JACK O’CONNOR resisted the temptation to gloat after helping to deliver his third All-Ireland football title for the Kingdom in Croke Park yesterday.
That was after he reminded us that his Kerry team didn’t get it easy in the media at times this season, commenting: “fellas like (Pat) Spillane were almost having pity on us.”
And, in celebrating their win over Cork, he recalled how perilously close they had come to going out of the championship earlier on.
The concession of a penalty three minutes from the end of the opening qualifier game against Sligo in Tralee had been ‘a hairy moment,’ he said. However, in what was a very fulfilling year for him personally (with one son scoring the winning goal in the All-Ireland colleges final and another winning an All-Ireland intermediate club medal), claiming the Sam Maguire Cup was special for a number of reasons.
“Ah, it’s great, it’s great,’’ he responded to his first question in the media room less than half an hour after the presentation of the trophy. “It’s a sweet one because I was only saying to my selectors out there that we had to dismantle the team earlier in the year and kind of rebuild it as the year went on.”
He commented: “I mean if you go through the bones of that team we had a lot of changes down through the middle – the central spine of the team from the game we’ll say in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. So we had to take the team apart and put it back together. It’s hard to do that and still try to win matches.
Elaborating on the rebuilding process he pointed out how they had settled Tommy Griffin, Mike McCarthy, Tadhg Kennelly and Declan O’Sullivan in the key central positions and also re-introduced Seamus Scanlon at midfield.
“We had to re-jig,’’ he added. “There’s a certain satisfaction in that when that comes off. The last couple I won there in 2004 and 2006 people were saying they were soft but jeez there was nothing soft about this one. It was special this year because at times fellas like Spillane were almost having pity on us. He was thinking there wasn’t even one kick in us.
“That’s where we get our energy from.’’
He also agreed it was to his team’s benefit that they went into the final as underdogs, saying: “we felt we were really right coming into the game. The heat was on Cork after the way they had performed all year and we were coming in slightly under the radar. That suited us well.’’
O’Connor singled out Mike McCarthy for special mention, suggesting that he had been ‘marooned’ in his previous roles in the full-back line and recalling that Seamus Moynihan ‘spent his good years’ in the half-back line.
“There was always great football in him (McCarthy). He more than anybody has energised the team,’’ he commented.
He also acknowledged the importance of Tadhg Kennelly, saying: “it was fantastic to have him. He played his heart out there and we decided to stick on Donncha (Walsh) with a quarter of an hour to go because we needed legs. Cork had fierce legs – that’s the one thing they have. They’re fierce competitive around the middle of the field. We were wilting a bit in that middle third. Tadhg had done some amount of running.’’
NOR did he forget Paul Galvin, who gave another marvellous performance to help erase the better memories of last year’s suspension – which saw him only returning as a late sub in the All-Ireland defeat to Tyrone.
“That man suffered last year. For him to lose out on that (captaincy), to have the year that he did, to get the hounding that he did – and come back and do what he did this year and keep his composure was just fantastic. He’s grown as a man!’’
Praising Tommy Walsh for ‘reacting the right way’ to not being picked for the Meath game, he said the young Kerins O’Rahillys star had been ‘massive’ yesterday – highlighting one of his four scores off his left foot.
More generally, he had been delighted with the way the team reacted to conceding the early goal and it had been doubly re-assuring to see them recover from a situation in late in the second half when Cork were winning a lot of ball around the middle of the field.
It was what prompted the decision to bring in Micheal Quirke in place of Darragh O Sé, he explained, and make a few other changes.
“Cork were coming very strong. It didn’t look a four-point game to me. It looked a fierce tight game. There were a couple of balls in around the square and there was one in particular when Marc O Sé cut across and cut off a very, very dangerous ball. That was a pivotal moment.’’
Overall, he felt that his team had been more battle-hardened coming into the final, saying that Cork had ‘steam-rolled’ them in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, did the same to Donegal and also beat Tyrone ‘comprehensively.’
“I felt they hadn’t been in the battles we’d been in. People might say it’s only Longford, it’s only Sligo, it’s only Antrim but I’ll tell you now lads, they put us to the pin of our collars!’’
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