So, is this year all about winning for the Kerry minor manager?
“The cop-out for managers when they don’t win an All-Ireland is that ‘well, look, we have brought through a few players’. I think it is important to do both. Nothing succeeds like success. That’s an auld cliché, I know, but success makes you ravenous for more success.”
O’Connor has now been involved at all inter-county levels with the Kingdom and is well placed to understand what underage success brings.
“I keep going back to the 1990s — when I was involved in the Kerry U21s — when we really had five top class U21 teams in a row. We reached four All-Irelands, we won three of them. That period backboned Kerry for ten years. That was also on top of winning in the 1994 All-Ireland minor. So, we won a minor in 1994; an U21 in ’95, ’96 and ’98, as well as reaching a final in 1999. It was five or six years in a row where you had serious players coming through.”
He continued: “Young fellas have a lot of choices these days and they can easily go one way or the other, especially when they are 18, 19 and 20. If they get that feeling of winning early that will drive them on to greater heights. Dublin have had that recently.
“I think it is absolutely critical that Kerry start winning at minor and U21 level. The great side that reached six All-Ireland finals in a row [2004-2009], the vast majority of them are moving on and we now need new guys coming through that have tasted success. If you win underage it gives you the confidence to go on and win at senior.”
O’Connor is approaching high noon in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday with relish. He views the 12pm throw-in as a “factor, no doubt” purely because some of his players will have to get up at the “dawn of day”. However, he knows his side can also go for broke.
“We can have a right go as there is that safety valve, or parachute, of the back-door. It’s a good enough position to be in.”
The Kerry players were on a high in April/May — backboned by the Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne (PCD) Hogan Cup winners. Then the Leaving Cert intervened and O’Connor, the teacher, and now, the manager, had to deal with a different examination.
“There was great momentum and the PCD lads were on a high, and they brought that into the squad. That stood to us in the first couple of games, but that’s in the past. We now go on what we see inside in training now, what a fella did six weeks ago is no good to us. We need to see it happening now.”
His side experienced two convincing wins over Clare (2-16 to 0-7) and in May against Tipperary (2-18 to 0-7). O’Connor now wants his young men to reignite their season.
“I wouldn’t say we are at the same pitch that we were around the time of the Tipperary game. We are hoping the occasion will bring it out of us and we will get up to the level that we need to be at. We have to get up to a very good level to beat Cork.”
As Munster champions, Kerry can call on half a dozen men tracing familiar steps.
“The biggest help is that fellas have been through the mill. The likes of Spillane [Killian], Burns [Micheál] and Ryan [Shane] — they help to steady fellas down when the going gets tough, that’s a help.”
Burns recently starred for Dr Crokes kicking 0-5 in a County SFC win over Kenmare District while Spillane — Tom’s son — kicked 0-10 in that win over Tipperary. He knows they will be marked men on Sunday.
He’s also well aware of Cork strengths citing, in particular, their size around midfield. He was also involved with Coláiste na Sceilge this year when Michael Hurley — in the colour of St Fachtna’s — did a number on his side. Hurley kicked 1-2 in Kenmare to knock O’Connor’s school out of the Corn Uí Mhuirí.
“I was prophesying then that he [Hurley] would be following his brother into the seniors very soon. He is an exceptional player with a lot of pace, power and scoring ability.
“We are expecting a huge test from the Cork forwards as a whole. They have some serious forwards and we know we will come up against a calibre of forward that we have not met before. Our backs are going to have to be on their toes.”
One last question: is he laying a foundation for future Kerry teams?
“The best foundation that you can lay is to get a group that can win and bring that winning mentality with them. I feel this is a good group. I am not saying we will win an All-Ireland or anything but we will be very competitive.”
He may feel as if he is labouring the point, but he’s only starting that foundation.