By Murt Murphy
The meteoric rise of Kerry soccer has been fashioned out of years of hard work and a burning desire that the Kingdom have few equals when it comes to producing talented and precocious footballers in many codes.
The Kerry District League was founded in 1971 with eight teams being involved in the very first league and cup competitions that were organized in the post ban era by a wonderful band of enthusiastic volunteers. Previously Tralee Dynamos had played in the Desmond League but once the KDL was formed, all the action was in Kerry but the possibility of teams from neighbouring North Cork, explained the name which to give it its proper title was Kerry and District League, which left the door ajar for the likes of Cullen, Millstreet, Ballydesmond, Knocknagree and Kiskeam.
The league grew and by the early eighties the number of teams had trebled and Kerry began to make an impression in outside competitions like the Oscar Traynor Cup, FAI Junior Cup and Munster Junior Cups.
Tralee Dynamos reached the Munster Junior Cup Final but was well beaten by Cork side Temple United at Turners Cross in 1983, but Kerry now believed. John O’Regan became Secretary in 1976 and with Christy Leahy as chairman from 1979, the league continued to expand.
In fact subject to verification, the League has only had three secretaries, Pat O’Shea, Joe Grant and John Regan.
The arrival of Jack Charlton and the success of the Irish team, led to unprecedented growth with the league expanding to four divisions of twelve teams and also a very successful Schoolboys League was set up, that ensured the future of the game was secured.
Two players John Hegarty and Tim Landers won International Junior caps in the late eighties before John went on to play League Of Ireland with a couple of clubs.
The Kerry U-14 Kennedy Cup team was the first Kerry side to take a national final , when they played Dublin in the Kennedy Cup Final at Lansdowne Road in 1991 as a curtain raiser to the now famous Bray Wanderers/St Francis FAI Cup Final, but lost narrowly 2-1.
Kerry was now firmly established a soccer force and teams continued to try and make the national breakthrough.
The Kerry Youths led by John O’Regan lost the Interleague Youths Cup Final to the Leinster Senior League when they conceded an injury time equalizer in ‘94/95 and then their top striker Mikey Wall missed the only penalty he missed all year in the shoot-out, and Kerry had just lost out again. Top referee Kevin O’Regan was a member of that team as was David Tiernan, Donnacha Galvin and Franno Sheridan.
The Oscar Traynor Side went to Mayo and again was beaten in the final by Kilkenny in 1996 but success was just around the corner. It came in 1998 in the FAI Youths Cup Final when Tralee Dynamos lowered the colours of mighty Stella Maris 2-1 in the final played at Mounthawk Park. Many of that side represented Kerry at every level with Derek O’Brien plying his wares with Galway United in the Eircom League.
The League had purchased Mounthawk Park in the mid nineties, and transformed it from a turnip field into major soccer grounds that is now owned by the league and is now completed to Eircom League standards.
The driving force behind the development of Mounthawk Park is KDL secretary John O’Regan and this magnificent complex will be his lasting legacy when all the disputes about fixtures and other such trivial matters are forgotten. The rest of the KDL committee will admit that without John’s tireless work, then Mounthawk Park would still be in its infancy.
Just look at the two championship size pitches, 2 stands, an all-weather facility, dressingroom’s, a club house and meeting room plus one of the best press boxes in any sport, in any county. Then just look at the car park and you probably think that the League must owe a fortune. Nothing could be further from the truth, nearly all paid for, thanks to Lotto, FAI, and MFA grants and the hard work of John O’Regan who along with Brendan Cunningham collect that €2 at the gate and also sell the lotto tickets.
The new complex was officially opened by MFA President Joe Delaney in 2008 and it was another landmark day in the history of the KDL.
Many clubs in the county have purchased their own playing fields and are now developing them as was seen recently when the FAI officials led by CEO John Delaney and including International managers led by Steve Staunton.
The FAI AGM was held outside Dublin for the first time when it held in the Malton Hotel Killarney on July 7th 2007, and by common consent it was one of the most successful ever while the FAI Senior Cup draw was held out in Ballybunnion.
Kerry teams continue to excel as Fenit Samphires reached the FAI Youths final only to lose out back in 2003 while Kerry lost another Kennedy Cup final to Dublin and this happened again in 2008.
Kerry joined the Eircom U-21 League and reached the final in its first year before losing to a talented Bohs side. They have also reached the semi final stage and played in the Eircom League Cup taking two Eircom League scalps in Cobh Ramblers and Kilkenny City.
Last year they took the now defunct Cork City to extra time and will shortly face Waterford United in the EA Sports Cup as it is now called.
Three players that played with Kerry in the Oscar Traynor Cup, James Sugrue ( Dynamos) , Stephen O’Mahony ( Tralee Celtic) and Brendan O’Driscoll (Camp United) have all won Irish Junior Internationals caps, while players like Derek O’Brien, Sean Kelly and Shane Guthrie are playing in the Eircom League and others are now cross channel like Brendan Moloney and the Dennehy brothers Darren and Billy, though Billy has returned home and now wears the famous hoops of Shamrock Rovers. Kerry has arrived a soccer force and academy for emerging talent and the game is now well organized and well run and gone are the days when players just show up on a Sunday morning.
Kerry now has grown to a thriving 60 team league, eight youth sides, six ladies teams, twelve over -35’s and a thriving Kerry Schoolboys League ensures that soccer has reached every part of the county from Iveragh to Gneeveguilla and Kenmare to Ballylongford in the North and not forgetting Dingle in the West. Soccer ( football) is the fastest growing sport in the county and further success and expansion is just around the corner as the it can be truly said that “ THE KINGDOM HAS MOST DEFINITELY COME OF Age “ .