Traditionally speaking, being named captain of Kerry is one of the greatest honours in Irish sport. In any given year you basically have a 68% chance of winning a Munster Championship, and a 28% chance of lifting the Sam McGuire Cup in September. Lead Kerry to glory and you join the likes of Ogie Moran, Páidí Ó Sé and Séamus Moynihan in the history books. Why would you not want the job?
Kerry are one of only two counties who still ask their reigning county champions to nominate a captain and while it could hardly be argued that the practice has been a hindrance on the balance of history, many observers (and players) have questioned aloud whether or not it’s time for a change. And not without good reason.
In the past five years or so the Kerry captaincy – and I say it reluctantly – has become something of a poisoned chalice (and not just because of Dublin’s irritating period of domination). Colm Cooper captained Kerry in 2013 and although that particular year ended in heartache, Gooch started in all and top-scored in three of the team’s five championship games.
It would be fair to say that it has not been plain sailing for Kerry captains since.
2014 to 2018
Dr Crokes ace Kieran O’Leary was handed the role in 2014 but he didn’t start in the championship. Clubmate Fionn Fitzgerald was captain on the field, although Leary did play a captain’s role off the bench in the semi-final against Mayo when he kicked a crucial point to force a replay. The Crokes pair subsequently accepted the Sam McGuire together after defeating Donegal in the decider so the year was far from disastrous for Leary, but he would naturally have preferred to feature more prominently.
Kieran Donaghy was named captain for 2015 on the back of Austin Stacks’ 2014 County Final triumph and the Tralee man started throughout the Munster Championship. Things turned sour, however, when he was dropped for Gooch in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Kildare. He was recalled for the semi-final versus Tyrone but he was whipped at half-time and the skipper relinquished his starting berth for the final, which Kerry lost to Dublin.
St Mary’s and South Kerry talisman Bryan Sheehan took the reins in 2016 but he suffered a similar fate to his predecessor. The dead ball expert started in Munster but lost his place for the All-Ireland series, only seeing 10-15 minutes of action against Clare in the quarters and Dublin in the semis.
Next up was Johnny Buckley and the tireless Crokes player is unique amongst Kerry captains of the past five years in that he actually started at the business end of the campaign. Buckley lined out at centre forward against Galway and both semi-finals against Mayo, although he was substituted at half-time in the replay. The following year the then-28-year-old stepped away from the Kerry set-up altogether due to work commitments.
Experienced corner back Fionn Fitzgerald took over the responsibility at the beginning of 2018 but he barely played at all apart from a couple of National League appearances in the spring. Rookie keeper Shane Murphy took the mantle and he led the side to Munster glory, but his year also ended in disappointment when he was dropped for the final two games of the Super 8s.
So, taking all of that into account, who actually wants to captain Kerry this year?
One thing we know for sure is that it will be a Crokes man again in 2019 as the latest motion to do away with the current system was defeated (again) at a recent convention.
Murphy is a good candidate; I thought he managed the role well in his debut season. But he will have to battle it out with Brian Kelly for the number one jersey and it’s impossible to tell at this juncture whom Peter Keane is likely to favour.
Gavin White, who filled in at the end of last season, seems like a natural choice simply because he was one of Kerry’s most consistent performers in 2018 and he should be a starter again this time out.
Micheál Burns, the other main candidate, grabbed national headlines late last year when he publicly questioned the tradition, saying that it might be “time to look for the most experienced and well-placed person”. Interestingly, he also said that being handed the captaincy in Murphy’s absence (against Galway in the league) had an adverse effect on his performance. Having said that, I’m sure he would gladly accept the honour if he gets the nod.
My understanding is that the Kerry players are generally in favour of changing the selection process, and I know that if I were Peter Keane I definitely wouldn’t want such a significant decision to be made on my behalf. And it is a significant decision. People talk down the importance of a captain but whenever I play I’m always very aware of who my captain is. A good captain can set the tone and provide inspiration in times of need, both on and off the pitch.
In the modern era we’re hyper-conscious of how fine the margins are between success and failure, so I find it staggering that we, as a county, are leaving anything to chance.
Don’t get me wrong, Shane, Gavin and Micheál are quality players and whoever gets the nod could well be a fantastic captain and leader for Kerry in 2019. But surely the manager is best placed to make that decision?
Traditions are nice and all but when it comes down to it we have to choose what’s more important: history or the future.
KERRY CAPTAINS SINCE 2000
2018 Fionn Fitzgerald/Shane Murphy/Gavin White (Dr Crokes)
2017 Johnny Buckley (Dr Crokes)
2016 Bryan Sheehan (South Kerry)
2015 Kieran Donaghy (Austin Stacks)
2014 Kieran O’Leary/Fionn Fitzgerald (Dr Crokes)
2013 Colm Cooper (Dr Crokes)
2012 Colm Cooper (Dr Crokes)
2011 Colm Cooper (Dr Crokes)
2010 Bryan Sheehan (South Kerry)
2009 Darran O’Sullivan/Donnchadh Walsh (Mid Kerry)
2008 Tomás Ó Sé (An Ghaeltacht)
2007 Declan O’Sullivan (South Kerry)
2006 Declan O’Sullivan (South Kerry)
2005 Declan O’Sullivan South (Kerry)
2004 Dara Ó Cinnéide (An Ghaeltacht)
2003 Declan Quill/Mike McCarthy (Rahilly’s/Kilcummin)
2002 Darragh Ó Sé (An Ghaeltacht)
2001 Eoin Brosnan/Séamus Moynihan (Dr Crokes/Glenflesk)
2000 Séamus Moynihan (Glenflesk)
Pic: Matt Browne/Sportsfile