Seán Moran: Small changes, big gains and the alchemy of Jack O’Connor

Luck plays a part in all sporting success but all a manager can control is improving his players and team, which is why Kerry are back

In about as impressive a display of front-running as has been seen from a team winning an All-Ireland for essentially the first time – just four players had previous medals – Kerry made it to the finishing line on Sunday.

Impressive because there was no major difference between the team that had lost to Tyrone in last year’s semi-final and the players that saw it home this summer.

David Clifford had been injured for the critical period of extra time in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final whereas he was on hand to guide and drive the effort at the weekend but the personnel were fairly similar.

Twelve of the 15 starters against Tyrone and Galway were the same and of the 24 players used a year ago (between normal and extra-time), 19 played some part on Sunday.


It’s the mark of management to take the same personnel and get better results and acknowledging the contrasting breaks in either year: Clifford missing the key moments of one semi-final with Con O’Callaghan 11 months later being injured for Dublin’s – probably the key fixture on Jack O’Connor’s horizon, probably from as soon as he took the job last October.

Fate plays a huge role in so much that determines sports events. All a manager can do is devise a plausible Plan B and hope for the best.

Last year, two tight All-Ireland semi-finals went to extra time and were decided by a score. They also featured two kicks, one in each match, that arguably determined the outcome of both.

Most people remember Diarmuid O’Connor’s extraordinary intervention in the 63rd minute of Mayo’s defeat of Dublin. As Rob Hennelly’s free kick is drifting to the right and wide, with his team trailing by five, O’Connor comes hurtling across the face of the goal in between Brian Fenton and John Small and somehow gets to the ball before it goes wide.

His lunge hooks it infield where Kevin McLoughlin is waiting, unmarked and curls the ball over with his left foot. The score galvanises Mayo into chasing down the deficit and taking the match to extra time where famously they won to end the six-in-a-row champions’ progress towards a seventh title.

A fortnight later in the Tyrone-Kerry semi-final, which also goes to extra-time, a dropping ball kicked in by Kieran McGeary falls down beside the Kerry goal where Jack Barry is standing just in front of Tiernan McCann, who is jostling – perhaps even fouling – him.

Barry doesn’t try to meet the ball but takes a swiping kick at it and diverts it to the incoming Conor McKenna, who drives it into the net to give Tyrone a five-point lead in the sixth minute of extra time. Kerry stage a mini-revival but lose by a point.

Two random, uncontrolled kicks, one inspired and the other haphazard, have significant consequences for the players’ teams. How do you prepare for those sorts of occasions? You can’t really. They come down to judgement in the heat of a contest.

The metrics of improvement are easy to identify, however. On the defensive side, it has been widely noted that Kerry have tightened up in the concession of goals and that is a big difference on last year when they conceded a crippling three goals to Tyrone in the semi-final.

Two of those came from turnovers, one from David Clifford in attack and the other from the above Jack Barry miscue.

On Sunday, Kerry gave up just 10 turnovers all day and Galway turned those into 0-2. At the other end, though, they exploited their opponents’ 16 turnovers for 0-8, an excellent conversion rate.

Manager Jack O’Connor spoke on Monday about the nature of the improvements he had tried to implement.

“Just concentrate on incrementally improving the team, getting the defence set up properly, getting your counter-attacking game going and just working away at the bits and pieces.

“Getting the kick-out right, getting pressure on the opposition kick-out, working away at stuff. What you are trying to do is get little bits of improvement gradually and just hope it comes together when push comes to shove.”

He also spoke about how they had decided to develop the forward mark as a weapon in David Clifford’s armoury and, tellingly, it was a source of 0-2 in both the final and semi-final.

There was never an interlude this season when an interested observer might reasonably have concluded that Kerry were in trouble. It may be true that the All-Ireland was never overtly discussed but it must have been a constant presence in the dressingroom.

O’Connor was right that the immediate focus was always on getting certain elements of play and preparation right, which is basically, in modern parlance, focusing on ‘process’ and not outcome.

The external examiner in all of this was the league. O’Connor’s penchant for making the Division One title a preliminary acquisition before championship was also explained as a combination of road-testing the playing improvements as well as digging in for matches that he knew the opposition were themselves targeting.

In this respect he identified Mayo’s visit to Tralee, which Kerry won narrowly, as well as the away fixture against Armagh, again won by a narrow margin.

As he mentioned, the fact of the calendar year has emphasised the importance of the league. In the 21 years of the current format, 10 doubles have been won; in the previous 21 seasons, just four.

Ultimately Jack O’Connor, Micheál Quirke, Diarmuid Murphy and Paddy Tally did an excellent job in taking on a high-pressure role knowing only one outcome would suffice.

On the way, a winter of relief, content contemplation and focusing on where the next challenge is likely to arise.