Gerry O’Connor: ‘We’re two cranky East Clare farmers’ sons’

It’s rarely been known to work. Certainly not in elite Gaelic games.

Gerry O’Connor: ‘We’re two cranky East Clare farmers’ sons’

Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes would argue they didn’t get enough of a chance to test that theory. Fergie O’Donnell didn’t stay around long enough to stick it out with Kevin McStay. The Frank Fitzsimons and Gearóid Adams combination hasn’t really worked in Antrim. Tony McEntee and Gareth O’Neill proved successful with Crossmaglen but Armagh have yet to come calling.

Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor, though? Theirs is a relationship that may just buck the trend. Already there are indications they could provide the type of dividend that made them such a supreme force at underage level.

Consensus is essential but given the demands on the position let alone those placed on them in their professional lives they find two heads are better than one.

“The reason it works is we actually wouldn’t be able to do the job if we didn’t do it the way we do it. We’ve a busy professional life,” says O’Connor.

“We don’t spend enough time in each other’s company to have a row, that’s probably the key difference. But we’ve got used to each other. We’re two cranky East Clare farmers’ sons, ultimately. We understand our strengths and weaknesses.

“I’m being a bit flippant there, but really the reason this works is we don’t look at ourselves as joint-manager. We’ve got seven guys in the management team and we manage through consensus. So that’s ultimately why this is a success. Everybody has a very clear and specific role. Once they actually understand their role and deliver on that role, it works really well.”

Keeping on Dónal Óg Cusack as coach/selector made sense for Moloney who works with him in medical devices and solution company Depuy Synthes in Ringaskiddy, Cusack the automation systems manager and Moloney the senior supply chain director.

O’Connor’s work as sales manager with Shannon-based rock-drilling engineering firm Mincon regularly takes him abroad. Their Initial Public Offering (IPO) in 2013 meant he had to break up his successful U21 relationship in 2014 before the offer of the senior job saw the band reform.

“I suppose I’ve a very understanding boss first of all, who’s a Canadian guy Bob Fassl. He started to take an interest in hurling since he moved here. I don’t think he really appreciated or anticipated the amount of time that was involved when I first had that discussion with him.

“But ultimately you see we train on a Tuesday night and we train on a Friday. So the window for travel is you possibly leave Caherlohan at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday evening and you drive to Dublin Airport, stay up in one of the hotels beside the airport and you fly out first thing Wednesday morning, you do whatever business you have to do in Europe and you fly back in on Friday and you’re back down here for training on Friday night.

“That might sound very challenging but those hours on a plane and those hours in a car give you an opportunity to actually think and to talk to people as well. Look, this is what we’ve always wanted. If you’ve any competitive streak in you, once you get involved in inter-county at underage level, you want to see can you actually get to the pinnacle of management within Clare.”

This is what he and Moloney always wanted but to say it was an ambition would be putting a bit strong.

“I’ve certainly been the most accidental coach or manager that you’ve ever met. I stopped hurling, I finished up playing Junior B and I bought myself a set of golf clubs, which are rusting by the way at the moment. I would have loved to (play) actually, because it’s a game that really challenges me. I love the game but I just don’t get to play it often enough.

“I played hurling all my life with Killanena but my club is Éire Óg because that’s where my kids grew up and that’s where they actually started going. In a real moment of weakness, I gave out to a guy called Jim Cooney one evening that things weren’t going as well as I thought they should have been. He said he’d sort it and he hauled me into Éire Óg to look after what was the U8’s at the time. The rest is where we are. It’s a strange story because at the time I got involved reluctantly, I’ll be perfectly honest with you. That was back in 1998.”

Like Mark Robins’ FA Cup goal in 1990 that saved Alex Ferguson, it was one score that set Clare on their way to an era of underage success: Tony Kelly’s last-gasp winner in the 2010 Munster minor play-off win over Tipperary.

O’Connor doesn’t deny that, although he smiles at Kelly’s recollection of it.

“The reality is we would never be in this position only for Tony Kelly won that puck-out and he’ll tell me to this day that he did look but I know he didn’t look and he just hit it over his shoulder and it went over the bar.

“It was a very funny story. We shouldn’t have been in a position to be over the Clare minors in 2010 because we did such a bad job in 2009. But I think there was a reluctance again for anyone else to take up the job. So we got it again in 2010 but we knew we had to change something. So we went about bringing in a really top class strength and conditioning coach.

“We found that in Paul Kinnerk but we also found out he was a top-class hurling coach. We prepared like no other Clare minor team did in 2010, went down to Waterford and promptly fell asunder and were beaten by six or seven points. Came back up and played Kerry, I think it was actually down in Ennis, beat them. It was three games in the space of seven or eight days.”

They nudged out Limerick in the semi-final before upsetting Waterford in the final.

Parents had to be persuaded that their boys’ Leaving Certificate studies wouldn’t suffer.

“This group of players had trained unbelievably. That was the one thing we learned from the previous year, you had to train right through the Leaving Cert, despite players’ parents thinking otherwise. We had to train.

“We bought the guys gloves, we did everything we could maybe to convince players there wasn’t going to be much contact. We definitely convinced their parents, there wasn’t going to be much contact. We got over the line against Waterford. But this journey started that night in Cusack Park against Tipperary and Tony Kelly’s point.”

Few other management teams could have placed so much pressure on their players to win a Munster semi-final but Moloney and O’Connor knew them so well they were able to lay it on the line for the panel and they themselves.

“Ultimately, we felt that what was going to define us as a management team for the year and what we were going to be judged on was the actual Munster championship semi-final,” O’Connor said.

“We’re in a competitive world; if I don’t perform in work, I get judged on results at work, Donal gets judged on results at work. Dónal Óg gets judged on results. So why would it be any different to shy away from that mentality in hurling?

“Rightly or wrongly, as a group we agreed the players’ record in Munster wasn’t fantastic over the last few years and we set about rectifying that. We spoke about it. We publicly and privately flagged it as a major gain for us because the opportunity was huge and the prize was massive.”

Even bigger tomorrow but as O’Connor and Moloney have demonstrated a challenge shared is a challenge halved.

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