Kerry may be in transition but they’ve enough nous to outlast their rivals for Sam, believes coach Jack O’Connor
THIS”, grimaces Jack O’Connor as he looks disdainfully at the dictaphone, “is visit-to-the-dentist territory”. It’s not the most encouraging portent either when the Kerry manager drills down further on the nerve. “Do you enjoy getting a tooth out?”
How grumpy is Grumpy Jack, as the cider-makers might label him? At this pregnant moment in the GAA season, a little. Though everything is relative. Bark and bite stuff. If journalists aren’t hovering, the antennae are lowered.
“No point in getting aggravated or wasting energy on silly stuff now,” he says. “Before, if the team got criticised, I’d take it personally. Now I’d be kind of settled, not as uptight. What people write about the team or say about me doesn’t really matter any more. I’ve learned you don’t have to win every fight.”
Not that he’s sprinkling bouquets on the quality of GAA writing in this country. “So-so. There’s a lot of lazy journalism, factually wrong stuff where people don’t research their material properly. Throw-out cliches. I operate on the basis it’s an amateur game. If a journalist or a newspaper is giving you a hard time, do they expect you to go out of your way to co-operate with them? While you’d like to help and promote the games, the media have to see that relationships operate on the basis of goodwill. Some journalists want it both ways — they want a tabloid approach and then they want co-operation from you. They can’t have it both ways. I’ve no problem with a person writing about performance or tactics, but there are other lines that you don’t cross in an amateur game — personal stuff.”
He’s turned 50 now and away from the sideline the fun bits are watching, cajoling his two sons. Nudging them along. Eanna played Kerry minor last year. He’s promising. Cian too. “What am I like as a father? I stand back a good bit, maybe put an odd bit of cuir isteach in them, At the end of the day they have to find their own way, and learn from their mistakes. That’s when you give the bit of support — when they make mistakes. Of course, you could help more if they would only listen — there’s an odd shortcut if they’d heed good advice, but sure they don’t.”
WHEN Kerry is done — and O’Connor’s modus operandi has always been all-in, then quickly out — he’ll always be involved at some level because there’s that incurable football insanity there. “But I’d hate to hang on in management for the sake of it,” he says. “I’m the kind who goes into something with everything I’ve got, then pulls away for a while. I’ve always done that. I hate staying in something too long for fear I’d get stale. Staleness is a disaster, the world’s worst. I never went through the motions with anything I did in my life. When it’s becoming mundane and routine, it’s time to go.”
And those who last forever? Dwyer? Alex Ferguson? “Leaving aside the money, there’s a huge difference between managing a professional and an amateur player,” O’Connor believes. “The leverage is far greater at Man Utd than in Kerry. They paid £30 million for [Dimitar] Berbatov and he’s a sub as often as he’s playing, even though he’s their top scorer. With us, it’s cajoling. Stick and carrot. Some of these Kerry fellas have five All-Irelands won. You hope to keep players on edge and have a situation where every position is up for grabs, because that’s the only leverage you really have over them. I don’t know any other way of keeping players motivated only to have some fella breathing down your neck.”
So essentially it’s hunger, a player’s and a manager’s individual appetite to keep going? “Hunger is very hard to put a finger on. Where do you get it? You can’t manufacture hunger. Sometimes you don’t realise it’s gone until afterwards. I don’t think, for instance, that Kerry had that hunger last year in Croke Park.”
What about the 2005 final when a ravenous Tyrone put Kerry to sword? “The hunger wasn’t a problem that day. I thought we were well tuned in for that final, but we met a Tyrone team at the peak of their powers. They were better then than they were in 2003 or 2008. You had six Tyrone forwards that day who could have each been man of the match.
“Last year Kerry players were taking short cuts. It’s really hard coming off an All-Ireland win. Cork will find that. What’s the point in winning it if you don’t allow fellas to celebrate? Then it’s, ‘Ah sure look, we’ll celebrate a bit harder and make up for it later on’. Eventually you meet a hungrier team, and that was Down in the quarter-final. We’d have been well there if we got past that, but we were ripe for an ambush.
“It’s never one thing. Championship is all about timing. There was nothing wrong with our hunger or edge down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last June [in the Munster semi-final replay]. But fellas went back to the clubs, and by the time we got to Croke Park we were down six players from the winning team the year before — Walsh, Kennelly, Mike Mac, Darragh, Galvin and Tomás. That’s a quare group of players there.”
O’CONNOR is lunching in The Mall pub and deli in Tralee before heading the 20 miles to training in Killarney. His work, coaching the vocational schools sector in the county, allows him to be within striking distance of Fitzgerald Stadium on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That may seem an insignificant coincidence — but only if you don’t have a three-hour round trip from deepest south Kerry to training.
“And the roads wouldn’t be great either.”
He won’t admit it, but the work is as near as ideal in the context of his inter-county role. “The John Evans model [in Tipperary] would seem to be the obvious way out of this whole payment-to-managers issue. Why it didn’t come to pass I don’t know,” O’Connor shrugs. “Evans has done a lot for football in Tipperary, and was an obvious figurehead there. The demands are such that it is almost unmanageable to work a regular nine to five job and manage an inter county team. One or the other will suffer, perhaps both. Even when you’re away from it, walking up the side of a hill, you’re thinking about it. The level of responsibility on a manager is greater than any player because ultimately the manager is answerable. Players comes to training, do their stuff and go home. The buck stops with the manager. Your whole life revolves around it, it’s all consuming.”
When Kerry went back to O’Connor for a second term in 2009, he was still teaching full-time in Coláiste na Sceilge. Enthusiasm took him through the first campaign, but from experience he knew it was unworkable.
“Back in the early ‘90s, when I think of the schedule after coming back from America — I was running the [Inny Tavern] bar, teaching by day, playing with and training Dromid, involved with the Kerry Under 21s and the Kerry Techs. Something had to give and it was the pub. Their mother [Bridie] thinks I missed all the lads’ growing up. I used to bring Eanna and Cian to training when Paidi was Under 21 coach and I was a selector, even though sometimes they’d cause ructions. I don’t think Páidi was too happy, but that’s the only way I could manage it.”
What O’Connor has, though, is a ground eye view of the coaching structure at underage level in Kerry. Only now is the stark realisation dawning on some officials in the home of football that the green and gold jersey doesn’t frighten opposition any more. The recent humiliation for the Under 21s in Cork was the nadir, although losing an 11-point lead this week in the minor championship to Tipperary came close.
“We can’t rely on tradition. It’s all about proper coaching, which is why the schools system is critical. It’s very hard now for teachers to get the time to do coaching. The climate we are in, there is no incentive for a voluntary ethos. When I think of what we did in Scoil Uí Conaill and the early days in Coláiste na Sceilge, running up Rossbeigh sand dunes at Christmas, I’ve no idea how mad I actually was. Insane stuff. Insane. I did that because I was just a lunatic.
“We’re going to have to go back and have a look an what’s happening at under age. For a county like Kerry not to win a minor All-Ireland since 1994 is just not acceptable. We have done reasonably well at colleges level, but we haven’t had any success at minor level. The latest setback with the Under 21s was very worrying — if there was ever a wake-up call, that was it. Maybe we’ve taken success and coaching for granted in this county but Eamonn’s [Fitzmaurice] appointment as Under 21 coach is a great start — he has good ideas and he’s his own man, which is very important. Of the fellas I coached I thought he was one of those who had real leadership qualities.”
On Sunday, he’ll be prowling the stadium sideline again, only this time it’s for real. Evans and himself. If anyone could whiff a hint of Kerry vulnerability, it’s Evans from Knocknagoshel.
“A lot of people would say we are in a period of transition. But a Kerry team in transition can still win an All-Ireland because there’s an awful lot of experience there. And there’s a hunger this year that wasn’t there in 2010. Fellas missing out on big days at Croke Park. I’m not making any promises but I think we’ll be very competitive.”
KERRY were looking to work off the phased change template — a few seamless changes per campaign — but the loss of Strand Road midfielder David Moran is greater than would be appreciated outside the county. For many, it heightens the temptation to draft Kieran Donaghy to the middle of the field, though not Jack. Not yet anyway.
“It’s a step back for us to move him to midfield. He’s been the best full forward in the game for four or five years now. People think Donaghy can only operate if you bate the ball up in the air, but he can operate with a lot of different type of ball into him. Often, when he isn’t as effective as he could be, it’s a reflection on the quality of ball going into him. He’s a unique type of player, has great presence and brings other into the game better than anyone else. It’s our intention to play him full forward.”
So that’s that...
“Well, it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that we might have to shift him. But we shouldn’t be getting hung up on one man anyway — he could twist an ankle against Tipperary.”
So ... ?
“My theory is that he’s a better full forward than a midfielder. End of.”
He looks at the Championship landscape and sees the ferocious strength and stamina of Dublin and Cork. Pure athletes. But he knows, at this level, it comes down to fine margins late in a game. The bit of cuteness — or the lack of it — that could make the difference.
“There’s only so long a team can steam-roll you. Eventually you’ll reel in that kind of a team with cuteness and football and ability to react under pressure. You named a lot of attributes there — power, stamina, size — but I’d put another one ahead of them. Nerve. The nerve to play at that level.
“Some fellas can play away when it’s loose, not overly competitive. It’s the fellas that have the nerve to play when the game is on the line — that’s when the greats come through, the likes of [Séamus] Moynihan, Darragh and Maurice Fitzgerald were at their best when the fat was in the fire. And we think we have a good share of players who can play in that cauldron. They’ve proved they have the nerve for the battle. In fact they relish it. That’s the attribute I think is most important.”
Did he ever consider luring Moynihan back, like he had done with Kennelly, McCarthy and now Eoin Brosnan? “In his own head, Moynihan thought he was finished after 2005 and he took a bit of cajoling to get him back in 2006. It was great that a man like him went out at the peak of his powers. The great players deserve to go out at the top.”
Kerry were plotting in Portugal when Cork stormed the Dublin barricades in the League final, but he’s watched it since. “I don’t think either team was showing all their cards. Dublin hadn’t a good enough 15 on the field at the end to see out the game, Cork have great strength in depth and were able to bring on players of a higher calibre. Cork’s depth is stronger than any other county at the moment. They won a League game here in Tralee early in the year that they wouldn’t have a year ago. Bit of confidence and know how. And belief.”
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