St Finbarr's were 100% right to avoid playing Austin Stacks in Tralee

Christy O'Connor on the Barrs' history in the Munster championship and why they opted to face the Kerry champions in Semple Stadium
St Finbarr's were 100% right to avoid playing Austin Stacks in Tralee

Austin Stacks supporters make their way to the stadium before the 2020 county final victory over Kerins O'Rahilly's. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

BEFORE the Austin Stacks-Ballincollig 2014 Munster club football semi-final, a maroon van with Stacks slogans emblazoned all over the vehicle — and driven by the Stacks mascot — was leading a throng of the club’s supporters through Tralee.

As the van passed by the Sportsfield Bar in Boherbee, a group of Ballincollig supporters had gathered outside the pub, with one deciding to stand in front of the vehicle in a mock stand-off.

As the huge parade continued past the Sportsfield Bar, a section of the Stacks crowd performed their marquee marching party-trick of standing up and sitting down as they sang their lines.

As the Stacks supporters hopped around in the middle of the road, the Ballincollig supporter who had faced them down joined them in dance, which added to the synergy and jovial and jingoistic interaction between both sets of supporters.

The Ballincollig team huddle together in front of their supporters before their defeat after extra time to Austin Stacks in Tralee in 2014. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE
The Ballincollig team huddle together in front of their supporters before their defeat after extra time to Austin Stacks in Tralee in 2014. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE

The Stacks colourful pre-match marching has been a tradition in the club for decades, but it really sparked into life in 1994 when Stacks played Dr Croke’s in the county semi-final replay in Killarney.

That set the tone for the throngs of supporters — often up to 3,000 — which have marched to almost every one of the club’s big games ever since.

The really big matches though, swell those numbers far higher. Before the county final in November, so many Stacks supporters had gathered at the club ground in Connolly Park beforehand that the parade was led by a garda patrol car and a garda cyclist all the way to Austin Stack Park.

The atmosphere that afternoon was absolutely electric because it was the first final between Stacks and Kerins O’Rahillys since 1936, while also being the first all-Tralee final since 1963.

Austin Stack Park was rocking an hour before the game because close to 10,000 turned up.

Restrictions have limited attendance capacity to half that number now, but trying to dilute the carnival effect the Stacks bring to big days — especially in Tralee — was the obvious reason St Finbarr’s refused to toss to decide the venue for Sunday’s Munster final.

Munster GAA had offered both clubs a toss but the Barrs’ preference was for a neutral venue. Stacks chairman Billy Ryle subsequently stated that the Kerry side had been told by Munster GAA that the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick or Semple Stadium in Tipperary may not be available.

Ryle publicly urged the Barrs to consider a toss, particularly in the context of spiralling virulent Covid variants where the supporters of only one of the two clubs involved would have to travel.

Yet the Barrs stuck to their guns and the game was fixed for Thurles. They attracted some criticism for not agreeing to a toss but manager Paul O’Keeffe outlined their reasoning earlier this week.

“We have a small fanbase, maybe 1,000 to 1,500,” said O’Keeffe. “They’ll go to Thurles to see us as fast as they would Páirc Uí Rinn, so it wasn’t any huge advantage for us in having a home venue.

“I could see why they (Stacks) wanted to toss, but from our point of view, why give them any more advantages than they already have?”

O’Keeffe and the club were 100% right. Having the game in Tralee would have been a huge boost to Stacks, and a psychological hammer-blow to the Barrs.

If the game had been played in Páirc Uí Rinn, the Barrs certainly wouldn’t have been able to replicate the advantage a home game would have meant for the Stacks. For a start, the Stacks would have still brought their carnival to Cork — within reason with current restrictions — and all the pageantry that goes with it.

For the 2014 Munster final against the Nire in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, more than 10 buses convened outside Cork Con’s grounds before the Stacks hordes made the trek down the hill to the Park; when Stacks played Nemo Rangers in the 2019 Munster semi-final, the Stacks crowd also gathered at Cork Con before making the shorter stroll up the hill to Páirc Uí Rinn.

The risk of a toss was all the greater again considering the Barrs last away experience to a Kerry side; they lost to Dr Croke’s in their Lewis Road ground in 2018 by 21 points.

HISTORY REPEATING

That was a tough day because the Barrs had historically never had any difficulty in taking on Kerry opposition over the border. In their first Munster final appearance in 1976, the Barrs lost to Stacks in Tralee by just two points.

The Barrs didn’t play Kerry opposition in the 1979 and 1981 campaigns because Stacks and Gneeveguilla were beaten by Kilrush Shamrocks and Stradbally. But the Barrs took out Castleisland Desmonds in the 1982/83 Munster final after a replay.

The Barrs lost successive provincial finals to Castleisland in 1984 and 1985, but they rebounded off the ropes to win the 1986 Munster title, beating Stacks in the semi-final by six points in Austin Stack Park.

Prior to the 2018 hammering from Croke’s, the 1985 defeat to Castleisland was the only time that the Barrs were well beaten by Kerry opposition. When they played Dr Croke’s in the 1991 semi-final (in Ballincollig), the Barrs went down by just one point.

Their next Munster club experience in 2018 was a chastening one, but the manner of that away defeat also hardened the Barrs' conviction around making sure that they dictated the terms of choosing the venue this time around when they had the opportunity to do so. That was a statement of intent rather than an admission of fear, which many portrayed the decision to be.

And sticking to their guns offered further proof of how motivated and driven St Finbarr’s are to win this Munster title.

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