back then. Very few matches were televised and very few people had televisions anyway. So, to have two Kerry football heroes training across the road was a real thrill and more than that, a massive inspiration for me as kid. The two Micks used to give me drills to do when I was aged six or seven so I could improve my game. The rest of the time I was their ball boy. Wearing the county jersey was the dream and I never knew anything different.

Cahersiveen is a mile long, houses right and left. There wasn’t a house I wasn’t in at some stage growing up. The people who lived there were my parents as much as my own. They all raised us, and you did as you were told. We didn’t have a television at home, so you’d knock into one of the houses that did have one to watch TV. The people felt like you were one of theirs, you were a son of the town and you played and won for all of them.

I know every inch of the place. You miss the laid back “always tomorrow” attitude. The fresh air.

I miss the freedom of growing up there. Going beagle hunting in the mountains with my Dad.

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In 1976, I joined an All-Ireland winning team and, as a young fella from south Kerry, I suppose I was a bit in awe of them. Cahersiveen was a junior club so I would not even have got to play against them before so going into that set up was a big thing, but I took it in my stride. The perception of Gaelic football was also changing. The championship had come more into focus with live games on TV.

The 1973 / 74 era was the beginning of the face of football changing. The Dubs brought the colour, glamour and the hype. It set everything up nicely for the start of one of the great rivalries in Gaelic football – ourselves and the Dubs – the culchie / city rivalry.

There was no foregone conclusion when Kerry played Dublin. Either team were capable of winning on the day, we pushed each other, and they hated to lose as much as we did. Every game was played to the limit and each time Kerry play Dublin, even now, it’s a shootout. We respected Dublin because we knew what they could do and coming up against them was always the big examination of how good we were.

Winning my first senior All Ireland in 1978 against Dublin is probably my most treasured memory from that time.

Me and Seánie Walsh were two young fellas in midfield going up against Mullins and Brogan. We had a poor start; Dublin were running all over us and got a big lead. John Egan got a goal and then the famous Mikey Sheehy chipped goal changed the game for us. But that was the kind of talent that was within our team. Lads were capable of moments like that and watching Mikey in training you knew he could do something unique. Paddy Cullen might have been surprised but none of us were.

When you win, you get confidence. As a player, I never feared anyone and I never went out to play anyone, they were going to have to play me. My attitude was that if you wanted to beat me, you’d have to work harder than me. I was used to winning from minor in ’75 to under-21 in ’75, ’76, ‘77 and on to senior All-Irelands. We were brought along in the bubble of success and when you’re in that bubble you don’t need any motivation. You’re in the flow and all your teammates are in it with you.

Most of Kerry’s competitiveness was built up in training. You were competing with top class players all the time. You never spoke about the opposition or analysed who we were up against. Our focus was on ourselves all the time.

As a kid I wanted to wear the Kerry jersey and compete like Mick O’Connell and Mick O’Dwyer. When I joined the ranks, it was clear we all wanted to aspire to the same thing.

Under Mick O’Dwyer you were either all in or you were out, and everyone subscribed to that. If I played a challenge game, I played as hard as I would in an All-Ireland final. That was the environment.

Micko always wanted us going at 100% – he was a fantastic man manager. No two players are the same, but he got us all focused the same way – always competing. If it was a sprint across the field, Bomber would turn to you and take you on. If you were catching high balls, Paidi would come out and challenge for the ball. That’s how it was.

We kept the same group together for the four-in-a-row, playing together all the time.

I think Kerry only used five substitutes in five years. That will remain unique.

In 10 years, we lost two championship matches by one point in the last minute.

There was huge enjoyment in it. There was a great unity and friendship.

I lived and worked in Dublin, so I trained with Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh for 17 years in UCD. There were a few Kerry players there and you could always see the competitive edge over some of the lads from other counties. That extra drive in the Kerry lads was noticeable.

Living in Dublin meant I could avoid a lot of the hype in the run up to the final in 1982. Offaly had come up strong. We’d had two close games in the previous two years. Ultimately, the 5-in-a-row was stopped, and Offaly deserved the win, they were a great team.

Maybe the hype got to some of our lads, I can’t say for sure. All I know is we were very unlucky not to win. People always talk about the Darby goal and the push in the back, but I don’t crib about that. My crib is always about two soft frees awarded to Offaly just before the goal. I’ve watched it back plenty of times, I can’t see how they were frees and that to me is what lost us that game.

I still can’t let that go but that debate is drowned out by the Darby goal. It remains one of the most historic moments in Gaelic football and no matter what the result is in the 2019 final, history will be made again – Dublin will win 5-in-a-row or Kerry will stop them – and we’ll be talking about it for the next 50 years.

There’s no doubt that losing hits you hard, if you’re a winner then it should hit you hard. The 1982 final was devastating, I didn’t sleep that night going over and over that game in my head. But you have to get some perspective, it was no more devastating than losing any other match. The “5-in-a-row” aspect has been built up over time but back then it was an All-Ireland final lost and that was it.

Defeat is very important for any athlete. To be able to accept it and push forward as a team is even more important.

Looking back, we came out the right side every time bar two games in that era – that’s something to be massively proud of and losing in 1982 can never take away from what that group achieved. We showed what we were about by coming back and winning three-in-a-row from 1984 – 86.

I had a great run and I got out what I put in. No regrets.

There were All-Stars and Player of the Year awards along the way. Players who say those awards don’t matter aren’t telling the truth. Recognition for your efforts always matters. It made the drive up and back from Kerry a bit easier. For eight years I drove up and back to play club matches and train with Kerry. I wouldn’t change any of that that. I got a kick out of going home and chatting to everybody. These days it would take me a couple of hours to get from one end of the town to the other, that’s part of being a son of the town.So, another 30 players get to walk behind the band this Sunday… Another 5-in-a-row up for grabs.

Making comparisons between our Kerry team from back then and the present Dublin team is a nonsense.

The game is totally different now. To be honest, I find it hard to watch. It’s too lateral. Our team’s philosophy was to go forward at all times. You might pass back once as a last resort.

It’s impossible to compare players from one era to the other as well. If we had the facilities and time that the current Dublin team have, there’s no knowing what we could have achieved.

I also had a different calibre of midfielder to mark than Brian Fenton has now. I had to contest 40 kick outs in a game, these days a midfielder might contest three or four.

Are the present Dublin team better than the Kerry team of the 2000s with Gooch, the Ó Sés, Galvin and those lads? I’ve my own opinion on that.

I’ve certainly seen enough weakness in the Dublin team to give Kerry a chance. We’ll see!

I’ll be going into Croke Park on crutches this year. A bad foot injury. I had a bunion, which dislocated two toes.

It’s probably from kicking all those points against Dublin over the years!


August 2019.

If you enjoyed Jacko’s piece you might like to read Darran O’Sullivan’s – “What It Was All About”.

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