Jack O’Connor admits he still harbours aspirations of taking charge of Kerry for a third time.
O’Connor is expected to remain at the helm in Kildare in 2022 but acknowledged that returning to the post he vacated in 2012 attracts him.
“Of course, there is an allure there,” he told Paul Rouse on the Irish Examiner football podcast. “Who doesn’t want to coach Man United? There is that allure because of the tradition.
“It’s how much it means to people down here. You meet women on the street, they mightn’t have gone to the game but they want to talk about the game. It’s everything down here. You can’t escape from it down there. Any pocket in the county you go to, they want to talk football so it’s all-consuming. Sure, it’s an absolute joy when you win but a lonely, dark place when you don’t.”
O’Connor readily concedes managing Kildare as he has done the past two seasons is a much different posting compared to Kerry. “Look, the Kerry gig is a fantastic job. It’s a very challenging job but would you want to be anywhere else in many ways because the tradition is here, everything is built towards the Kerry senior football team, the players are coming through. If you want an easy life, you go coach somewhere else.
“It is a very tough environment. I keep telling people this - I’m not bragging, I’m just giving you facts - in my first four years coaching Kerry were '04, '05, '06 and '09, I won three leagues, three Munster championships, three All-Irelands, I got the height of abuse. That’s a fact.”
O’Connor knows in part how his fellow South Kerry man Peter Keane is feeling right now as he contemplates a second successive disappointing championship exit.
“It’s a lonely place because winner takes all. We can be a little bit critical of tactics and this and that, at the end of the day Tyrone got two goals that were quite fortuitous. Kerry had opportunities to kick points, they went for goals. They had four goal chances and got none.”
He continued: “it’s a tough station. Kerry people are very critical, very unforgiving. What you have to realise down here is everybody has an opinion. I’ve been up in Kildare the last couple of years and even when we were in the Leinster I was saying to myself , ‘Do people actually know the game is on?’ You could walk the street and you wouldn’t be sure that there was a game on.
“It’s a religion down here. Kerry people are desperate for this team to win an All-Ireland. On all known tradition, they should be winning an All-Ireland because they won five (All-Ireland) minors in a row, a couple of standout players like David Clifford, Seánie O’Shea, Gavin White. They’re (the squad) a good age now. That team has to win an All-Ireland, that team has to win maybe a couple of All-Irelands. That brings its own pressure but it’s a great environment to be coaching in.”
To give a “pivot” outlet for kicks from the half-forward line, O’Connor believes O’Shea will have to be restored to his most natural position of centre-forward next year while he believes one or two more workmanlike forwards will be required to flank him.
“Paul Geaney in his heyday was a good corner-forward stroke full-forward. He played in the half-forward line the last day. I couldn’t see the logic in that, to be honest with you. I don’t think he has the engine for that type of middle third action. I don’t think Kerry positioned their forwards as well as they could have.
“The game now is all about the middle third, the type of players you play in the middle third. Compare the engines Tyrone had in the middle third to Kerry. The Conor Meylers, the Peter Hartes, the Kieran McGearys, the Franks Burnses, the Niall Sluddens. Their half-backs and half-forwards are completely interchangeable and that’s the way the game is gone.
“Don’t tell me Kerry don’t have scoring forwards. I think the real issue is those middle third players who are prepared to sacrifice their game up and down the field. Peter Harte, the block he made on Killian Spillane, if he’s not there that’s a goal. They’re as important as goals at they got up the other end.”
O’Connor likened Kerry’s difficulty to post 2003 when he introduced Paul Galvin to the half-forward line. “Kerry had lovely decorative forwards. I remember looking at the Tyrone-Kerry game from 2003 and I knew straight away Kerry are going to have to get a different kind of player. This is where the Paul Galvins, the Aidan O’Mahonys, the William Kirbys and those type of players with big engines, big hearts who could put in big hits. That’s where Kerry are at the moment. You won’t get away with six decorative forwards.”