Buckley’s tour de force comes full circle

17 days ago, Donie Buckley turned the car and headed north from Ennis. Like he had done for the five previous years.

Former Mayo forward Alan Freeman’s father, Tom, had passed away and he wanted to pay his respects.

There he met some of James Horan’s current panel who too had come to support for their old team-mate.

The chat was genuine and warm. It didn’s matter that they would cross swords three nights later in Tralee.

In fact, Buckley didn’t share the sideline with Peter Keane that evening. It being Mayo and being so personal, he sensed he would be better off in the stand.

“He gets awfully worked up during games,” laughs Marc Ó Sé, who played under him in 2011 and ‘12.

“His best work is done on the training field. On the day of the game, he would nearly be on the field playing with you.”

Although he tried his damndest to engineer Kerry’s downfall in 2014, and succeeded in doing so alongside Stephen Rochford three years later, there isn’t a doubt about Buckley’s allegiance to his native county now that he is back involved.

It’s just he can’t but immerse himself with the players he mentors.

“The thing with Donie is he builds up such a relationship with the players,” remarks Ó Sé.

“There has to be a trust between the players and the coach and that’s why when Horan went (Noel) Connelly and (Pat) Holmes stuck with Donie because the players wanted him to stay.

"And it was the same when Stephen Rochford came in. The bond was still there and Rochford was clever as were Connelly and Holmes not to jeopardise that.

“I know it’s already the same with the Kerry team; they’ve already built up a relationship with him. He was late coming back to them after his usual time away in America and now he’s running sessions with Tommy (Griffin) and Peter Keane. He’s very much hands-on.”

Ó Sé recalls how Buckley worked one-on-one with him. “After a training game in Fitzgerald Stadium, Donie came in and I’d have been marking Gooch and he said, ‘Did you notice anything you were doing wrong?’ I said, ‘I might have had my back to the play,’ and he said, ‘Yeah and I’ll show you a video the next night exactly what I’m talking about’.

“We met then in the Aghadoe Heights (Hotel) half an hour before training and he’d show a clip of the play developing out the field and me with my back to the play.

He’d say, ‘How can you beat Andy Moran if you can’t even see when the ball is coming?’ His attention to detail to the little things was huge. He’d say then, ‘When you’re marking Gooch tonight I want you to keep side to side with him so you have one eye on him but the other on the play coming in’.

“That’s just a defender - he’d be able to talk to the forwards the same way and how to get away from a back. He’d be forever thinking and talking to players is his gift.

"The relationship he builds up, can you imagine the trust I had in him after conversations like that? I was thinking, ‘Here’s a guy who has your back, who’s looking after you and seeing your weaknesses and what you have to improve on’.

“He’s very much into the videos. If you want to explain something to someone, it can be difficult to explain but if you can show where they are going wrong it’s there. He taught me a lot about coaching players, the amount you’d learn from him.”

Buckley’s known for making an art form of the tackle but Ó Sé’s point about the Castleisland man’s preference for clips is well made.

He would have stationed cameras in places like Croke Park before other teams cottoned onto the benefits of side-on views on specific areas of the field and behind the goal vantage points.

By the end of Rochford’s reign, Buckley was doing most of the video analysis on top of his coaching.

How he explains drills to players by simply doing them is a large part of his charm.

“We might have gone in on a Tuesday night and done a drill and then you’d come in on a Thursday and that drill would evolve with another part of it,” says Ó Sé. “I found him outstanding.”

At times, the advice of Strength and Conditioning coaches would have been considered more than heeded; if he felt a tough session was required he ensured it would happen. An ability to adapt sessions to accommodate for last-minute cry-offs is also valued as an asset of his.

Before Rochford stepped away, there were strong indications the prophet would again have honour in his own land. With Jack O’Connor, he departed in 2012 having seen his responsibilities limited that season.

“The first year he was in with us,” remembers Ó Sé, “he had kind of free reign in training and Jack allowed him to take charge and then Jack would take charge with the football.

“Then for some reason in 2012 that wasn’t the case. It’s no coincidence in 2011 that Bryan Sheehan and Darran O’Sullivan won their All-Stars that year and Darran was close to footballer of the year. It was an exceptional year for them.

"I don’t necessarily think it was Jack’s fault because he and Donie seemed to have a great relationship. Unless there were others in the management that weren’t happy, I don’t know.

He’s a bit of a rogue, he’s young at heart. He was very popular among our group and we were sad to see him go in 2012. I’m not blaming Jack but he certainly didn’t have the same role he had in 2012 as he did the previous year. It’s great to see him back in again because he’s only going to do good things with Kerry.

After Eamonn Fitzmaurice quit last July, those, including Keane, hoping to succeed him were advised to have Buckley on their ticket.

It’s believed it took some time before Buckley’s brief in the current Kerry set-up was made clear. Determined not to suffer as he did seven years ago, some clearing of the air was required before he formally returned home.

Given the winning combination Keane had with ex-kery minor selectors Griffin and James Foley, it was understandable that there had to be a settling-in period but the demarcation lines are clear now.

Ó Sé looks at how Kerry have conceded 35 points less this spring than time this last year and knows Buckley’s fingerprints are evident.

“I’m not giving him all the credit because Peter and the rest of the management share the responsibility but conceding 6-17 less this year is massive.

“People talk about Kerry and say they have great forwards but they have to work on their backs and midfield but to say they have conceded 6-17 less shows they’re working better as a unit.

"They still have work in the full-back line where they were exposed against Dublin at times by (Paul) Mannion and Mayo so they have work to do but it’s a lot more positive than last year.”

Buckley’s obsessiveness is only toustripped by his reluctance to be front of house. Mayo players recall winning Connacht finals and looking for him in the dressing room only to hear that their coach had already changed into his clothes and left with the crowd. A touch of Dwyer in that.

His appearance at the Sigerson Cup final in Portlaoise last month might have been ascribed to maintaining a watching brief on Kerry panellists like Brian Ó Beaglaoich, Conor Geaney, Seánie O’Shea, Graham O’Sullivan and Killian Spillane.

As it turned out, Billy Morgan had brought him in to conduct a few training sessions with the students. A players’ manager commissioning a players’ coach.

Those closest to Buckley reckon tomorrow might be a wrench for him - “I’d say he’s pissed off Mayo are in the final but then he might say, ‘Feck it, it’s a League final,” says one pal.

Mayo winning an All-Ireland would delight Buckley but after coming away empty-handed four times in September, not at the expense of his native heath.

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