Former Doheny player hoping to strike gold with Dr Crokes footballers
MIKE Milner’s grasp of the Kerry language and its sometimes challenging place names is impressive.
Just a couple of minutes into our conversation on Monday evening, the former Doheny rattles ‘Gneeveguilla’ off his tongue better than most locals.
He drops the ‘v’ in its pronunciation, like many locally do, but perhaps that not’s surprising as his wife, Mags Kelleher, is from Rathmore, next-door neighbours of Gneeveguilla and sworn enemies on the football field.
He had heard all about Gneeveguilla long before he played them.
Last weekend, Mike played wing back on the Dr Crokes team that beat Gneeveguilla 2-13 to 0-9 in an O’Donoghue Cup (East Kerry championship) semi-final, and kept the Killarney club on course for a trophy-landed end to the season.
Crokes will play either his wife’s native Rathmore or Spa in the divisional final – but that’s a battle for another day, as Mike is currently on a collision course with a West Cork team he knows pretty well.
This Sunday, Dr Crokes entertain Loughmore-Castleiney of Tipperary in a Munster senior club championship semi-final in Killarney at 2pm, and at the same time over 80 kilometres away, Carbery Rangers face The Nire of Waterford in the other semi-final.
The general feeling is that we’re looking at a Crokes v Ross Munster final on November 27th.
If that does come to pass, then former Doheny clubman Mike will come up against some very familiar faces – including his cousin Ronan Milner, sub goalkeeper for Ross.
Not only that, but the current Killarney Garda won a county senior title with the Carbery team in 2004, alongside a number of Carbery Rangers players.
‘John Hayes, Seamus Hayes, Kevin MacMahon, Eugene Murphy, Micheál O’Sullivan, they were all on that team. I was only a young fella at the time, only 18, and John Hayes and myself were both Cork minors that year,’ Mike (30) recalled.
‘It’s ironic that my next senior county title came 12 years later in Kerry and it was the same for the Ross lads winning in Cork.
‘My cousin Johnny Murphy is heavily involved with Ross and he was captain when they won the county intermediate title and went on to win the All-Ireland, and another cousin Ronan is the sub goalkeeper now so that adds a bit of spice!’
He could be the answer to a pub table quiz question around Dunmanway this Christmas: name the former underage Cork footballer who has won senior county football titles in both Cork and Kerry?
As we already learned, Mike won a Cork SFC crown back in 2004 with Carbery, and this year he came on as a sub in the final as Dr Crokes defeated the Kenmare divisional team 2-16 to 1-12 in Fitzgerald Stadium on the same October Sunday that Carbery Rangers ended their long wait for a senior championship.
Mike is in his third season with Dr Crokes, having transferred from Dohenys for the 2014 season and having lived and worked in Killarney for the past six years.
At the time he transferred to Crokes, his then-girlfriend Mags was pregnant with their son Ryan (3), who is already a familiar face at the Crokes’ Lewis Road headquarters for U4 training on a Saturday morning, with current Crokes senior boss (and Mike’s manager) and former Kerry manager Pat O’Shea in charge of the underage section.
‘I made a conscious decision to start a life here in Killarney – and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made,’ Mike said.
‘I knew Alan O’Sullivan, who had transferred to Crokes from Tuosist the previous year so I asked him what he thought about transferring to the club – and he gave me the thumbs up.’
Coming from West Cork into a team that had dominated the Kerry county championship, winning senior titles from 2010 through to ’13 was a daunting challenge for this Ballinacarriga man – and he admits that some people thought he would only be a fringe player.
‘When I came down first I knew it would be very hard to break into the team because it’s a team of stars, which it is – seven were on the Kerry senior panel this year and lots more are former Kerry seniors, U21s and minors,’ Mike explained.
‘When I joined first, fellas were saying to me that I wouldn’t get game time, that I might get a few minutes in the county league, that I would never get to play championship – but I always knew that if I trained hard then anything would be possible.
‘In my first year I broke onto the team and played every championship game that year. I got an injury in August that year but I came back, and I came on in the club final against Legion. It was great for me to break into the team after people doubted that I would get on.
‘Last year we lost to Rathmore in the county quarter-final and I played every championship game that season, and this season after I went in with the Kerry hurlers (more of that soon) I got very fit, got a place on the Crokes team and I held it throughout the season – but I got injured against Austin Stacks in the club final.
‘I missed a few weeks then and found it hard to get back in, with so much talent in the team. I have been coming on in every game since, and it was great to play in the Munster championship for the first time against Kilmurry-Ibrickane last week.
Mike added: ‘I started wing-back last weekend in the O’Donoghue Cup against Gneeveguilla so I’m pushing for a starting place for this weekend (against Loughmore-Castleiney).’
‘I’m not just saying it – but the standard of football is higher here in Kerry than in Cork,’ Mike argued – and few doubt him.
‘Kerry people are stone mad about their football, when you’re living in the middle of it you can appreciate that more. There’s little to choose between the club teams in Kerry, I remember in Cork being on the end of a couple of wallopings but there’s less between the sides in Kerry.’
One of the reasons Mike is enjoying life with Dr Crokes so much won’t surprise anyone: he gets to train and play with top-class players like Colm Cooper.
‘Eight All-Stars, five All-Ireland medals, he’s on a different level to any footballer I have ever seen. He’s gifted,’ Mike said.
‘He is always thinking and from what I see in training, he is thinking 30, 40 seconds ahead of anyone else. If you give him the ball he rarely gives it away – that’s why we try to get him on the ball as much as we can.
‘He’s been excellent the last few games, he’s controlling games, everything goes through him.’
If both Crokes and Ross adhere to the script this Sunday, then West Cork football fans will also get the chance to catch Gooch on a good day quite soon.
Mike is making headlines for his football exploits now but at the start of the year, this dual player garnered a lot of attention when he made his debut for the Kerry hurlers in the Munster Senior Hurling League.
The son of Jerry and Bernadette, and brother to Daniel, Dermot and Rebecca always wanted to play inter-county, and he always thought it would be with Cork.
But life decided differently.
‘Growing up all I ever wanted to do was play for Cork,’ he said.
‘I was a Cork minor footballer, an U21 and I had a few trials with the seniors as well, and all I wanted to do was play inter-county and play at the highest standard.
‘I went in with Kerry last November after I got the phone call off (then manager) Ciarán Carey. I am 30 years old now and the last time I played for Cork was with the U21 team in 2005 and we won the Munster championship that year – that was the last medal I won.
‘It was great to get the chance to play inter-county again and it was a no-brainer for me, I had to take it.
‘I’ve got the call to go back in there again for next year and I will go in again. I’ll commit for another year. We have the rest of our life to be drinking pints, so I’ll have another cut off it.
‘Transferring to Killarney just opened the door for so many opportunities – the chance to play with Dr Crokes, the chance to see a different style of football and how the game is interpreted down here, the chance to play inter-county hurling and to make some good friends down here as well.
‘It was a great move for me,’ Mike added, and what would make it even better is a Munster club final against Carbery Rangers at the end of the month.