Jack O’Connor emphasises the value of league form as Kerry hope to finish strong
In the past 20 years only five All-Ireland winners hadn’t previously reached league play-offs in the spring
Former Kerry manager Jack O’Connor: “Whoever gets to league semi-finals will be in the shake-up for the All-Ireland.” Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
It’s one of the biggest days of the football season. Sunday sees the national league standings finalised in a programme of simultaneous matches throughout the country. Division Three promotion issues are already settled but all the other divisions play out.
The influence of the league on the championship can be seen in that in the past 20 years only five All-Ireland winners hadn’t previously reached league play-offs in the spring.
Former Kerry manager Jack O’Connor has a striking record in this respect. He not alone led the county to three All-Irelands but won the double each year and emphasises the importance of staying involved in the league as long as possible.
“I think it is critical. The bottom line even as late as 2012 when we were beaten by Mayo in the semi-finals – the day Kieran Donaghy kicked the ball across our own square when we were four up – I really felt we could have done with another match.”
“Andy Moran was saying it after the weekend – how big it was to play Dublin in Croke Park and to experience the pitch, the atmosphere and the surface. It plays different to any other pitch in the country.”
The desirability of league form doesn’t waver even when teams have won All-Irelands the previous year – and frequently signs that a championship defence is going awry can be detected in the early months of the year.
Nine seasons ago, a free conceded in the fifth minute of injury-time meant that O’Connor’s team missed out on the league semi-finals. He still recalls the frustration.
“In 2005 I distinctly remember the disappointment of not getting through. You find out more about yourself in those games, what options you have. The longer a county team stays together the better. Players get distracted a bit when they have to go back to their clubs, lose focus.
“You can’t pull a team out of the air and whoever gets to league semi-finals will be in the shake-up for the All-Ireland. That’s nearly always the way in recent years and that’s not surprising. It’s massive for a team to have another game in Croke Park, particularly Kerry with the young fellas on the team.”
Over the past two years O’Connor’s successor Eamonn Fitzmaurice has battled to cope with an accelerated rate of departure of decorated veterans. This season was jolted at an early stage by the news that the team’s most influential player Colm Cooper had been ruled out for a year by a cruciate injury – an issue that O’Connor believes would make contesting a league semi-final all the more valuable.
A point behind Dublin and Mayo, Kerry need those two to lose against Tyrone and Derry respectively to open the door to the semi-finals but O’Connor believes that even if the permutations don’t work out the team can sustain some momentum from the campaign to date having recovered from a poor start.
“Kerry have four or five newer lads and it would really help them. Look they’re depending on other results but whatever way it goes at the weekend I think they will finish the league on the front foot because they turned around their fortunes after a bad start and barring a lazy performance against Derry they’ll be pleased enough.”
This weekend is a microcosm of the county’s perennial challenge. They host a Cork team under new management and sitting top of the Division One table, already through to the semi-finals.