So Jack is back. At the top end of the management ticket, the Dromid man offers Kerry football what neither of the alternatives could – All-Ireland winning experience.
The next job for 60-year-old O’Connor is to secure his trainer in the guise of former Down manager Paddy Tally. The Tyrone man was not named in the terse confirmation of Kerry’s 2022 football management team on Friday night because that agreement isn’t nailed down. Tally still has some thinking to do, apparently. That’s a critical part of the jigsaw, not only because it will augment the experience and nous of Diarmuid Murphy and the coaching techniques and freshness of Mike Quirke, but because it will also have a big say in how Kerry play.
That is critical in the context of getting Jack O’Connor back the keys to the Kingdom. He is a proven winner, but also an avowed pragmatist. He knows Kerry need to become more difficult to play against without the ball but the balance between that and footballing heritage will prove a difficult needle to thread when it comes to style v substance. Right now, the Kerry public would take almost any sort of All-Ireland win, even if they had to handle it with tongs.
O’Connor is around long enough to recognise the nuances of managing his native county and how he utilises Tally, presuming the latter joins the ticket, will be both informative and interesting.
There is one other huge plus in Kerry’s favour with the man who guided the Kingdom to an All-Ireland title in 2004 in his first season in charge and followed it up in 2006 and 09 – he is a retired man. He will have the time and opportunity to meet players and get his ideas and framework into their heads. Though he fumed after, he surely knew the price (and the reward) of discussing the Kerry gig on an Irish Examiner Gaelic football podcast last month. He had complained beforehand of the impact the trek from South Kerry to Kildare was having on his back but O’Connor has always been a shrewd judge when it came to assessing what he has at his disposal in terms of championship-winning talent. He, like everyone else in the county, sees the potential of the current group.
Though Quirke is the selector with front-line inter-county experience, he would not have been in the trenches as often as Dingle’s Diarmuid Murphy, who would have been a contender for the Kerry gig himself had he been inclined to go all in. He stepped away from Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s management team in 2016, is now a father of four small children and has moved his family back to Dingle. After five years away, he will come back fresh and prove a reliable lieutenant for the manager.
Each of the possible management teams reported a fair and thorough grilling of their credentials from the sub-committee charged with bringing a live candidate back to the County Board.
What the group led by Stephen Stack might have lacked in terms of experience at the top end of the ticket, it more than made up for with achievement and expertise. It offered freshness and a whiff of excitement and when Stack texted his putative colleagues to inform them all that their efforts had come up short, they weren’t the only disappointed ones in the county, one would imagine.
What O’Connor had over his rivals for the post was exactly what Kerry needs right now – the ability to get over the line. In all this process, which was threatening to descend into a bit of a circus had it rolled into and beyond the weekend, one should not forget that a Kerry manager has paid the price for not delivering Sam Maguire in term of three years. In that regard, Peter Keane joins some illustrious company in the shape of Ogie Moran, Mickey Ned O’Sullivan, Mick O’Dwyer and, more recently Paidi O Se.
Keane was invested in the prospect of a fresh term, but that appears to have been one of the important missing pieces of his proposition going forward – a freshness of ideas and personnel for next season. As close as Keane came in 2019, and as helpful as Tyrone’s All-Ireland success could have been in terms of framing Kerry’s semi-final loss, ultimately there has not been a compelling sense the Kingdom are nearer now than they were in his first year in charge – despite an indisputably rich squad of players. His departure also raises the issue of whether there is a role in the senior set up going forward for Kerry’s salaried head of Athletic Development, Jason McGahan. One to keep an eye on.
Given that depth of talent, the selection sub-committee most likely asked themselves the simplest of questions – insofar as there are any guarantees at this level, who will squeeze the last drop out of the playing group? If O’Connor was the answer to that question, he also is a prime candidate to babysit any potential future Kerry managers into the role. If options were initially limited this time, there should be no such issue in 2023 or 2024 – starting with his two selectors, and adding the likes of Declan O’Sullivan, Kieran Donaghy, Tomas O Se and Marc O Se to the mix, there will be some scramble to replace Jack O’Connor, whenever that may be.
Insofar as it could be his last decisive act as chairman of Kerry GAA, Tim Murphy has overseen a process aimed at winning at least one All-Ireland in the next year or two which also guarantees a readymade line of succession after Jack calls it a day with Kerry for a third time.
All that is some way in the distance: the in-tray for O’Connor is Tally, getting himself around to the county championship and unearthing some gems as he did eighteen years ago in the form of Paul Galvin and Aidan O’Mahony, and reshaping Kerry into a side who can add the cannister to their undoubted quality.