Subscriber OnlyGaelic Games

From Maltesers to lucky underpants - the superstitious piseogs entrenched in Kerry football

‘Páidí had us all f**cked up really with piseogs...we had no chance back here, we were bate from the outset’

On All-Ireland final mornings, Pat Spillane would leave the Kerry team hotel in Malahide, stroll the short distance to the newsagent, and buy two packets of Maltesers.

Before games, Darragh Ó Sé would always make sure to put on his left boot before his right. And he’d ensure the two players flanking him in the dressing room would be the same men who had sat next to him all season.

Piseogs are certainly not confined to Kerry, there are as many traditional superstitions populating parishes right across the country as there are GAA clubs, but few places embrace the spirit of piseogs quite like the Kingdom.

“Páidí had us all f**cked up really with piseogs,” smiles Darragh. “We had no chance back here, we were bate from the outset.”


The former Kerry midfielder recalls the regular ruse he would embark upon of a match weekend, leaving his house in Tralee to drive the hour back down the road to Ventry, where he would immediately hop in the car with Páidí Ó Se, his uncle and then Kerry manager, to repeat the trip back up the road to meet the rest of the squad.

“In the days when Páidí was driving us, we’d have to leave Ventry together. And when you’d meet up with the boys in Killarney for the train they might ask, ‘Where did you come from today?’

“‘Oh, I came with Páidí, I happened to be back there so I came up with him.’ The lads wouldn’t be aware I’d spent the morning driving back from Tralee first.

“It wasn’t something you talked about, you kept it to yourself because you were probably a bit embarrassed, but then with Páidí always going on about piseogs we were kind of outed early, I suppose. We were the first to come out!”

But not the last. There are no walls with superstitions, folk are free to embrace or dismiss whatever habit or routine works for them – counting magpies, avoiding ladders, always picking the same lucky numbers in the lotto (though strangely never winning). Still, the week you change tack is the week those darn numbers would come up, so best to stick with them.

But what’s in a number anyhow? Nothing and everything, depending on what stock you want to give it.

It came up in Kerry last week when the sharp-eyed Adam Moynihan of the Kerry Football Podcast highlighted that Paudie Clifford, the Kerry captain this year, made his first starting appearance of the season wearing number 10.

Paudie wore the number 13 jersey in the 2022 and 2023 All-Ireland finals, and while that has been the number most associated with him during the business end of the season he has also togged wearing 15, 12 and 10 in championship football.

For some in Kerry there remains a piseog around the number 13 because no player wearing it has captained them to All-Ireland success.

Let’s call a spade a shovel, even while wearing 13 Paudie Clifford’s most effective role for Kerry has never been as a corner forward. He will almost certainly be operating from half-forward this year – so chances are Paudie wouldn’t be wearing 13 anyhow, captain or not. But the fact he was number 10 last week adds to the lore around the tale for now. It could all change very quickly.

Colm Cooper was the last 13 to captain Kerry – and the Gooch went close to ending all the noise around the number in 2011 only for Dublin to edge that All-Ireland final.

It’s only a thing until it’s not. It only matters if you allow it to matter. A player with 13 on their back will eventually lift Sam Maguire.

Cooper came closest in 2006 when he deputised as captain for Declan O’Sullivan until the final. O’Sullivan won back his place for the decider against Mayo, captained the team to victory, but then invited Cooper up to the podium to join him for the Sam Maguire presentation.

“Everybody has piseogs, I was the ultimate man for piseogs,” says Spillane. “But there are so many stats and gurus around now you could get figures for anything you want.

“On the law of averages, more right-footed players have captained Kerry to an All-Ireland than left-footed players, so does that mean you shouldn’t make a left-footer captain?”

Spillane wore number 15 when he won his first All-Ireland final in 1975, but thereafter he became a familiar figure in 12.

“The number thing never really dawned on me,” he continues. “But everybody had their routine, all the All-Ireland finals for us, they were like Groundhog Day – it was Malahide, The Grand Hotel, it was the walk along the beach at night.

“The next morning I’d go out to get my Maltesers, I always had them before All-Ireland finals because I felt they gave me loads of energy.”

After eight All-Ireland medals and nine All Stars, Wada should consider adding Maltesers to its prohibited list.

Like so many players, past and present, Spillane liked to sit in the same spot in the dressing room – while he also aimed to be second or third out of the tunnel. He also had a preference for where to position himself for the team photo. None of the above are exclusive to him, of course.

As for boots, local cobbler Austin Kelly was Spillane’s secret weapon, the shoemaker carrying out regular maintenance.

“Austin was my lucky charm,” continues Spillane. “He put patches on my boots, there would be so many patches I swear a charity shop wouldn’t take them off you, but they were your lucky boots and you couldn’t change them in the middle of the season.”

Páidí, though, was bedevilled by piseogs. Inevitably his preoccupation with them chiselled out many stories.

On arriving in Dublin on the night before the 1985 All-Ireland final, he discovered his lucky underpants were not in his gear bag.

“I had worn them in each of my previous six winning All-Ireland finals and I was absolutely convinced that if I didn’t wear them we wouldn’t win the final again,” he recalled many years later.

The yarn goes that Páidí's mam got in touch with Charlie Haughey, who agreed to have a car dispatched to Heuston Station the following morning to collect Páidí's pants from the train and deliver them to Croke Park. Páidí captained Kerry to beat Dublin later that day.

“You’d be in the car going somewhere with Páidí and suddenly he’d see a magpie,” remembers Darragh.

“‘F*ck, isn’t that hard luck now’, Páidí would sigh. Then, no matter where you were meant to be going, he’d turn the car around and say, ‘Where there’s one there’s always more.’ You could then be driving around the country for ages looking for these magpies.”

It wasn’t just the Ó Sé household, of course.

“In terms of myself, I also had to go to mass on a Sunday morning before games,” continues Darragh.

“In the latter years of my career I used to travel to games with Kieran Donaghy, we’d leave Tralee together. I’d collect Kieran from his grandmother’s house, a lovely woman, and we’d get the holy water there as well. By the time we left Tralee we were drowned in holy water.

“Because if you did something once and you won, you had to keep doing it.”

Paudie Clifford’s first media outing as captain was at Kerry’s pre-league event in January. The piseog around the number 13 came up but he batted it away.

“I’ve been asked the question a few times about a jersey number, but Jack and the lads will decide that,” he said.

Paudie wore 10 against Mayo last week. His brother, David, was 13. During the two years David captained Kerry (2020, 2023), he wore number 14.

Of course, the traditional system in Kerry of selecting a county captain significantly alters the landscape in the Kingdom as regards who will be handed the honour. But that’s another debate altogether.

What’s for certain is that in Croke Park on Saturday evening every player will have their own routine, their own particular way of lacing boots, their own habits and superstitions.

“You never probably realised it at the time when you were playing, but nearly everybody in the dressing room had something going on,” says Spillane. “There were the lads who sat quietly in the corner, other lads who’d be jumping up and down, lads who did the shouting, lads who spent 10 minutes in the toilet before going out – all of those were sort of individual piseogs.”

And sure everybody knows it’s good luck to read a piece about piseogs on the last Saturday of February, in a year that ends with a four.

It guarantees another Kerry-Dublin classic tonight.

Touch wood.

  • See our new project Common Ground, Evolving Islands: Ireland & Britain
  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here
Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times