AS a youngster Liam Kearns would hop over the wall behind his Tralee home and spend evenings practicing his skills on Connolly Park, the Rock Street home of his beloved Austin Stack’s.
Kearns, who passed away suddenly on Sunday aged 61, followed in the footsteps of his father Ollie, who has now very sadly lost two of his sons, by playing for the Kerry minor side. Liam won an All-Ireland minor medal in 1980 when he lined out at left half-forward in a team that included future Sam Maguire winners Ambrose O’Donovan and Tom Spillane.
In midfield on the Derry side that day was Damian Barton. Barton and Kearns met again competitively 36 years’ later when Derry (managed by Barton) and Tipperary (managed by Kearns) clashed in round four of the 2016 All-Ireland football Championship.
Kearns graduated to the Kerry U21 and senior panels but he is probably best known as a tactically-astute manager whose social skills enabled him to get the best out of players at club and county level.
After Tipperary side edged out Barton’s Derry an unexpected but comprehensive win over Galway at the semi-final stage saw the Michael Quinlivan-spearheaded outfit through to the All-Ireland semi-finals - a remarkable achievement for the hurling-focussed county.
His love of Gaelic Games was nurtured during his formative years growing up in the Caherslee area of Tralee and he lined out for ‘the Stacks’ for 14 seasons, winning a Kerry county championship in 1986.
“I’ll tell you what made him a good manager,” says Tralee native Tommy Dowling of his clubman: “He was a people person. He would talk to you, he would never ignore anybody; he was a guy who you could make a friendship with in a few minutes.
“And he was a very knowledgeable fella about football, he was a football man who played the game at a very high level.”
After school Kearns joined An Garda Siochana, rising to the rank of sergeant before he retired and the GAA was always front and centre in the life of the father of two. After learning his trade at club level, Kearns’s first appointment on the inter-county scene was with Limerick and he guided the Treaty county to Munster finals in 2003 and 2004.
He succeeded Mick O’Dwyer as Laois manager, bringing the county to the 2007 Leinster final and returned to prominence almost a decade later during a remarkable stint with Tipperary.
This season Kearns took over as manager of Offaly and, with two games remaining, hopes were high that a grandstand finish could yet force the Faithful county into Division Two. Tragically his life was cut short after a sudden illness.
“We are heartbroken in Tralee over it,” said Dowling.
“There’s a dark cloud after settling over the club and the whole town. We always wanted to see him doing well no matter what county he was with because he was a very nice fella. You wouldn’t meet anyone who would have said a bad word about him.
“He wasn’t a swell-headed fella, his name came up umpteen times for the Kerry job because he could get the best out of a football player and he could get the best out of any human being; he was a very honest, decent person.
“He didn’t want big publicity or flamboyancy but his record and dedication were there to be seen, he went to different counties and he was well liked wherever he went. He’ll be missed, the whole community is in shock and we are in mourning in Rock Street today at Austin Stacks.”
A statement from ‘the Stacks’ read: “Over the years Liam continued to support his beloved Austin Stacks and maintained close contact with his former club team mates attending many social functions in the club down through the years.
“We extend sincere sympathy to all Liam’s wife Angela, his daughters Rachel and Laura and his parents Eileen and Ollie, and to all his family and friends on his untimely passing.”
Michael Duignan, chairman of the Offaly County Board, had seen Kearns on Sunday morning as the Tralee native put the Faithful county’s senior panel through their paces in training.
“He was up training with us yesterday, in great form. It's just hard to believe," said Duignan.
“I'd admired him from a distance with the great job that he had done. He was with Laois, Limerick and Tipperary and done a massive job with limited resources and had some great success.
“And just from the first time I met him, he drove up to the Faithful Fields to meet me maybe last July and the minute I met him I knew he was the right man for the job.
“Straight talker, he knew his football, he was very organised and ambitious. He had retired from the Guards as sergeant in the Gardaí and he said something to me: ‘I want to get this right because this is my last job' and we didn't think it was going to end like this.”