Dr Crokes’ Harry O’Neill: Keeping it in the family

Management loses games, players win them (Great GAA truisms, No 53 in a series). On the bad days, the ditch carps and criticises and moans about the sideline. Lambasts may be the association term. Clueless clowns. On Lewis Road in Killarney, you might catch a carp or two on the odd occasion Dr Crokes lose a game, but it’ll be a brave ditch hurler all the same. Or a fool.

There’s All-Ireland-winning experience stretched across the Dr Crokes dugout that straddles five decades. From Eddie ‘Tatler’ O’Sullivan, a selector in Dwyer’s golden years, to Niall ‘Botty’ O’Callaghan, still involved in Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s backroom team. Sandwiched between are two forwards in Dr Crokes’ one and only All-Ireland club success in 1992, Pat O’Shea and Mike Buckley (both with sons playing tomorrow in Croke Park). By the by, Pat trained Kerry to the 2007 All-Ireland crown.

By comparison, Harry O’Neill’s track record is positively underwhelming, training Dr Crokes to a mere three Kerry football championships in 2000 (Gaeltacht), 2010 (Austin Stacks), and 2011 (Mid Kerry). And yet, it was his role in Pat O’Shea’s management roster this season that intrigued most. Two championship-winning managers in the same dressing room? It could only end in somebody’s eye scratched out.

Actually not so much, though O’Neill (56) acknowledges that, initially, the chattering classes had a field day.

“You knew from the soundings and the talk around town that some thought this was a crazy way for us to be going about our business,” he says now. “But I knew what Pat was doing, trying to get as many Crokes people together with a lot of experience for the betterment of our club.

“If I was to say ‘if I’m not the manager I’m not going to be in here’, then I wasn’t going to be helping the Crokes club at all. When (chairman) Denis Coleman and Pat were trying to put all this together, I’d say it wasn’t a crazy thing at all to get involved — it was an easy thing.

“Why wouldn’t I want to work with someone like Pat O’Shea, who has an unbelievable mind for detail, someone for whom Gaelic football is his life? I am going to learn from the experience of working with him and helping the club.

“Alongside, there’s vast experience in Mike, ‘Tatler’ and Niall, who has been with Kerry for the last eight to 10 years. There’s been a huge amount of learning in one season. We all deal with things differently, but it’s very much a collective. We all have our input. Pat is the voice in the dressing room, but it’s been fantastic the way it’s worked.”

For that, the chairman, Denis Coleman, must take some credit. The club had the gumption to accept that going beyond Lewis Road for a management team hadn’t worked.

Pat O’Shea stamps a large footprint across the Crokes and by hunkering down tight amongst their own, the Killarney club was publishing its manifesto in big black and amber print. “Even the backroom team,” O’Neill adds, “Matthew Courtney, Seamie Doc (Doherty), and Brian Callaghan, John C Shea doing the video work. Pat’s plan was to bring as many experienced Crokes people as he could back into the set-up and show the players the club is serious about what it’s doing. The way we’d have operated always was we took care of our own business within the Crokes club, with our own people. That’s as important for the ladies committee, who are here twice a week preparing dinner for the players, to the senior management. The Crokes ethos is crucial.”

Beyond that, O’Neill can’t, or won’t, identify reasons the club has this year progressed beyond the All-Ireland semi-final stage it reached in 2012, 13, and 14’. Not that there should be seismic shifts. The gains are marginal on such elevated plateaus.

“I accept it’s a management cliché, but we literally took every game at a time (No 54 in the series?). There was no ‘we have to win a county or an East Kerry. We didn’t start the year saying we had to win anything.”

In previous campaigns, the hurlers on the bank mused that maybe they got their timing wrong between the Munster and All-Ireland club campaigns, that fraught no-man’s land over Christmas when squads are never sure whether to rest or kick on.

“The difference from previous years was for those three All-Ireland semis on the trot, we were going in Munster right up to the wire at Christmas, nine or 10 games on the trot. Christmas was suddenly upon you but you know that on January 3, you got to be back. This year we finished (Munster) on December 4 and were able to give the players a bit of downtime. That helped. Some of the lads went away with Kerry to New York, we had Kieran O’Leary’s wedding and a social night for the club, but all the time we made sure they maintained the level of fitness.”

O’Shea’s management team has big calls to make this week. Stellar youngsters like Micheal Burns, Tony Brosnan, and Jordan Kiely have already shined in green and gold, yet can’t force their way into a starting slot for Crokes. Ditto Chris Brady. There’s no other club team in Kerry they wouldn’t start with.

“New opposition, the book is open again,” shrugs Harry O’Neill. “We see what best suits us to go with and match up against Slaughtneil. There will be discussions.”

And they will extend to Jimmy Briens and Tatlers, the Fáilte and the SpeakEasy.

With guns loaded…


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