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Darragh Ó Sé: O’Connor and Maughan still giving service after All-Ireland dreams beyond them

Kildare and Offaly managers are still at it long after they were the biggest names around

Old soldiers never die. We always hear that football is a young man’s game and all that stuff. No country for old men and what have you.

But look at who is facing off against each other on Sunday in Portlaoise. Kildare v Offaly. Jack O’Connor against John Maughan. You wouldn’t call either of them old – I’m in no position to anyway. But you wouldn’t call them young either.

Go around the counties and go through it. Mickey Harte is out on his own, coming up on his 70th birthday soon I suppose. All the others are in their 40s and 50s, not overly long out of the game in some cases. But Jack and Maughan are in a little group of their own, both in or around 60, both still at it long after they were the biggest names around.

You have to hand it to them. It’s 17 years since they came up against each other in an All-Ireland final. They were top of the shop back then, Jack over a Kerry team that was a contender most years and Maughan in charge of a Mayo side that could always come with a run when least expected.


I’d say if you asked them then would they be still at it in 2021, managing teams that were 100/1 and 1,000/1 to win the All-Ireland, they’d have taken some look at you.

More power to them. They have a big local rivalry ready to go on Sunday and both teams will be going gung-ho to come through it. Even if the reward turns out to be a semi-final against the Dubs, the two boys will have their players giving everything to get there.

And they both obviously still have a way about them. There’s no evidence the game has passed them by. Offaly only just avoided the drop to Division Four when Maughan took them over – now he has them up to Division Two. Kildare got a right hosing and lost all their games the last time they were in Division One but they’re back there now after three years away.

I don't mean that as a put-down, now. Never knock another man's racket, as we say down here

Of the two of them, I would obviously know Jack the best. We won three All-Irelands under him in the 2000s and even if we might have sparked off each other from time to time, he was a top class manager.

There has always been a real intensity to him. He thinks about the game an awful lot. The week of a game, he would be ringing you going through his thoughts on what you needed to do and he would have worked out in great detail in advance what was awaiting you on the weekend.

You could tell that he was a teacher by trade. Even if there was a lot of information in what he was saying, he was good at getting it across. Very often you felt like you were inside in a classroom as well. He would come up with lots of scenarios and systems for each game but he wouldn’t overload you.

The boss

There would have been plenty of times where we would have had disagreements. But ultimately, from my point of view, Jack was the boss and that was that. At the end of the day, I could disagree all I liked but I knew my place. I might not have been the easiest player he ever had to handle but we got there in the end.

When he was over us, he was feeling his way into inter-county management. He would have been young enough when he got the Kerry job the first time, probably only 43 or so. He wasn’t sure of himself, not 100 per cent. We would have found that even though he was doing the right thing, he sometimes needed to be told he was doing the right thing.

Jack has always been very good at positioning himself in a spot where there is the best chance of success. You always knew that if he was over a Coláiste na Sceilge team, it was a sign they had a fairly good group that year. He didn’t take them every year but when he did, they did well.

He was always very smart like that. He is nobody’s fool and never was. He knows that first and foremost, a manager needs the raw materials. The Kerry that he took over in 2013 had the likes of Mark O’Connor, Shane Ryan, Tom O’Sullivan, Briain Ó Beaglaoich and Killian Spillane. The bunch that came through the following year had Seán O’Shea, Gavin White and Jason Foley.

Jack would have seen what was coming through and would have had no problem associating himself with it, put it that way. I don’t mean that as a put-down, now. Never knock another man’s racket, as we say down here.

So it was probably no great surprise when he took the job in Kildare. Okay, they’re a good way off Dublin and the gap probably isn’t surmountable any time soon. But they’ve been very good at minor level in Leinster over the past six or seven years and they won an under-20 All-Ireland as well. The raw materials are obviously there. Maybe not to catch Dublin but at least to improve their situation.

But John Maughan in '96, none of us will ever forget. For the simple reason that when he came in to deliver his speech, he was stripped to the waist

He will maximise the output of what he has there. That’s his big strength. He will work out systems for those players to come to the fore. They made an awful mess of their game against Meath last year and that could have taken a bit of the air out of the balloon. But they’ve had a good league and they have looked sharp. I’d expect them to come through against Offaly.

But am I right to? Because John Maughan is no fool either. Talk about a fella who has been around the block – he’s been managing at inter-county level since he was in his 20s. He was the first manager ever to wear shorts in Croke Park. But that was only the half of it.

Opposing manager

He was over Mayo when they beat us in the All-Ireland semi-final in 1996. It was the first time I had played in an All-Ireland semi-final. I was 21 years old and it was all fairly new to me. we were sitting in the dressing room afterwards, down in the dumps. Devastated, really, after being beaten by six points.

In that situation, the last person you want to hear from is the opposing manager. It doesn’t matter who he is or how well meaning the visit is, you have no interest in hearing what he has to say. No more than the lads in the other dressing room want to hear from your guy.

I have forgotten 99 per cent of those visits over the years. They all say the same thing. Great battle, lads. An honour to beat ye. Ye’ll be back next year, no doubt in the world about that. Did I mention the great battle? Oh, I did that bit already. Good luck, lads.

Still, it’s a long-standing GAA tradition. You give the bit of hush, you let him say his piece, you give him a clap and you get on with your wake. Almost none of them ever stick in your head any longer than it takes the opposition manager to walk back to his own dressing room.

But John Maughan in ’96, none of us will ever forget. For the simple reason that when he came in to deliver his speech, he was stripped to the waist. At first you were going, ‘Who’s yer man with no top on him?’ But then you realised, ‘Christ, that’s John Maughan!’ People talk about him going around in the tight shorts – I can tell you we were glad of them that day.

But then, John has never been afraid to make bold decisions. Liam McHale was one of the best midfielders in the country and Maughan hit on the idea of playing him in at full-forward. I don’t think it worked particularly well but you have to respect a fella who thinks outside the box like that. He had a strong hand around the middle at the time but Mayo were missing a bit of an edge in the forwards. It didn’t come off but he backed himself and gave it a go.

Standing back from it all, Kildare should win this. They're playing at a higher level, they have better players

That self-confidence has carried him through all the ups and downs. It’s no small thing to be still at it and still chasing success after all these years. Maughan must have one of the longest inter-county management careers of anyone. He took over Clare in 1990 and this is his fifth different county. I know he hadn’t managed anyone in a while before Offaly but he obviously still has plenty to offer.

Good for him. He has never had the raw materials that he had with Mayo in ’96 or again in 2004. He’s had Fermanagh and Roscommon and now Offaly and nobody would class any of them as world-beaters. But he’s still getting performances out of fellas and still getting them to make progress.

A buzz

There’s a buzz around Offaly GAA at the minute. Shane Lowry getting involved is great for everybody – and seeing him at the game last weekend had to give them a great boost.

Maughan didn’t go there for success, there was no ready-made team there for him to give one last push to. He had to basically start from scratch and get a few small wins here and there to build them up. To be still up for doing that 31 years after he started managing at inter-county is a fair mark of him.

Standing back from it all, Kildare should win this. They’re playing at a higher level, they have better players and they’re more physically developed. A crack off the Dubs has to be in their championship plans, if only to test themselves and see where they really are in the pecking order.

Offaly know they’re well below that level but there were only four points between these teams last year. So they’ll make sure Kildare know they’re in a game.

The two men on the sideline have seen it all before. They’re brave men to still be at it after all these years.