Three opinions from three men who have fought with Jack O’Connor through glorious highs and some heartbreaking lows…
Er O’Keeffe was a Kerry selector for the 2004, ’06 and ’09 All-Ireland wins. He identifies O’Connor’s ability to “read situations on his feet over the course of a game. To see what is developing and to be able to make decisions.”
Tom Cribbin was a Kildare selector in 2020 and 21. “If you worked with Jack, you knew how good he was,” he says. “He’s a bit dated in a way but, my god, to judge a footballer. . . I look at him for 15 minutes and I don’t wait months to see if this guy is good enough or not. He’s an incredible judge.”
Last words to one of his ex-Kerry players. “Jack has this thick raw stubbornness,” he says, more in praise than criticism. “He doesn’t care how he wins a game – and he doesn’t care who he challenges to win.”
Winning games, in short, like Sunday.
Dublin at Croke Park. An All Ireland final place is up for grabs. Two heavyweights, only one survivor.
* * * * *
For seven straight seasons, Kerry has flirted with Sam, sidestepped disaster, and ultimately paid the price for doing too much of the latter.
Only one thing helps: send an SOS to St. Finian’s Bay.
The return of Jack O’Connor caused an uproar in two different counties last fall for very different reasons.
Peter Keane wasn’t happy. Kildare fans felt like abandoned lovers. Kerry’s GAA bosses were outraged that cynical people added two and two and got five.
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter that O’Connor left Kildare because he was burned out from traveling or because he was infatuated with thoughts of a third coming.
“Of course there’s an appeal,” he told the Irish examiner Football podcast, at a time when he was still officially Kildare manager. “Who doesn’t want to coach Man United?”
A week later he resigned. Later in September it was handpicked by the county board kingmakers and officially ratified in early October. Jack was back.
His Manchester United metaphor was apt in more ways than he probably thought. The parallels between Fitzgerald Stadium and Old Trafford go beyond the magnetic pull of hosting the biggest club/county out there.
United have not won the Premier League since 2013; Kerry hasn’t lifted Sam Maguire since 2014.
The landscape at Munster had changed dramatically since O’Connor’s second term: the shock defeat to Cork in 2020 was such an outlier that Kerry won last year’s rematch by a record 22 points. For the man who has mastered three of Kerry’s last five All-Ireland triumphs, that’s the only metric that matters.
The criminal record cites Kerry’s continued major failure despite five All-Ireland minor titles on the spin (from 2014 to ’18). O’Connor was responsible for the first two of those five in a row; Can he be the one to give the final push to the Clifford, O’Shea, White, O’Sullivan generation? etc?
Kerry’s last senior triumph against Donegal was of the ugly winning variety. Even green-gold purists could take that now. After 2014, Kerry’s most significant win against Tyrone came in the 2019 semifinals.
Tyrone had reached last year’s final and actually led Kerry until the 55th minute before Peter Keane’s men found a way.
The subsequent tied All-Ireland final against 14 dubs was the one that got away. Now Kerry’s decorated former minors are three years older, smarter and still waiting. Are they better than 2019? Are Dublin Worse?
* * * * *
It’s not just clear from the backroom shot of Paddy Tally that O’Connor called the defense Kerry’s Achilles’ heel. The three goals conceded in last year’s semifinals weren’t the only gap Tyrone uncovered, but they were by far the most damaging.
Now consider this: In 14 games in the McGrath Cup, league and SFC this year they have scored two goals, one of them a Monaghan penalty. They had already reached the Division 1 Finals before their only loss and biggest concession – 1-15 against Tyrone.
So far, so frugal. The only caveat is that Kerry’s attack didn’t display the same daring brio that lit up her form chart last year until things went pear shaped.
Speak to Ger O’Keeffe and Tom Cribbin and it’s clear both men believe O’Connor is the man to fix Kerry’s weaknesses.
O’Keeffe cites the meticulousness of his preparation. Cribbin underscores his calmness at the line. “He’s very good at seeing how things are developing,” says the Kildare man, “and fixing problems fairly quickly before it becomes a bigger problem on the pitch. He’s just so experienced.”
Coincidentally or not, O’Connor’s previous appointments have come in the wake of losses to Tyrone in 2003 and 2008. Each time he has delivered in his freshman year. Now Tyrone has done it again; can Jack?
“Kerry got kind of lost last year,” says O’Keeffe. “The flaws that Kerry had shouldn’t happen this time around, so they’ll probably be a team that’s going to be well prepared – like all teams Jack sends, especially towards the end of the season.”
Cribbin has no doubt that the eight-hour round trip from South Kerry was a major factor in O’Connor’s exit from Kildare. “I knew the toll it was taking on his body,” he reveals.
“There was one weird night I had to get him to stay up. . . He wanted to go home because he loved his home so much. And you could see how tired he was from driving.”
But when the opportunity to run your own district resurfaced, “For a football manager, that’s a lottery win. Jack didn’t jump on anyone. The winning lottery numbers appeared in front of him and he took them.”
And now it boils down to this: 70 minutes against a rival who hasn’t been beaten since O’Connor’s underdogs of 2009 ravaged Pat Gilroy’s startled catchy tunes… and then, he hopes, 70 more must-win minutes. Long-term plans can wait because Kerry has grown impatient with the wait.
“He won’t lose ten seconds of sleep the night before the game – he’s that calm,” Cribbin points out. “The night after the game when he’s playing everything in his head, even if he wins, he doesn’t sleep.
“So, the pressure of the game and the challenge doesn’t cost him a thought. He leaves no stone unturned, so he knows there’s nothing more he can do. Well, I’m not kidding, that’s actually when he’s looking his freshest and best on the morning of a game.
“He seems to thrive on it, absolutely thrives on it.”
https://www.independent.ie/sport/gaelic-games/gaelic-football/why-jack-oconnor-is-back-his-driving-kerry-ambition-and-a-must-win-date-with-the-dubs-41823079.html Why Jack O’Connor is back: His driving Kerry ambition and a must-win date with the dubs