Jack O’Connor’s Return Knows Kerry’s People Are ‘One’ In Waiting
The danger of comparing Kerry to Manchester United is worry that they might look like United’s current franchise.
You know what Jack O’Connor meant, how a colorful sound clip on an Irish Examiner podcast that read like an EXIT STAGE LEFT light sign from the Kildare Football Theater was aimed at a local audience.
If Kildare, to him, sounded like an off-Broadway ensemble looking for the big moment, well, Kerry was the big moment. Are the big moment. Always have been.
“Of course there is an appeal to that,” he told Paul Rouse. “Who doesn’t want to coach Man United? There is this attraction because of the tradition.
“That’s how much it matters to the people here. You meet women on the street, they may not have been to the game but they want to talk about the game. That’s it all here. You can’t escape it there. Any pocket in the county you go to, they want to talk about football so it’s all consuming. Sure, it’s an absolute joy when you win, but a lonely, dark place when you don’t.
It’s a religion here. The people of Kerry desperately want this team to win an All-Ireland. By all known lore they should win an All-Ireland because they have won five minors in a row, some notable players like David Clifford, Seánie O’Shea, Gavin White. They are a good age now. This team must win an All-Ireland; this team needs to win maybe a few All-Irelands. It brings its own pressure, but it’s a great environment to coach.
“The people of Kerry are very critical, very ruthless. What you need to understand here is that everyone has an opinion. I’ve been to Kildare the last few years and even when we were in Leinster I was like, ‘Do people really know the game is on? You could walk down the street and you wouldn’t be sure there was a match.
While O’Connor’s words may have offended some local Kildare sensibilities, it’s hard to dispute the thrust of his argument. With Peter Keane under pressure after a three-year tenure failed to cede an All-Ireland and ended in overtime loss to future champions Tyrone, O’Connor was always going to be interested in reworking the ‘oracle after two previous passages which were a success in every way.
“I keep telling people this – I’m not bragging, I’m just giving you the facts – in my first four years of training Kerry was ’04, ’05, ’06 and ’09, I won three leagues, three Munster championships, three All-Irelands, I had the height of abuse. That’s a fact. ‘
It’s just that the parallels with Manchester United are all too real right now. A very talented group of individuals, playing in a team that is always looking for that elusive balance between defense and offense.
A team that is packed with shimmering ability, especially on the front foot, but hasn’t quite been able to match the potential with silverware. A team that is looking for a coherent identity from league to league.
A team that has strived to be more than the sum of its parts – a defining characteristic of the six-time Dublin squad and Tyrone in this year’s championship.
A team that struggled when faced with opposing tactical setups – Cork in the rain of a winter championship in 2020; Tyrone in the delayed 2021 Summer Championship.
The reference to Man United is understandable in light of the club’s tradition and the Alex Ferguson era. This is what prompted former Dublin manager Tommy Lyons to make the same kind of benchmark 20 years ago, comparing the Dublin gig when he took over to the benchmark of English football.
But this reference is now a little out of time.
Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer represents just a period of thwarted succession from a former winning era. Loud neighbors Manchester City have taken over with a space-age manager in Pep Guardiola, who has a team playing space-age football and continually trying to stay one step ahead.
This is a more appropriate model for Kerry at the moment.
O’Connor had the courage of his convictions the first time around to reshape the team to respond to the changing trends and evolving threat of Tyrone from Mickey Harte and more, by raiding the Council’s website. Ulster to tackle drills and take the jagged edges of a player like Paul Galvin and set him on his way to being crowned Footballer of the Year in the kind of winger role that reflected Brian Dooher’s impact .
One night he was officially ratified, here he is once again explaining how he instinctively knew how to turn Kerry into a winning all-Ireland outfit.
‘Kerry had nice decorative strikers. I remember watching the Tyrone-Kerry game in 2003 and immediately knew Kerry was going to have to find another type of player. That’s where the Paul Galvins, Aidan O’Mahonys, William Kirbys and those kinds of players with big engines, big hearts that could put in big hits. That’s where Kerry is right now. You won’t get away with six decorative forwards.
The confidence of the coaching brains that O’Connor has gathered is certainly open-minded. Take Mike Quirke, who just completed a stint as manager at Laois and has the kind of magpie that Jim Gavin said was a lifeline for any coach.
Quirke has spent the lockdown creating a compelling podcast series – to help raise money for Temple Street Children’s Hospital – chatting with a wide range of sports topics. Like Rus Bradburd, the American basketball coach who became a cult hero in Kerry.
Or Jason Sherlock from Dublin on values and culture. Bernard Jackman on the way from amateur rugby to professional rugby. Nick Potter of Duke University on High Performance. Barry Solan of Ballaghaderreen Stock who has found his home as a strength and conditioning coach with Arsenal FC first team.
This interview series focused on the various essential ingredients related to modern success, rooted in problem solving and practical examples.
It’s not like Kerry has to reinvent the wheel. There was so much to admire in their room this year. Just look at the way they beat Cork in the Munster final or Tyrone in the National League semifinals; perhaps that ruthless goal hunt became too much of an obsession when it mattered most in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Having the courage to put pressure on the expulsions of the opposition was at the base of these blows. Individually, they were strong defensively in various duels against Tyrone – Jason Foley and Tom O’Sullivan only two to emerge with credit.
But as this column previously pointed out, defensive vulnerabilities remain – both individual and collective – that ultimately cost them dearly, with Tyrone’s two goals involving lazy and missed tackles in preparation.
For Peter Keane, the highlight arguably came in the 2019 final drawn against Dublin in his first year in charge, when a coach famous for his contribution as a defensive coach, Donie Buckley, was still on. involved before feeling obligated to moonlight with Monaghan.
The overcompensating of the nervous and defensive setup against Cork in 2020 boiled down to the lingering image of Kerry road defeating a piece in the square for Mark Keane’s winning goal in overtime.
It is not to the past glories on either side of the water that Kerry must look, but to the present.