By Alan Rodgers
IT was an era when Kerry were the all-conquering team with their three Sam Maguires in-a-row highlighting the complete dominance that they enjoyed on the All-Ireland scene.
Just like Dublin in the modern era, the Kingdom were seen as almost unbeatable. Counties barely aspired to the levels that they had reached, and seemed intent in Ulster, at least, with a provincial title or a decent performance in an All-Ireland semi-final.
This was the backdrop, then, to a series of weekend challenge matches that Mick O’Dwyer and his players embarked upon in the spring of 1981. Exactly 40 years ago this week, they travelled north, met and greeted the fans and comfortably defeated both Down and Tyrone in grand challenge matches.
The aim of the games was to raise money for what would become their famous trip to Australia at the end of the year. But it was in the wet and wintry conditions that the foundations were laid for that trip, and their fourth consecutive title in September that year.
On the Friday night, they defeated Down before moving onto Tyrone were they confidently dispatched the Red Hands by 2-14 to 0-6.
Then, on the Sunday afternoon, they travelled to Louth and recorded a third win.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing for that Kerry side.
That 1980-1981 National League campaign highlighted their drawing power, but at Lurgan it was Armagh who came up trumps against them. A 12,000 strong attendance saw the Orchard county, who were then Ulster champions, win well.
Nevertheless, there was no doubt about the esteem in which they were held.
The Friday night match against Down was held in Burren under lights. In 1975, the famous St Mary’s club had become the first club in Ireland to install floodlights and it was a great occasion on a weekend when the Mourne county also played Donegal in the McKenna Cup.
A stiff breeze did make conditions difficult, but a Jack O’Shea goal and three points from Mike Sheehy helped Kerry to a 1-9 to 0-5 win.
Nowhere was the enthusiasm for the Kerry legends more apparent than in Tyrone where they were greeted like heroes.
Over 1000 boys took part in coaching sessions on the morning of the challenge match. Many of them then travelled to Carrickmore where Kerry’s team of all talents turned on a display of score-taking. Mike Sheehy racked up 1-5, Eoin Liston 0-4, Pat Spillane got 0-3 and John Egan got a goal.
One Tyrone player who remembers it well was Brendan Donnelly. The Trillick clubman lined out at full-forward on that occasion and remembers a busy weekend of county football.
“It was a big occasion to have the All-Ireland champions coming to Tyrone because that didn’t happen often during those years. They were fundraising for their trip to Australia,” he remembered.
“I knew John O’Keefe well from being at college with him during the early ‘70s and also got to know a few of the Kerry players from an All-Star trip in 1979.
“The one thing that strikes me looking back on those years is the fact that there was so little preparation before matches.
“We played Kerry on that Saturday evening, went out and celebrated with them on the Saturday night and then played and beat Fermanagh in the McKenna Cup the next day.
“The result in the game probably says it all. I suppose a lot of counties during those years saw Kerry as unbeatable and the score probably shows how much they were in control that day.
“But then at the same time Tyrone were never at full strength during that time.
“The county won the Ulster title in 1973 and there must have been five or more of our top players away in the United States and that affected our chances for the rest of the decade.”
Nevertheless, there was no doubting the excitement of the young Tyrone fans especially on that March day in 1981. The story is told of Páidí Ó Sé running he roads around Carrickmore on the morning after the game.
For many, the chance to get autographs was a prime motivation and the report of the game emphasises the general feeling.
“For the most part, they had really come to see the Kerrymen display their talents and they would probably have been disappointed if Mike Sheehy, Eoin Liston, Pat Spillane and John Egan hadn’t obliged with several dazzling scores,” read one summary of the game.
It went on to reflect on the scenes afterwards as the players stood around while being photographed with hundreds of young people seeking those all-important signatures.
“The Tyrone players benefitted from it as well since they also were mobbed by the youngsters who beforehand may not have realised that there was such a thing as a Tyrone county team.”
Whether or not the game had any really influence on the county’s future prospects is unclear, although Brendan Donnelly is clear that it was a challenge match and therefore played in a reasonably relaxed manner.
“The main purpose of the game was for Kerry to raise money and I remember us having a good night afterwards that went on to 3am or 4am,” he adds.
“They then went on to play Louth the next day, while we beat Fermanagh in the McKenna Cup. That wouldn’t happen now that’s for sure.
“We didn’t rate ourselves in the same category as Kerry and it’s good that this has now changed.
“The absence of so many good players always made it difficult for us to challenge for and win championships.
“I don’t think that game against Kerry had any relevance later on. We had a reasonably strong team out. It’s a long time ago now, but the memories are good ones nonetheless.”
A similar set of circumstances would be difficult to imagine now in 2021. But 40 years ago, that visit of Kerry to Tyrone and Down was greeted with immense excitement, preparation and joy by footballing fans in both counties.