There are a pair of reasons folk serious about their Kerry football are scanning the horizons with intent and intensity this week.
With a three-time All-Ireland winning coach gone, senior players looking for signals on the future — theirs and that of Kerry football — and the opposition multiplying and getting stronger by the year, the choice of replacement for Jack O’Connor is one Kerry GAA leaders cannot afford to get wrong.
Theirs isn’t an easy task. That horizon is hardly sprinkled with capable replacements for O’Connor, still considered by many within the county as the best man to take the Kingdom’s footballers into 2013.
Crucially, the Dromid man wasn’t one of those judges. 2012 has been a largely unfulfilling one for O’Connor, like swimming through jelly.
Man management issues with particular players ended up consuming a lot more of O’Connor’s time than he wished.
Losing Donie Buckley didn’t help, not least when so many of the squad rated the Castleisland coach so highly — and were quick to tell O’Connor so.
And all the while, O’Connor was attempting to conjure up new words and new tricks to fire the engine and set Kerry off on the right track.
Whereas before he had remodelled Mike McCarthy, Tommy Griffin, Eoin Brosnan and, this year, Aidan O’Mahony — not to mention luring Eamonn Fitzmaurice back onto his management team — he needed something like the return of Tommy Walsh from Australia to fire the comeback this season.
That didn’t happen, and won’t happen for his successor in 2013 either.
Not that Kerry will cease to be competitive. Playing poorly, they almost rescued a replay from last Sunday’s All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Donegal. O’Connor thought long and searched hard for a good reason to see out the last of his three-year term, but in searching for ‘pros’ this week he invariably found ‘cons’.
He spoke to key stakeholders, including players, and might have even been left wondering whether the ambition of some of the group matched his own. Kerry Board chairman Patrick O’Sullivan had budgeted on a Jack O’Connor discussion in September, not August, but if his executive is possessed of the wit and the will to turn a difficult scenario on its head, they could engineer a very encouraging end result for Kerry football.
For starters, they can forget the idea of a head coach in the mould of O’Connor. There isn’t one there, certainly not one that will tick the key boxes. Eamonn Fitzmaurice will be an outstanding coach but he’s too young (35), too inexperienced and too close to a number of the existing squad. He’s also got a job of work to do with the county’s U21’s which he has started very encouragingly.
While he understands the value and virtues of playing for Kerry, he’s not so naive as to believe any more that Kerry can still simply hang the jersey on the gate. Some — even within this squad — seem to be hanging onto such outdated ráimeas. Fitzmaurice’s time will come, and sooner rather than later.
John Evans will have his backers, as will Liam Kearns and even Mick O’Dwyer. Evans has just finished a term coaching the Meath footballers, but for some reason he has never been as appreciated closer to home.
However if Kerry take this opportunity to look beyond the existing template, they will see how the likes of Cork, Dublin, Donegal and Mayo have moved successfully away from a pyramid management structure.
Kerry possess two of the finest GAA coaching minds in the country in conditioning guru Pat Flanagan, and the afore mentioned Donie Buckley. Buckley’s Ennis base shouldn’t be a problem, and Flanagan, though from Waterford, is now at home in Tralee. Though both have worked with Kerry, they’ve never worked together. It could prove an extremely productive alliance if the Kerry chairman could bring it to life. They are two critical pieces of the jigsaw that, if on board, make the rest of the jigsaw comparatively easy to complete. Their involvement would also encourage a number of important players to stay on board. The wrong appointment could multiply squad departure.
Mickey ‘Ned’ O’Sullivan, as manager, has already successfully worked with Buckley in Limerick, and has the football wherewithal to oversee a team of coaches and selectors. He would bring a managerial nous in the Declan Kidney mould. Tomás O Flatharta is another worthy of consideration in that regard.
Alternatively, Kerry might look to groom a new wave of managerial talent, starting with the likes of Seamus Moynihan. Either way, Kerry are not blind to the impact that the likes of Barry Solan has had with Laois, or Cian O’Neill with Mayo or indeed Peadar Healy and Aidan O Conaill next door in Cork.
What is imperative is that Kerry move fast. Emerging talents such as Peter Crowley, James O’Donoghue, Shane Enright, Jack Sherwood, James Walsh and Stephen O’Brien should be starting off-season programmes this autumn if they are to be up to inter-county championship speed next summer. There is no one better than Pat Flanagan in that regard.
However, if officials fail to act imaginatively and with some urgency, the outlook is bleak. An uninspiring choice as coach could accelerate the departure of the likes of Tomas Ó Sé, Marc Ó Sé, Eoin Brosnan, Aidan O’Mahony and Paul Galvin.
Then Kerry truly are into the realm of a new era, fraught with uncertainty.
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