There are not too many out there who can recall their first ever experience attending an inter-county match, but a man, regarded by many, as one of Kildare GAA’s greatest supporters, can not only remember his first game but practically every game he has been at ever since.
Meet Billy Dunne, a man who has been in every county ground in the 32 counties, not once, not twice but three times, at least, while also making a visit to Gaelic Park in New York some ten years ago.
Sounds a bit far fetched?
Maybe, but we are talking here of someone who is totally immersed in Kildare, whose life is Kildare and who “since I got my first set of wheels in 1977 , has not missed a Kildare game at minor, U21, U20, junior or senior level” then you quickly realise you are dealing with someone special; a fan and supporter that any county would be only too delighted to name amongst its own.
Newbridge native Billy's first game was north of the border, in fact it was in Newcastle, Co. Down where Kildare defeated the Down men in the All-Ireland U21 semi final of 1965.
And to make it even more memorable, says Billy, we not only won that game but went on to win the U21 All-Ireland a week or two after — my first ever game in Croker.
And do you remember much of that day?
Do I what?
“I was in the top deck of the Hogan; had my Kildare flag, on a bamboo cane, and ten minutes before the end, my late father turned to me and said ‘I think we have this All-Ireland in the bag’.”
The rest as Billy says is history.
And what age was Billy Dunne back then?
“Eight” came the instant reply, adding, “it was brilliant, absolutely brilliant.”
Billy played football while at school but admits, played very little after that and was not connected to any particular club, although he does admit following Raheens back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s simply because that was his mam’s club and he recalls being at “each of their winning seven finals; a great team Raheens were back then.”
While that Kildare U21 side got to the All-Ireland final again in 1966, they lost to Roscommon but the big disappointment was that that team never really trained on when it came to senior football.
Having said that, said Billy, “they lost no less than six Leinster finals, ’66 to Meath; ’69, ’71 and ’72 to Offaly; ’75 to Dublin and ’78 to Dublin. A few lads such as Ollie Crinnigan played in them all and so did Pat Mangan while Jack Donnelly played in a fair few but a bad car accident knocked him out of action for a while.
“Jack was a really brilliant footballer, as good a man to carry a ball as was around then or since, he was so at ease when in possession; one of those lads you would go to see in action; a real leader.”
Overall Billy, while you no doubt enjoyed some great days supporting and following Kildare down the years, there must have been an awful lot of disappointments along the way also?
Absolutely was the quick reply from Billy, quickly adding but I can live with them (disappointments).
“I remember the day we lost to Limerick, Division 3 game in Askeaton, we were two points up and conceded a late penalty and the final whistle arrived.
“I was with a few friends of mine and I just said ‘lads, dig a hole, I'm not going home’ so deflated that day, losing to Limerick in Division 3; around 1990.
“Two years before that losing an O'Byrne Cup game on a Sunday evening to Kilkenny, in Kilkenny; talk about being embarrassed, think we only scored three points; above all teams Kilkenny; excuses made up about the players having played with their clubs earlier that day, they were tired and they were this and the other; not at all, we went thinking we only had to turn up; attitude was completely wrong, maybe some of the lads had a beer or two in them but we lost.
“Then there was Wicklow in the 1990 Championship; that would have been the day Kevin O'Brien got the Wicklow goal; the first time Wicklow had ever beaten us, and I can tell that was another big downer.”
I can remember leaving a pub in Rathdangan, a little small village on the forest road going to Aughrim; the only pub in it; don't know what time we came out of that pub that night but I was not anxious to get home; really trying to console meself after the defeat, o my God that was one terrible day.”
Still, I remind Billy, there have been some good days, some great days during Micko's term, during The Geezer's days not to mention minor, U21 and U20 success?
“Micko is the man who gave the county the big lift when in arrived in 1990 for the county final between Naas and Clane; a great county final; I have only missed two county finals since 1964, and I would put that game up with the best of them with Johnny McDonald (Naas) putting on an exhibition that day.
“It was the fist time I saw Naas in the final but Johnny (McDonald) was the star that day and I remember talking to him after that game saying ‘Johnny, you will play for Kildare now’.”
Prior to that Johnny had fallen out with Dermot Earley, fallen out with Pat Fitzgerald; he was only a young lad and he did play under Micko but Micko was a fairly strict disciplinarian and if you couldn’t live with Micko's way of doing things then ....”
Recalling Micko's first year when he guided Kildare to a National League final, a final Dublin won with a somewhat fluky Vinnie Murphy goal late on but Billy recalls “we did not have a natural keeper in that day; Micko had a thing for a guy in goal with a great kick-out but I felt at that time there was a chap who played in goal for Carbury, Mick Byrne was his name, and I felt he did not get a fair crack of the whip from Micko at that time, but sure it's all over and done with now and you can’t change the result.”
Of course after that league final Kildare’s next outing was Micko’s first game in the Leinster Championship, a game played in Drogheda against Louth; a game that still gives some people from Lilywhite land nightmares, as Billy recalls.
“I was in Drogheda that day, I think the match was at 3 o'clock and I must have been in Drogheda “before the shutters were even up.”
Not sure what shutters Billy meant but we’ll leave that there for now.
“I just could not wait for that game but I have to say too I was somewhat weary of that game. Talking to Micko a week earlier I remember saying to him, we should beat Louth but we will want to be on our guard; they have a decent record, especially in Drogheda.
“In my lifetime” I said to Micko, “ I never saw Louth win anything, (they had not won since Dermot O’Brien captained them to All-Ireland success the year I was born) but they are a formidable side and they would put it up to us.”
Billy's voice thickened as he recalled “when I saw who was refereeing that game that day, well, what can I say, Tommy, you remember it I'm sure, but he (the referee) rode us that day.
“Sean McGovern was on the ground getting treatment for three or four minutes; and when he (Sean) got to his feet, the referee decided to throw the ball up between two players; he handed the ball to Seamus O'Hanlon; he actually physically handed the ball to Seamus O'Hanlon, Tommy; it was not that he lost control of the ball or it slipped out of his hand, he did not throw the ball up for any player to jump for; he basically handed the ball to Seamus O'Hanlon and said, Seamus, you go on down the far end and do whatever you want to want with the ball’ and they (Louth) went down and scored a point.
“Shortly after that Stefan White got a goal; it ruined us” recalls Billy, adding “Martin Lynch was blown up for over-carrying the ball which he did not (although he did over-carry the day he scored the goal against Wicklow in Croke Park) but to come out of Drogheda that day having been beaten was so hard to take; no back door in those days; you were out.”
Micko went and arrived back, guiding The Lilies to the All-Ireland final of ’98 but many were of the opinion it was the previous year, ’97, that Kildare really missed the boat; a great year with some mighty games against Meath.
“1997 was the greatest level of football, especially the second match, against Meath, that I ever saw a Kildare put up; you had guys like Eddie McCormack (he was only a jockey he was so light) a brilliant half forward; Willie McCreery, no skill, but a complete work-horse; once Willie got the ball you had to foul him you just could not get the ball off him.
“Willie got injured that day and I felt we slipped up, we needed a lad or two to come in and stabilise us a bit; Jody Devine came in and you know what he did; we did not react; possibly lucky to get the draw; Knuckles was in the square for the equaliser but the replacement referee on the day let it go and then the third day the sending off of Davy Dalton was absolutely cruel; he did threw out his foot to get to the ball but it was never a deliberate an attempt to get his man.
“That should have been our year; it turned out to be one of the poorest All Ireland’s ever; the Maurice Fitzgerald All-Ireland and only for Fitzgerald that would have been a most forgetful final. Could have been our year but it wasn’t; and while we got there 12 months later we just could not get over the line.”
And so to ’98 and Kildare's greatest season in some seventy years, when not only did they win their first Leinster title since 1956 but made it all the way the Holy Grail, an appearance in the All-Ireland final.
“I'll bring you back to I think it was April of that year and a game I attended down in Waterville, a challenge game between Kildare and Kerry; a game that I got a real inkling that this just could be our year” said Billy enthusiastically.
After the game, attended by just a few followers, but a game that saw Billy Dunne go into the dressingrooms after it to talk to Micko, John Crofton and Pat McCarthy (selectors) and I told them ‘lads I think we are going places” but while I genuinely felt that, little did I know we would make it all the way to the final.
“A brilliant season, laced with some mighty displays, beating Dublin, beating Meath, beating Kerry but then failing to finish it off”?
And why was that, why did Kildare fail to bring the Sam Maguire back to Kildare for the first time since 1928?
“I firmly believe that Micko did incredible work when in Kildare, on both occasions, but the more you look back on ’98 the more you come to the conclusion it just was not to be our day and some of that is down to ourselves” said Billy who said, in his opinion “the biggest mistake, among a few, was to break up our best line on the team, our half back line.
“Every team has a strong line, one strong line at least, and our half back line of John Finn, Glenn Ryan and Anthony Rainbow was our strongest line; had been magnificent against Meath, broke up attack after attack in the Leinster final but for the sake of one player we broke it up and I believe that move alone cost us and cost us dearly.
“The second decision that did noting to help our cause that day was the taking off of Martin Lynch; one of the best footballers we have seen in a white jersey, a massive mistake, and while he may not have been having his best day ever why he was not moved to half forward or to midfield, was simply baffling but you have to give it to Galway, they had their home work done; never fouled within distance of their own goal, effectively leaving Pauric Gravin redundant; it was brilliant to get there but a terrible disappointment nevertheless.”
Add to that Niall Buckley was just not match fit, not having played since the quarter final; Glenn was not one hundred per cent while Ronan Quinn was a terrible loss also.
Billy Dunne probably did as many interviews at that time as some of the players, being known throughout the length and breadth of the entire country.
In fact Billy, along with four other Lilies, dyed his hair white especially for a Bank of Ireland advertisement that appeared on the back page of the 1998 All Ireland final.
Fame or what?
Billy had holidays booked the week after that final but there was so much gloom and doom around after the defeat, himself and a friend took themselves out of the county and off they went to, yes you guessed it, Galway.
“We met up with a few of the players; got talking to Ray Silke who told me his mother was from Athy, so at least, I laughed to myself, Kildare had (unwittingly) some sort of input into the winning Galway win.
“1998 I will always remember for as long as I live and while we did not get over the line, it was a great time nevertheless, it was also the year I lost my father, so many memories, and not all positive at that.”
Billy's thoughts on Kieran McGeeney were interesting admitting the controversial Armagh man’s tenure brought us some great days, he brought to the team what a l ot of managers before and since have not, a bit of steel.
“At times during his era, luck simply deserted us; again some terrible refereeing decisions cost us but we had the respect of the rest of the big teams at that time; McGeeney gave us that cut; you will never win an All-Ireland with just 15 really good footballers; you need a cut, you need a bit of steel; remember Kildare, down through the years were often looked upon as a soft touch, lovely footballers but missing that vital ingredient, that was not the feeling during McGeeney's time, he added.
So what of the future Billy, where do you see Kildare today, this year, next year and beyond.
“First of all” he replied “we are a Division 2 team; don't think we will see any inter-county football this year, that’s just my opinion, I hope I am wrong but I can’t see it, but overall I am optimistic for the future, even allowing for the fact it is hard to see us winning Leinster until Dublin lose their appetite but we have some good young players.
“Winning the U20 All Ireland was a great achievement; the down side to that I feel was losing manager Davy Burke, that should not have happened; there should have been a way found of keeping him involved with Kildare; he is a good man; that U20 team were well coached, improved as they went on and played some very good football.”
And players to look out for?
“Look, the likes of Jimmy Hyland and Jack Robinson these lads need to be thrown in and given their chance; they are talented and also the likes of Shane O'Sullivan of Clane; Ben McCormack is a class footballer, has the right attitude, so overall the future looks optimistic.”
Apart from that infamous helicopter ride (see elsewhere on these pages) in 2008 is there anything else that stands out in all the years you have been following Kildare?
“There certainly is” he replies, adding “not forgetting we lost Shea Fahey, it was the losing of Larry Tompkins was the biggest regret of all.
“Larry was simply a tremendous player, a brilliant player, he had everything. He went to Cork and played in four All-Ireland finals in a row (’87-’90) at he age of 24, 25, 26 and 27; what a loss to Kildare when we were so down as a county.
“I remember looking at Kildare playing at Fr Brennan Park, Naas, in a challenge one day, Larry was not playing but was there and he said to me ‘Billy, how do you think we will get on this year’ little did I know, or realise that that year, 1985 would be Larry Tompkins’ last year to pull a white jersey over his head; a terrible loss; a terrible shame and we can just wonder what might have happened around that time, and even further on if we had the Eadestown genius in our ranks instead of looking at him winning All Ireland and All Star Awards in the red of Cork; a terrible, terrible shame.”
So while Billy Dunne awaits, hoping like the rest of us, to see some county action, he can look back with that incredible memory of his, at some great times; some great wins; some fierce disappointments, culminat-
ing in the ’98 loss but as he says himself, he has learned to live with those while at the same time hoping that “if the man above spares me” still living the dream that one day we will all be back in Croke Park on the big day and bring Sam back to where he lived for his very first 12 months, Kildare, 1928.
We live in hope!