We might not all get in the gate to see it but the local game makes its long-awaited return this weekend with 28 matches taking place in the various grades of the Kerry Club Championship.

The government’s decision to stick with the 200-person limit means that only a select few will witness the upcoming games in person. As players, management, match officials, club officials, county board officials, media and stewards are all part of that 200, clubs have been left with the impossible task of dividing a paltry allocation of just 40 tickets apiece between all of their loyal supporters.

It’s safe to say that this has and will cause friction between club members. Some clubs are operating a draw system to divvy the tickets up while others have given the tickets to players so they can give pass them on to family and friends.

One club even considered not taking tickets at all, so keen were they to avoid offending the many fans who will end up being overlooked.

Thankfully, Kerry GAA will be streaming selected fixtures each week, so at least there’s that. This weekend Dr Crokes v Templenoe and Kenmare v Kerins O’Rahilly’s will both be available online at €5 each and other clubs are hoping to stream matches via their own websites or social media, pending County Board approval.

So, it’s far from business as usual from a supporter’s perspective but it’s good to be back nevertheless, and there are some great fixtures to look forward to over the course of a mouthwatering opening weekend.

 

Group 1
Dr Crokes v Templenoe
Tonight at 7pm
Fitzgerald Stadium

The senior championship gets underway tonight when pre-tournament favourites Dr Crokes take on last year’s Intermediate champions Templenoe in the Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney.

Crokes will naturally be expected to do the business but their preparations have been hampered somewhat by injuries to key players, perhaps most notably influential midfielder/forward Daithí Casey who suffered a season-ending knee injury in a recent challenge match against Nemo Rangers. With Casey unavailable, Edmund O’Sullivan is likely to pair the ever-reliable Johnny Buckley with youngster Mark O’Shea at midfield.

Former Kerry captain Kieran O’Leary is also expected to miss out on tonight’s match so Crokes will have to find someone else to fill his shoes in a full forward line that is likely to feature the talented duo of Tony Brosnan and David Shaw.

Tall full forward Paul Clarke has been a popular option off the bench in recent times so he might get the nod, or they could simply name a versatile middle third operator like Michael Potts or Brian Looney at 15 and bring them out the field, leaving Brosnan and Shaw to do the damage inside.

Templenoe will look to their Kerry stars – Tadhg Morley, Gavin Crowley, Adrian Spillane and Killian Spillane – for inspiration and talented forwards Brian Crowley and Stephen O’Sullivan will also need to be on song if the small club from the south are to cause an upset against last year’s beaten finalists.

Despite their injury concerns, Crokes should still have the upper hand.

Verdict: Dr Crokes by six.

 

Group 1
Kerins O’Rahilly’s v Kenmare Shamrocks
Saturday at 3pm
Fitzgerald Stadium

Rahilly’s weren’t a million miles away from advancing from the Group of Death in 2019 and a slightly kinder draw (on paper) will have them in optimistic form ahead of their 2020 championship bow tomorrow afternoon.

From midfield up, Strand Road are stacked. David Moran, Gavin O’Brien and Tommy Walsh provide the power while Barry John Keane, Jack Savage and The Green’s Corn Uí Mhuirí hero Conor Hayes are all capable of shooting the lights out on their day.

Their defenders are no mugs either, which makes you wonder why they haven’t been able to capture more silverware in recent times. The club’s last championship triumph came in this competition all the way back in 2010.

Perhaps it would be fair to say that a lack of consistency has been their downfall. Recent championships have been marked by moments of great promise, like the spectacular victory over Crokes in the early rounds of the 2018 Kerry SFC, and moments of great disappointment, like last year’s defeat to East Kerry in Round 3 of the same competition. At one stage in that match they led by eight points but they ended up losing by two, and their opponents went on to raise the Bishop Moynihan trophy for the first time in 20 years.

With Rahilly’s you get the feeling that it’s not so much about getting them to click, it’s about getting them to stay clicked.

They will be slight favourites against Kenmare but when the opposition have someone like Seán O’Shea kicking frees and 45s, anything is possible. Kerry teammate Stephen O’Brien is also a major threat and veteran marksman Paul O’Connor is always liable to score. Kerry U20 Griffin Wharton, who can operate in defence or in midfield, is another Kenmare player to keep an eye on.

These sides met in the first round of last year’s County Championship and Rahilly’s prevailed by 2-15 to 1-17. This one could be close again, but the Tralee outfit may have just too much firepower for their Kenmare counterparts.

Verdict: Kerins O’Rahilly’s by two.

 

Group 2
Kilcummin v Killarney Legion
Saturday at 7pm
Lewis Road

It’s a local derby in Killarney tomorrow evening as Legion and Kilcummin make the short journey to Lewis Road for their long-awaited 2020 Club Championship opener.

Kilcummin finished bottom of their group last time out and they narrowly avoided relegation back down to intermediate by defeating Rathmore in the playoff. Their County Championship campaign was similarly fruitless, although they can take some heart from their victory over Mid Kerry in the losers’ round.

They may be rank outsiders but they’re never ones to roll over and die, and in Paul O’Shea, Kevin McCarthy and Noel Duggan they have enough guile to run up a score if things go their way.

East Kerry champions Legion should be feeling confident, although that O’Donoghue Cup victory over the Crokes seems like an awful long time ago now. Manager Stephen Stack made a lot of progress with his team during his first year in charge and he will be keen to push on in 2020 and challenge for more hardware in the coming months.

With tough, defensive-minded backs like Danny Sheahan, Podge O’Connor and Damien O’Sullivan doing the rounds, Legion have always been difficult to break down. Add to that athletic, county-standard players like Jonathan Lyne and Cian Gammell and it’s easy to see why their defensive record stands up to any other team’s in Kerry.

Their success often hinges upon the scoring of marquee forwards James O’Donoghue and Conor Keane but if they can get some assistance in that department from the supporting cast then they will be very hard to beat.

Legion defeated Kilcummin in last year’s County Championship but they certainly won’t be taking their neighbours lightly tomorrow night.

Verdict: Legion by two.

 

Group 2
Austin Stacks v Dingle
Saturday at 7pm
Annascaul

A quick glance at the odds suggest that the defending champions are not getting the respect they deserve. Stacks are 8/1 to retain their title, fourth favourites behind Crokes, Dingle and Legion.

A poor showing in last year’s County Championship may be a factor; the Rockies lost 12-6 to tomorrow’s opponents, Dingle, before bowing out at the earliest possible stage at the hands of East Kerry. A paltry return of just 12 points in two games (in addition to the three goals they managed against the East) is certainly not the kind of scoring form that is befitting of championship contenders.

The bookmakers expect them to lose their opening round game against Dingle and doing so would leave them with an uphill battle to emerge from a very competitive-looking group.

Stacks are a bit like Germany, though: you can never rule them out. They have big game players – chief amongst them Kieran Donaghy – and in the likes of Darragh O’Brien, Shane O’Callaghan and Seán Quilter they also have guys who can put the ball over the bar.

One interesting change that appears to be on the cards for Stacks is the repositioning of Wayne Guthrie from midfielder to goalkeeper. Guthrie, who was an excellent soccer keeper in his underage days, has played in goal for the Tralee club in recent challenge matches so he could well be in line for the No. 1 jersey tomorrow.

2018 county finalists Dingle, powered by star forward Paul Geaney, have sparkled from time to time in the last couple of years and they will be confident of challenging again this time around. This first round match will be crucial. Victory for either side could really set them up for a run at the final.

Verdict: Draw

 

Intermediate, Junior Premier and Junior: Eastern rivals tipped for glory

Things could scarcely have gone worse for the Rathmore seniors in 2019 and many of their woes can be traced back to one 20-minute period in the Senior Club Championship back in April.

The club from the right side of the border had defeated the reigning champions, Dr Crokes, in Round 1 and, despite losing to Rahilly’s in their second game, they were still in contention for a place in the final.

In fact, heading into the last 20 minutes of their third and final group game against Legion, Rathmore were in pole position and on course for that decider. The match turned against them, however, and Crokes’ victory over Rahilly’s in the other fixture sentenced Rathmore to last place in the Group of Death.

A relegation playoff against Kilcummin loomed once both sides were done with the Kerry SFC and unfortunately Rathmore were done quicker than most. A 17-point hammering against Crokes in the first round was followed by an extra-time defeat to Kenmare and when Kilcummin exited at the hands of St Kieran’s, the playoff date was set. Two weeks later, an understrength Rathmore side (they were cursed with injuries all year) lost their senior status for the first time in two decades.

Things got worse again when they were dumped out of the O’Donoghue Cup by neighbours Gneeveguilla and, to top it all off, an impressive County League campaign also ended in disappointing fashion when they lost the final to Austin Stacks on penalties.

 

Rathmore and Kerry star Shane Ryan. Pic: Eamonn Keogh.

 

On paper, a season at intermediate could provide them with an opportunity to reset and get their act together because they are undoubtedly senior material. It’s not an easy competition to win but they are strong favourites and it’s easy to see why. They have an intercounty goalkeeper (assuming that Shane Ryan plays in goal), a sturdy defence marshalled by Paul Murphy, a strong midfield and a forward line full of attacking promise.

At full strength they’re a team that most senior clubs would sooner avoid, never mind intermediate.

Their promotion quest begins with a tie against Laune Rangers in Derreen this evening and they will follow that up with fixtures against Castleisland and Ardfert.

SPA

Fellow East Kerry side Spa are also contenders and they’ll be hoping to get off the mark tomorrow when they take on Group 2 rivals Currow in Listry. The Killarney club have been touted for intermediate success for a number of years now but it just hasn’t quite happened for them yet. Some encouraging challenge matches have given them confidence heading into the championship and on paper they look like Rathmore’s single biggest threat.

They will have to negotiate the challenges of Na Gaeil and Glenflesk if they are to reach the semi-finals but they appear to have the necessary tools to manage it.

Elsewhere Beaufort, An Ghaeltacht, John Mitchels and St Mary’s will duke it out in a tough-to-call Group 1 while Glenbeigh-Glencar will fancy their chances of emerging from Group 4, which also includes Milltown/Castlemaine, Waterville and Dromid.

JUNIOR PREMIER
Gneeveguilla really caught the eye in 2019 as they powered to promotion from Division 3 to Division 2 and shocked the old enemy Rathmore in the quarter-final of the O’Donoghue Cup. Now they have promotion to intermediate football in their sights and make no mistake about it, they have every chance of making that a reality.

They are overwhelming favourites to get the better of St Pat’s in their Round 1 game on Sunday afternoon and Ballyduff and Fossa await in Rounds 2 and 3.

Gneeveguilla have a starting county champion in their ranks in the form of East Kerry wing back Pa Warren and they have more than enough talent elsewhere to make their mark in Group 1 of the Junior Premier this year.

Fossa, of course, have two county champions and two of the finest forwards in the county in their team and they will be hoping that the Clifford brothers can propel them to victory over Ballyduff tomorrow night. After that, the match against Gneeveguilla could prove crucial.

In Group 2, Ballymac, Churchill, Brosna and St Michael’s/Foilmore will do battle with a place in the last four at stake while in Group 3, Marc ó Sé will be aiming to lead Listry to victory over Firies, Keel and Finuge. In the latter group, much will depend upon the opening round clash between Listry and Firies in Kilcummin.

St Senan’s and Ballydonoghue are two of the fancied sides after Gneeveguilla and you would expect one of those two to escape from Group 4, which also features Skellig Rangers and Listowel.

JUNIOR

In the bottom tier of Kerry football, Annascaul, by virtue of their status as a Division 2 club, have to be considered serious contenders. They get their campaign underway with a potentially tricky away tie against Knocknagoshel with an up-and-coming Kilgarvan side and Sneem/Derrynane rounding off Group 3.

Elsewhere, Asdee, Renard, Moyvane and Division 3 outfit Duagh will compete in Group 1; Beale, Cordal, Scart and Valentia make up Group 2; and Castlegregory, Tarbert and Lispole are joined in Group 4 by Cromane, who defeated Ballylongford in the preliminary round last weekend.

Fixtures and venues for Round 2 games in all grades will be decided based on the results in Round 1. The winners of the opening round matches will avoid one another in the second round.