KERRY football manager Jack O’Connor has declared their National Football League campaign a success before Sunday’s Division One decider with champions Derry.
Since returning to the Kingdom hot seat, O’Connor has insisted he would use the NFL campaign to mould and shape his championship squad.
And to that end it has been a tremendous success, with the likes of Aidan O’Shea, Anthony Maher, Maurice Corridan and Tadhg Kennelly getting their chance in the county colours.
O’Connor explained: “Something like 33 or 34 players were used and a lot of fellows have seen action. We weren’t good enough last year, it’s as simple as that. You either have to improve the fellows you had last year or get new players. That was our aim, rather than winning the League.”
O’Connor revealed he knows 20 of his championship squad at this stage, with 12 of those likely starters. And, whatever about having an embarrassment of riches at midfield, he agrees that they do have a lot of players vying for the two positions.
“Obviously, the two we will put out on Sunday will be the fellows in pole position at the moment. But, there’s a bit to go yet to the 7th of June (the Munster semi-final) and a lot of things could change in six weeks.”
A lot of things have changed in the past year. Twelve months ago, O’Connor watched the NFL decider between the sides from the Kerins O’Rahillys clubhouse in Tralee as Pat O’Shea’s side lost a sizeable first half lead to the Ulster men, a trait which emerged throughout the season.
“There could be many reasons why you lose leads — one physical, the other psychological,’’ remarked O’Connor when questioned about the collapse in Parnell Park in the 2008 decider.
“Sometimes when you get into the lead, you can become too defensive.
“It’s very hard to protect a lead in Gaelic football. You have to keep attacking it. Edenderry found that out in the colleges final (which they lost to O’Connor’s Coláiste na Sceilge).
“They just went back in defence and we managed to kick 1-1 in the last few minutes.”
While his tenure with O’Rahillys finished earlier than he would have wished, when they lost to Nemo Rangers in the Munster club semi-final, he derived great personal satisfaction in having one son in the school team and another win an All-Ireland medal with St Michael’s, Foilmore in the club intermediate decider earlier in the year.
And, wearing his Kerry hat, the league campaign couldn’t have gone better. It started off with a win in the first round (which he hadn’t achieved in his previous spell in charge) and over the next six games they only dropped one point. That was in Parnell Park against Dublin and, against the background of those losing leads last season, he says that it gave him “a bit of satisfaction”.
“We were something like six points down with 10 minutes to go, but we came back and managed to get a draw out of it. We turned the tables a bit there. We’d be hoping that we’d finish strong this year,” he commented.
O’Connor described the return of Tadhg Kennelly as a huge boost, explaining that in addition to what he has to offer in terms of his enthusiasm and his mentality, his decision to give up a professional career in Aussie Rules football in order to play with Kerry has given players a much greater appreciation of what it means to wear the green and gold.
“It raises the profile of playing for Kerry. If fellows were taking it for granted, when they see that it’s a huge deal for him, they say ‘why shouldn’t it be for us?’”
He refused to be drawn into a debate about the challenge of taking on a northern team and, as one journalist remarked — “putting them in their box”. “I don’t want to get caught up in this stuff. It doesn’t matter who we are playing, we are trying to beat them,” he responded.
“The big thing for us is that we are getting the final here in Croke Park. Earlier on in the year my young fellow played in the club intermediate final and it was a great thrill for him and the club, as well as for Skellig Rangers.
“It will be different from our game in Bellaghy earlier on. There was a great surface, but it was a tight pitch.
“Croke Park plays different to any other pitch in the country. You need a lot of pace and mobility. That’s the big thing. It will be a big test for our fellows.”
He also pointed out that Derry will have a stronger team out on Sunday, being able to call on Paddy Bradley and Mark Lynch, who were both missing that game — when Eoin Bradley only lasted 20 minutes before being sent off. What it means to Kerry is that they will be playing a team with more firepower this time.
To win, he knows that Kerry have to play consistently. You could say it will be the management mantra this year. And, thinking back on the campaign, he knows exactly what kind of a performance it will require — a repeat of their first-half form away to Tyrone and their second-half display in the last round at home to Galway.
O’Connor concludes: “Maybe if we could put two halves together, we wouldn’t do too bad.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved