Paul O'Keeffe: ‘I get the sense Barr’s players hungry for more’

Paul O'Keeffe, UCC. McGrath Cup Football Semi-Final, Tipperary v University College Cork, Clonmel Sportsfield, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

The role of St Finbarr’s senior football manager is one Paul O’Keeffe had his eye on for quite some time.

That the position became vacant towards the end of last year caught both himself and the club by surprise with Ray Keane deciding to step down less than two months after steering the Barr’s to a first Cork SFC title in 33 years.

O’Keeffe is honest enough to admit no club official approached him to succeed Keane. Rather, it was a case of putting his hand up to fill the post and those sat at the top table being satisfied with him assuming the reins.

Today, at Páirc Uí Rinn, and with Clyda Rovers in the opposition corner, O’Keeffe takes charge of the Barr’s for the first time in a championship game.

“It is something I always wanted to do, it was a life ambition for me was to have a go off doing the Barr’s. I tried a couple of times, but with club politics and all the rest of it meant that it just didn’t work out. I put my head on the chopping block [a few months back] and it worked out nicely,” said O’Keeffe.

It is a tougher role than normal to step in. With a championship crown comes added pressure and expectation. The club has reached the last two county finals, losing the first before winning silverware five months ago, and so anything less than a third successive final appearance means the season will have been a disappointing one.

“Ray hasn’t set the bar half high enough for me,” laughs O’Keeffe.

“I couldn’t speak highly enough of him, bringing a county back to the Barr’s after that length of time. That was a phenomenal achievement.

“I was in the background a small bit last year as the medic. You could see the drive in the lads, the togetherness and will to win was phenomenal. “They left no stone unturned and it was just great to see it, great to get over the line.

“I have a bag full of county losing medals. Even though you played with great Barr’s teams and seen great Barr’s teams over the last 30 years, it is kind of hard to put your finger on why it didn’t happen. But Ray managed to do it.”

He added: “There is a lot of potential in this team and looking at our underage structure, it is important for us to press home any advantage that we might have. If you have a good team, that passes very quickly. My philosophy is that you’d like to squeeze as much out of it as you possibly can.

It is important when you get a chance that you maximise it.

Castlehaven may have successfully retained the Andy Merrigan Cup in 2013, but outside of serial winners Nemo Rangers, you’d have to go all the way back to Duhallow in 1991 to find the next side who managed back-to-back titles.

It may be early doors where their 2019 season is concerned, but thus far, O’Keeffe is more than content with what he has seen from a group of men who pocketed a county senior medal last October. He doesn’t believe they will be satisfied with just the one.

Their Division 1 league form, certainly, isn’t suggestive of a side carrying a hangover from last year - the Barr’s, despite being without their Cork players for the majority of games, sit top of the table.

“I get the feeling the players are still really hungry for more. The attitude has been good. But look, when the rubber hits the road and you are heading for county quarters, semis, and final, that is when you know whether the hunger is really there or not.

“You might think we are going okay and the attitude is good, but [hunger] is hard to define. You’d hope it is still there. There are a lot of good leaders in the team and hopefully, they will drive it on.

“The championship is almost two-phase. You focus on getting over the first round and, then, see what the summer brings because if you lose your first round, you don’t know when you are going to be playing. That brings uncertainty into the mix and you don’t want that.”

This may be his first championship game as Barr’s head honcho, but O’Keeffe is not a novice in the Bainisteoir’s bib at this level and was the man in charge when UCC claimed county football championship honours back in 2011. A selector under Billy Morgan where the Sigerson Cup is concerned, he stepped up to the main role when it came to the Cork SFC.

“I’ve been involved in Sigerson for the bones of 10 years. I was involved with Billy and if you can’t learn from him, you’re in the wrong business. Billy is excellent at man-management. His honesty with players is fantastic. That is something you’d be hoping you’d be able to translate into the Barr’s situation. Nemo might not like to hear that, but that cannot be helped!”

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