Thursday, January 21, 2021

In this week’s Kildare Nationalist Sport we feature the second in our Heroes of the Past series – Larry Stanley of Blacktrench, Caragh and Kildare. 

By Richard Commins

CONSIDERING this newspaper described Larry Stanley in 1970 as the “greatest footballer ever to wear the Kildare jersey”, it’s remarkable to find that the legendary Blacktrench-born Garda pulled on that shirt just 18 times in a Lilywhite career that spanned 16 years from 1916 to 1932.

Stanley, you see, wasn’t just one of the most sporting and gifted footballers the game has ever seen. He was a talented athlete, who won both the British and Irish high jump championships and became the first Irishman to wear the country’s colours at an Olympic Games when representing us in Paris in 1924.

There was also the small matter of a dalliance with Dublin, with whom he won an All-Ireland senior medal in 1924, and a suspension for playing soccer with Belfast Celtic which ruffled a few GAA feathers in the county but Stanley remained fiercely loyal and his keen interest in Kildare football despite living in Dublin most of his life shone through in later interviews.

His house in Rathmines was named ‘Caragh’ after his home parish.

He came back to play for the short grass county, starring in the 1926 All Ireland final and replay against Kerry although he missed out on the triumphant campaigns of 1927 and 1928 when concentrating again on athletics.

Back he came to play a key role in the 1930 Leinster final against Meath (scoring 1-2) and repeated that tally in the shock All Ireland semi-final defeat to Monaghan. Stanley eventually retired at the age of 36 after the 1932 Leinster campaign.

Larry was a midfielder with outstanding aerial ability, no surprise given his athletic prowess, and perfected a one-handed catch technique that astounded onlookers and opponents. But he wasn’t just an athlete. In his later Kildare days, he was a half-forward with unerring free-taking and passing ability.

In his own words, from an interview with the Sunday Independent after becoming only the second gaelic footballer to win a Texaco Hall of Fame award in 1970:

“I had the natural spring of a high-jumper and I could clear over six feet, this obviously gave me a big advantage at midfield. I was also quick off the mark having won several prizes over 100 yards, but more than anything else I spent a great deal of time perfecting ball control.”

Indeed, elder brother Jim recalls him endlessly aiming balls at a bucket suspended from the roof of the family home, gradually moving further out as he became proficient at each distance.

A traditionalist at heart, he was a strong proponent of “catch and kick” football, despite Kildare being renowned for their introduction of the handpass to the game in those days.

“I never believed in the solo run. Once the ball was in my possession my immediate objective was to kick the ball to an unmarked teammate. I was very annoyed if the ball did not go exactly where I intended.”

Even in 1970 he foresaw the game going in a way that didn’t appeal to someone renowned for his sportsmanship.

“I think it (solo running) should be done away with. This is one area of gaelic football which more than any other produces so much fouling. Fouling is ruining gaelic football and it must be stopped. I just don’t know how so much pulling and dragging developed, but it strikes me that so many players and officials are lacking in sportsmanship.”

Larry wouldn’t be a fan of breaking ball at midfield either.

“That is a sure sign of inefficiency. If you persisted in that in my day you would have been dropped.”

Stanley was born in Blacktrench, near Naas on 19 May 1896, the son of John Stanley and Jane Keogh. He first came to prominence with the newly-formed Blacktrench club, a fore-runner to the Raheens of today, when he lined out with brothers Jim and Mick in the Junior Championship of 1914.

They won that title two years later and by now Larry had progressed from the Kildare Junior team to a senior bow in the Leinster Final of that year, lining out at corner forward in a defeat to Wexford.

Blacktrench merged with Caragh after just one year at senior level and the new club went on to reach five successive county finals with the Stanleys joining up with defender Mick Buckley (grandfather of Nuxer) from the Caragh side of the arrangement to form a formidable outfit that brought the trophy to the parish in 1918 and 1919.

At county level, Stanley’s desire for perfection was evident in early 1919 when, as captain he wrote to the Leinster Leader complaining about a lack of training and practice matches. Joe McDonald, the highly-regarded Naas trainer was duly brought in and Kildare went on to win the All-Ireland with a dominant performance against Galway in the final, winning 2-5 to 0-1.

Stanley had earlier starred in the Leinster Final against Dublin where he nullified their big star Paddy McDonnell, making great use of his famous spring and one-handed catch.

Apart from Buckley, Stanley was joined on that 1919 team by his brother Jim, although therein lies a story. Jim was training to be a priest and in those days that precluded him from playing sport. The name J. “Reilly” would become a regular feature on Kildare teams. Imagine a player nowadays lining out in an All-Ireland final under a pseudonym!

In 1922, Larry took up the high jump on the suggestion of a friend and despite weighing in at over 12 stone he soon mastered the art of jumping over 6 feet.

Stanley was at the peak of his powers in 1924 and wrote his name into sporting legend with his achievements in famous stadia such as Stamford Bridge, Wembley Stadium and the Stade Olympique de Colombes in Paris.

He won the Irish high jump title with a leap of 6’2” and after winning an event at the newly-opened Wembley, he added the British title at Stamford Bridge. Those national titles qualified him for the Olympics in July.

He jumped 6 feet, just missing out on the final but learned greatly from the experience and in the Tailteann Games held in Croke Park later that summer, Stanley went head-to-head in a jump-off with Olympic champion Harold Osborne of the USA. A tremendous battle enthralled the crowd with Osborne just out-jumping the Kildare man, who reached 6’3”.

That incredible year ended with Stanley, now living in the capital, accepting an invitation from the O’Toole’s club to play in the delayed 1923 final against Kerry on 28 September 1924. Stanley lined out in a forward line that included fellow Kildaremen Frank Burke from Carbury and Joe Stynes from Newbridge. The latter, a member of the IRA, had missed the previous year’s final as he was interned at the Curragh Camp. Dublin beat a young Kerry side to clinch a three-in-a-row.

After another Irish high jump title in 1925 (on a day when he won silver in the long jump, triple jump and javelin for good measure), Larry returned to the Kildare fold the following year for the championship as the Short Grass men embarked on a run of six Leinster titles and five All Ireland final appearances over the next six years.

Stanley starred in both games of the 1926 final, particularly the drawn game when he scored three of Kildare’s six points but Kerry edged out the replay, having seemingly targeted him for special treatment. Bill “Squires” Gannon said after the game that “Larry had such a brilliant game the first day that the Kerry plan seemed to be to stop him at all costs.”

Although Stanley came back in 1930 and 1932, he couldn’t add to his two All-Ireland medals. After retirement, he retained a great interest in Kildare football and trained the Ballymore team to their only senior title in 1953 with his nephew Jim Clarke scoring the winning goal against Carbury.

He was named on the Kildare Team of the Century (though his positioning at left-half-back is a strange one), and apart from his Texaco Award in 1970 he was also the first footballer to be awarded the GAA’s All-Time All-Star Award in 1980.

In existence over a fifteen-year period the award went to the greatest footballers to play the game before the inception of the annual All Stars, with such luminaries as Tommy Murphy, Peter McDermott and Seán Purcell following in Stanley’s wake.

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