GAA Football

Kicking Out: No amount of feeding can match good breeding

Trillick's Damian Kelly in action against Derrygonnelly last year. His father John won five championships with the club, one of several men of the 1970s and 1980s teams whose sons are now winning titles a generation later. Picture by Philip Walsh

PAT Spillane once told the story of when his first-born daughter Cara arrived, and the local priest both congratulated and commiserated all in one.

In an interview a few years back, he said: “In rural Ireland when you have a baby you'd often be asked, 'is it a boy or a child'? But in Kerry they ask you, 'have you the footballer?'”

Nowhere does footballing dynasties like Kerry.

Pat, Mick and Tom Spillane won 19 All-Ireland senior medals, five All-Ireland U21s and two All-Ireland minors between them, before you start into individual honours.

Last autumn we saw Tom’s son Killian explode on to the national stage with his brilliant goal in the drawn All-Ireland final. A few years earlier, Mick’s son Darragh had played U21 football for Dublin.

The headlines at the time all said he was Pat Spillane’s nephew. Eight All-Ireland medals and Mick’s was still someone’s brother.

At inter-county level, it is still fairly common for sons to walk in their father’s shoes.

For all the fitness and skill and coaching and money that make up the sum of the current all-conquering Dublin team, the gene pool is sometimes overlooked.

They have plenty to thank past generations for.

James McCarthy (7), Bernard Brogan (7), Kevin McManamon (7), Dean Rock (6) and Jack McCaffrey (5) have played central roles in collecting 32 All-Ireland medals between them.

All their fathers had played for Dublin before them.

Indeed, Noel McCaffrey was instrumental in helping coach Dublin ‘1993 group’, which included his son Jack, Ciaran Kilkenny, Brian Fenton, John Small and Paul Mannion.

It’s not just about the talents that are passed on, but about the environment those men grew up in.

When football is everything and everywhere as a child, sheer force of nature will see sons and daughters lift the baton and carry it.

The same principle applies at club level.

For whatever reason, the first club that comes to mind is Trillick.

They had a brilliant team that won five county titles between 1974 and 1986. And then they didn’t win another for 29 years - just about the length of time it takes to rear a new breed.

Of the teams that have now won in 2015 and 2019, Damian Kelly’s father John, Niall ‘Jib’ Donnelly’s father Sean, and Niall and Shane Gormley’s father Seamus all had won five county medals with the club.

Barney McAnespie had won four, and his son Eunan played in 2015.

Liam Donnelly, father of Mattie and Richie, and Declan O’Donnell, whose son Stephen captained the 2019 team, had three each. Francie and Iggy Gallagher, who spawned Michael and Daire respectively, were winners in ’86.

And then there were uncles and cousins, too many to start into.

They’ve put thousands of man hours into the development of the new crop, and consider their ability to retain past players in current coaching roles as pivotal to their reformation.

But no matter how many times you tell a sow’s ear to practice on its bad foot, it will not become a silk purse.

While there are exceptions to all rules, almost every team that has ever won anything can be traced back to fathers, mothers or uncles that were handy themselves.

Look at the Eoghan Rua, Coleraine team that has won two Derry championships this decade, having been a junior club for most of their existence.

Sean McGoldrick was a fine footballer with St Teresa’s and Antrim in his own day. His wife Schira was a talented swimmer. They had eight children together, seven of whom have played senior football, hurling or camogie with Derry, and Dara’s time is still to come.

The rest of the team football and hurling teams, Sean simply coached.

Their reality is that when this generation of McGoldricks retire, they won’t be winning senior championships again until their sons and daughters are playing.

Look at the Lavey team that won the Ulster minor football title in January. Their links to the All-Ireland club winning team in 1991, and other successful teams around that time, are unmistakable.

Errigal Ciaran are pining for a Tyrone title, and their biggest barrier last year was the absence of one Dara Canavan, son of Peter, for most of the championship final against Trillick.

His daughter Aine has been a star turn for Tyrone ladies’ down the years, while Claire was named a Higher Education Rising Star with St Mary’s two years ago.

The most famous camogie sister of all, Ann and Angela Downey of Ballyraggett in Kilkenny, started out life as Shem’s girls. Their father had won an All-Ireland in 1947 and three Leinster titles.

In time, he would become their father, rather than they his daughters.

Not every son or daughter follows a path that can be heavily pressurised, but those that do start down it often find themselves quickly out in front.

And it’s largely why the traditional big clubs tend to stay in around the deep end. Enough good fathers will always produce enough good sons to keep the wheels turning.

No amount of feeding can match good breeding.

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