GAA Football

Chrissy Spiers enjoying new lease of life in Kerry

Chrissy Spiers in action for Magherafelt during the Ulster Minor Club final against Lamh Dhearg in 2010. Picture by Seamus Loughran

LOOKING out the back of his house, Chrissy Spiers can see Cork.

Living up behind Hickey’s shop in the east Kerry market town of Rathmore, his fiancé Joanne Murphy comes from the neighbouring town of Dromtariffe, just over the River Blackwater.

Her father is from Gneevgullia, just up the road on the Kerry side.

So they’ve settled in Rathmore, best known in football terms as the home of former Kerry star Aidan O’Mahony and the home of the currently effervescent Paul Murphy.

In the heart of the town, the striking red head from Magherafelt stands out among the crowd.

He works with John O’Donovan, a brother of the great former Kingdom captain Ambrose.

“It’s just the two of us and we can’t understand each other. Not a word. Disaster!” he laughs.

You’re never far from a reminder of the north, all the same. He works fitting windows and doors for Munster Joinery, who operated across the whole of Ireland but had to change their name to Baskil Windows up here as their company name was like a beacon for loyalist arsonists back in the day.

Spiers turned 28 in December and is still kicking ball in the red and white, but it’s of his adopted club in Kerry rather than his native club in Derry.

In 2018, he was just landed down the road having spent five years in Sydney, where he met Joanne. They had an eight-month-old daughter, Amelia, when they boarded for home.

His first year in Kerry football, he was the top scorer on the county’s club scene.

He quickly assumed the number 11, free-taking duties, and his playmaking abilities quietly came to the fore.

He had been a Derry minor and then an under-21 for two years. Spiers had briefly been called into the senior panel by Brian McIver but it was a short-lived affair.

Quality was never an issue for Spiers. Application, he admits, was.

“I just loved going out every weekend to be honest. It was two nights in the gym, two nights training on the pitch, a match or an in-house game at the weekend and I just packed it in.

“It was too much for me, at such a young age anyway.

“When I dropped out with Brian, Barry Dillon was the under-21 manager and he rang me to see if I’d play with them.

“I’ll never forget it, I met Brian up in the canteen after, you can just imagine that conversation! His face. I laughed, he laughed and he said ‘it’s good to see we found you anyway’.”

It’s hard to believe that he hasn’t played for Magherafelt since an infamous championship loss to Steelstown back in 2013. Harder still to believe he was only 20 then.

That was the last time he pulled on his native colours. The night before his brother Michael’s wedding, he ended up getting sent off near the end.

He knew that come what may, he wasn’t going to be about for the next round. His other brother, Packie, was home for the wedding and heading back out to Sydney soon after. Chrissy decided to go too.

“The only reason I left was the brother was going back over. I was in and out of work, probably doing my parents’ head in at home, and I needed a new lease of life.

“We sat down at the kitchen table, put on the laptop and booked two flights. It was a spur of the moment thing.

“I told [then Magherafelt manager Gary] Coleman and he was disgusted! I had to build up the courage for that! He wasn’t a bit pleased but once he settled down he could understand.”

Work had been scarce at home. A day here at the tarmac, another there at screeding floors. Nothing solid, nothing to keep him.

When he went, there were years Magherafelt wondered if their chance at a championship had gone with him.

A natural dearth of scoring forwards was only exacerbated by his absence.

This was a seriously gifted footballer, a bit on the small side and a bit on the temperamental side, but defences in Derry were tortured by him.

He only turned 21 four months after he left for Australia. It was only when Adrian Cush took over the Rossas that they manufactured a way to play without him. But there’s no doubt that if he was at home, there’d be a space for him in the team.

Spiers had just landed back in Ireland, originally home to Magherafelt before moving with Joanne down to her country. He trained with the Rossas for a few weeks.

“It was Cush’s first year. I remember saying to Conan O’Brien: ‘There’s something about Cush that will take Magherafelt somewhere’.

“I’ve never seen a man-manager like him in my life, whether you’re eight stone or 15 stone, the best player or no good to him, he treated everyone the exact same.”

Take them somewhere he did. A first Derry championship in 41 years, to be exact.

Spiers, along with future groomsman Ryan Ferris, was among the crowd. Ferris had gone to Ballymaguigan that year, where Spiers began his football before a fallout at U14 led him to move.

They were born and reared in Magherafelt, living in Killowen Drive, but his elder brothers Michael and Packie continued to play for the neighbouring ‘Quigan.

Chrissy admits he became emotional on the red-and-white-flooded pitch in Celtic Park as the final whistle sounded against Glen 17 months ago.

“I hadn’t played with the boys for seven years when they won it. Yes, I did get emotional on the pitch in Celtic Park after it, but I wasn’t as bad as Peter Quinn or Ryan Ferris.

“They would have felt it a lot more than me. I didn’t know half the boys that were playing, I only knew the other half.

“If I had been missed out after a couple of years, yes, I’d probably have been absolutely devastated. But because I was gone so long, it probably didn’t hurt me as much.”

Rathmore’s relegation out of senior football came as a gunk to the whole club in 2019. One game from a county final, they tumbled to a home defeat and then lost a relegation playoff to Kilcummin.

Last year’s disjointed campaign saw them stuck in intermediate again, but more than half-a-dozen of his clubmates were able to represent East Kerry in their championship winning run.

It’s a big ask but it’s an aim should Rathmore get stuck there again, particularly if Spa win last year’s delayed intermediate title and move up, therefore ruling their big contingent out from district duty.

He rates Gavin White, who’s normally detailed to him when they meet Dr Crokes, as the toughest opponent he’s had.

Spiers also dismisses the notion that Kerry football is whiter than white, or that it’s vastly superior.

“Yes, you still have the corner backs hanging out of you. Yes, you still have the pulling and dragging and slabbering. You still have the handbags. You have all that down here.

“I don’t think it’s a massive difference in standard. People keep asking how would Rathmore do against Magherafelt, and I’d pay €25 in to watch it.”

It’s fans of Kerry club football who pay in to watch him now, standing out from the crowd with his distinctive shock of bright red hair.

He’d move back to Magherafelt in the morning if he could convince Joanne to go too. He’d move back to Sydney quicker still.

But Kerry is a happy home.

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