From wild card to trump card: How Liam Hassett is shaking up the Kerry dressing room

If Éamonn Fitzmaurice thought Kerry’s backroom team was getting too friendly, he knew there was one addition who wouldn’t be slow to throw in a scud or two in the dressing room. In Liam Hassett’s lexicon, ‘beaten’ doesn’t exist...

Kerry football confidence is innate. But to reach the preferred, measured level of quiet confidence that has settled on the camp this week, there’s a need for loud and the proud to counteract inevitable pockets of doubt in the dressing room.

Liam Hassett is the definition of such sure-footed conviction.

“Hassett will be the one this week who won’t even think of being beaten by Dublin,” said one of his former Kerry colleagues. “It won’t even be on his radar, and there hasn’t been that attitude in the dressing room since Declan O’Sullivan left.”

“Fitzmaurice needed somebody in the set-up with that cutting edge, that fire in the belly. Hassett would give it to the players between the eyeballs and expect them to be man enough to take it,” explains his former Laune Rangers mentor, John Evans.

“Liam Hassett never stood back from anyone in his life.”

When Fitzmaurice went fishing for a tooled-up backroom team to begin his time as Kerry manager at the butt-end of 2012, he delighted in securing the cutting edge expertise of Cian O’Neill, the fitness coach, but he came up short in bidding to get Hassett on board.

When he teased through the entrails of last year’s All- Ireland final, was that unmistakeable Declan O’Sullivan/Seamus Moynihan, Paul Galvin/ Hassett attitude one of the missing ingredients? Why was the hunger missing? Why was that beautiful desperation that nourishes every successful dressing-room not as evident as Dublin’s?

The Kerry manager is wont to talk about fellas “throwing in a scud or two” and in luring Hassett into his 2016 management team, he knew his former team-mate would do that. Hassett was never short of an opinion.

“The players love him,” reveals one of the squad for tomorrow’s All-Ireland semi-final. “I don’t know is it because he was supposed to be a bit of a wild boy in his day, or is it his cut-the-legs-from-under-you wit, but he can say nearly anything and get away with it.”

Fitzmaurice has subtly tweaked his operation below the line for this campaign, some changes less apparent to the players than others. His voice is heard a lot more at sessions with Cian O’Neill gone, and that’s no bad thing. He changed up training patterns and scrapped the sun-kissed camp in the Algarve for the rain-soaked grind of Harlequins training complex in London. Comfort zones are anathema.

In the weeks after last September’s malfunction, he recognised the need to reconfigure his set-up to provide a different stimulus for the squad. Maybe he knew it before September even. Kildare’s pursuit of O’Neill facilitated a change in both selector and coaching roles. Padraig Corcoran had served his apprenticeship under Cian O’Neill, and Fitzmaurice had seen enough of his coaching work with the school back in Dingle to know he was ready to run the sessions. A business partner of Tommy Griffin’s in Muiris Dan’s hostelry back west, he is a first cousin of the up and coming Kerry midfielder Barry ‘Dan’ O’Sullivan. But the management needed more. Fitzmaurice’s friendship with Diarmuid Murphy went back, and Mikey Sheehy is too modest to bust up the party. In many respects, it was becoming too friendly.

Someone needed to throw in a few scuds.

“He’s an infectious character,” says his Killorglin and former Kerry cohort Billy O’Shea. “He’s come a long way from the times when he was as daft as a brush. He’s vice principal of St Michael’s College in Listowel now, and has a great relationship with the students. That’s why he connects so readily with the younger lads in the Kerry squad.

“That determination, that ‘I won’t be beaten’ streak, has always been there. Maybe it was living in (brother) Mike’s shadow a bit when we were younger. Mike had the whole package, Liam was more of a rough diamond. Like, back then he’d piss fellas off quick enough if you didn’t know him. It’s not even that he’s lost that edge to his character to him over the years. It’s just that fellas get him now,” O’Shea explains. “He’s Eamonn’s Maor Foirne too, the one that gets messages onto the players. That tells you something.”

There’s a story, corroborated by veteran Laune Rangers keeper, Tony Lyons, that Hassett broke his right leg as a 12 year old, and persisted so doggedly for six months using a left leg he thought was for standing on that one became as accurate as the other. By 1996, when he was not yet 21, he was full- forward on the Laune Rangers side that carried all before them and won the All-Ireland Club final against Carlow’s Eire Óg.

“He was coming up against some quare customers in on the edge of the square,” then manager John Evans says. “He had that rawness. As a game got tougher, he got better. If you drew the wrath of Liam Hassett, you’d get it back threefold. He was a young leader, which was unusual when you reflect on some of the driven men we had on that side.”

From wild card to trump card: How Liam Hassett is shaking up the Kerry dressing room

Evans agrees that by the end of last year the Kerry set-up “seemed to be lacking something”. By drafting in the fiery red-head, Fitzmaurice was ensuring attitude wasn’t one of the absent ingredients.

“He took over managing Laune Rangers in 2014, which wasn’t the easiest thing to do because we were on the slide,” says Tony Lyons, whose kept goal for the seniors since 2000. “But he still brought a great professionalism to the set-up, introducing video clips for players, and he had that emotional fire too in the dressing room. He still is onto me regular enough to keep things going with the club. When we were relegated from senior last year by Austin Stacks, he cut a broken figure in the dressing room.”

Perhaps it’s not such a surprise then he was so well got by the likes of Paul Galvin and Declan O’Sullivan, whom he nurtured through their debut campaigns with Kerry, even though he was vieing with them for a starting jersey in the half-forward line. “He told me in 2004 he was only minding the jersey for me. Not many men are big enough to say things like that,” Paul Galvin wrote in his outstanding ‘In My Own Words’.

They loved the irreverent streak in Hassett. When the laughs were loud and the beer was flowing, he was capable of anything. Once drinking with Fitzmaurice and a few other Kerry players, he disappeared and returned in drag, unrecognisable to his colleagues. “You’re Eamonn Fitzmaurice, aren’t you,” he pouted with his lips. When he had an informal get together in Ger Counihan’s Bunkers bar in Killorglin after retiring, the turnout was telling. And John Evans struck the perfect chord with his tribute. As Dara Ó Cinneide says, there was always an admirable streak in Hassett, irrespective of how much he annoyed fellas.

Fitzmaurice knew that, that he was a lightning conductor of sort. That he would be a selector who was very much his own man, and from last winter, Hassett hasn’t been slow to voice opinions and concerns. He’ll growl at players taking short cuts and rail against the slightest slacking in standards. “Don’t cut the corner,” he’ll bellow at training.

That deep Caragh Lake conviction was never as naked as when he hunkered down a decade ago to lead a campaign raising €275,000 for the Killorglin area of the Kerry Mental Health Association, having seen at close hand how such issues can compromise someone’s personality. The Ard Aoibhinn building in the town stands as a monument to the effort he drove.

“The Hassetts are all winners,” former Laune Rangers chairman Jerome Conway confirms. “I don’t mean that in the context of medals. If you had a Hassett on your team, you had a chance of winning. If you’d two, you’d win. And with all three, you’d be winning well.”

While Liam and Mike Hassett’s Kerry exploit are well documented, Adrian also wore the county colours at senior level, and was corner back for the All-Ireland winning club campaign.

“You could put one of the lads on the opposition’s best man, and forget about him,” Conway, a former county board chairman, adds. “Their father Mike played wing-back with Killorglin and was part of the 1966 team that won the Mid Kerry championship, the Towns Cup and the Club Championship.”

When Mike Hassett was controversially omitted from the 1997 Kerry team for the All-Ireland final (he was captain), it left a sour taste in Killorglin, but not as sour as the subsequent discovery he wouldn’t even be getting a medal. From captain before the Cavan semi to nowhere. Both pulled out of Ó Sé’s set-up the following season.

“I remember the night myself and Mike were doing the maths on the number of players who had figured in the Cavan or Mayo games, and it was 21,” recalls Billy O’Shea now. “It was a difficult time. We were marking each other in the final trial game for a place in the final, which wasn’t ideal and wasn’t right in my view.”

The chairman of the county board at the time, Sean Walsh, remembers Liam being fair but firm in his conviction a wrong had been visited on his brother. “He wasn’t happy to come into training without Mike. The two Hassetts were very courteous to me. They obviously feel they have a grievance of some sort. In hindsight, it’s fair to say that something more could have been done for Mike. It is a lesson for all of us.”

His point made, Liam Hassett thundered back into the green and gold after, and won an All-Star with Mike Frank Russell in successful Kerry’s All-Ireland campaign of 2000. Sixteen years later, he’s back in a Croke Park dressing room, firm in his conviction that Kerry will not lose, fair in his feedback to the charges.

“You’d never be going backwards with Liam on the team,” John Evans said. “He hopped off fellas and carried that unique conviction about him as a player all the way up to 2012, when he was 37 or 38. I don’t think the word ‘beaten’ is in his dictionary.”

A virtue that will serve Eamonn Fitzmaurice and his players well under the Hogan Stand tomorrow.


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