Can five-in-a-row be done? John O’Keeffe recalls Kerry’s bid
In a career spanning 50 years, there are enough great memories to offset 1982 defeat
Kerry’s John O’Keeffe in action in July 1982. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
With his precise demeanour and dislike of overstatement, John O’Keeffe steps gingerly around the idea that this is the 50th anniversary of his first senior All-Ireland.
“Well I was only on the bench that day. It wasn’t until the following year against Meath that I actually played.”
It was still some year, 1969. O’Keeffe had just done the Leaving Cert and in his last months at school, captained St Brendan’s in Killarney to the first of the ‘Sem’s’ four Hogan Cups (All-Ireland colleges’ football). Minor football maintained its frustrations with a third successive Munster final defeat by Cork but by September he was with Kerry on All-Ireland final day.
“I thought, ‘this is unbelievable’” he says. “I’d played centre back with the Sem and midfield with Stacks and got called into training where I was competing with Mick O’Connell – who my father used to bring me to see in county championship matches. I went from having him as my idol to training with him.
“I was in Croke Park for the All-Ireland final and under absolutely no pressure because there was no way into the team. Players were nailed on in those days and there wasn’t anything like the number of tactical substitutions.”
In fact, he maintains that it was an unexpected departure that got him up and running on the county team. Mick Morris had been Kerry’s centre back but walked away in his mid-20s because of row over expenses for the Australia tour that Kerry undertook in the winter of 1969-70 and which O’Keeffe missed because of a cartilage injury.
“Mickey Morris went on to be a golf international and when he left, I slotted in at centre back. In the 1970s final I spent a lot of the day tagging Mattie Kerrigan who was a very good player.”
He had a role, however, in one of the most famous All-Ireland goals – DJ Crowley’s thundering run through the middle of the Meath defence to cement Kerry’s win.
In the words of Micheál O’Hehir’s television commentary:
“High ball to the middle of the field, fielded well by John O’Keeffe. To DJ Crowley, DJ going through with it now, a typical DJ run. He’s on the 14-yard line and that’s it. A great goal, a great goal by Din Joe Crowley. All the way up field from away back in the centre of the field, racing his way through and cracking the ball to the back of the net. And that is about that.”
It stands out for the man, who started it. “It was a left-handed fisted pass. I was impressed by myself!”
There was one aspect of the 1970 final that still puzzles O’Keeffe. It was the first year of a short-lived experiment to lengthen championship matches from an hour, which had been the duration up until then.
“”I have no idea why they pushed it out to 80 minutes. Fitness levels were not close to what they are these days. Back then you did two nights’ training and had a match at the weekend. Dwyer revolutionised that in response to Heffernan’s Dublin. He introduced Saturday training – to the horror of Jimmy Keaveney!”
The Mick O’Dwyer revolution raised the stakes for Dublin. Despite all of the tales of savage ordeals on the training field, O’Keeffe, whose expertise is in physical preparation, says that O’Dwyer was at times misrepresented.
“Yes, we trained five times a week in 1975 but some thought that Micko was constantly doing laps. That wasn’t true. There were warm-up laps and a series of sprints, 40 minutes of football and a warm-down. What really brought us on were those backs-versus-forwards sessions, which drove our match fitness.
“Micko also had a great insight into how to improve a team, using that actual football training to develop us and also build match fitness through playing.”
With Brendan Lynch, he was one of only two players on the team, who had already won All-Ireland medals. While confident in the young team assembling, O’Keeffe didn’t foresee that they would become an historical benchmark in the future.
“A number of young players came together and I’d say we nearly surprised ourselves the first year. In 1975 we’d no idea that we had quite a decent team until we beat Cork in Killarney. It began to dawn on us then.”
In an echo that reverberates around these weeks, he remembers the carefree nature of the All-Ireland final against champions Dublin, who were already slipping into the public perceptions of being a machine despite having only broken through a year earlier.
“There’s a lot to be said for young players going into Croke Park with no baggage or history of defeat. We were just enjoying the football and expressing ourselves.”
With his captain that day 44 years ago, Mickey Ned O’Sullivan, he trained a number of the current team as minors: Jack Barry, Gavin Crowley, Shane Ryan, Killian Spillane, Adrian Spillane, Tom O’Sullivan. A couple of them were young enough to join the gold rush a year later when the county began to cut a five-year swathe through the All-Ireland minor championship but most weren’t.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” says O’Keeffe. “It goes to show you don’t have to win minor All-Irelands to make good seniors. Kerry only won one in the 1970s.”
He remembers acutely the 1982 final and the pressure of striking out for history.
“It was very obvious in our preparation that the tag of favouritism and five-in-a-row – there was too much talk about it. We tried to treat it as another game but it was impossible really. I think that showed in our performance on the day, particularly in the final 10 minutes.
“I know it myself that it dawned on me that we were going to get there, that we were nearly there. But we weren’t executing our game. I could see Mike Sheehy and Bomber and Jacko all retreating. We were all collapsing back into a defensive set-up, which wasn’t our game. We allowed Offaly to come on to us, instead of playing our game and tagging on a score or two.
“That was the mental side of the weight of history and we weren’t able to react against it. It shouldn’t have happened but it did.
“That’s why I was impressed by Dublin at the end, last week. They didn’t look like history was weighing them down. They were a point down and looked composed going after it. We were the opposite, ahead and trying to hold onto the lead.”
The next best thing
The curtain came down in 1984, simply because he couldn’t train anymore because of chronic injury. There were two hip replacements to come and he regrets that he didn’t do more stretching exercises as part of training routines through a lengthy, 15-year career.
“In the end had to ice my hip after training sessions every night. I was a PE teacher and had to look after myself but I did miss it.”
He gradually emerged on the coaching circuit a few years later. A teacher in Tralee CBS, he was a dedicated curator of the schools’ embryonic talent but at the turn of the decade in 1990 he took on management of Limerick – taking the county to a first Munster final in 26 years and running Kerry to two points.
Later, in the mid-1990s he went to Clare and working with players who had created a seismic shock by beating Kerry in the 1992 Munster final, pulled off another surprise, beating Cork in 1997 and reaching another provincial final.
He also trained his own county for a number of years when the late Páidí Ó Sé was manager, including when the 2000 All-Ireland was won. The relationship ended in controversy, not of O’Keeffe’s making and he walked away.
All the while, having started in 1991 he was this newspaper’s chief football analyst for a quarter of a century, projecting a characteristically quiet authority on the game although uneasy talking about teams with whom he was involved, preferring to step away until they no longer had a direct interest in the championship.
There were also more exotic commissions. He was fitness coach and selector with Colm O’Rourke and Brian McEniff in the early revivals of the international rules project before taking over as manager in 2002 and serving for two years, which although Ireland lost on both occasions were two of the most exciting series played – each going down to the last kick of the ball in the second test.
He has watched with sadness as the international series slowly deflates, believing it had great value for the GAA. “International rules is a great idea for amateur players, who are rewarded by travelling to Australia and getting to play against professionals.
“It’s amazing to see how competitive it was at its best. They learned from interacting with us: you can see they play a shorter game now. And we learned an awful lot from their S+C methods as well as things like the mark and taking frees from the hands.”
He’s not enthralled with how football is played in the modern idiom, believing that it was more skilful in the past when the game was based on a willingness to allow possession be a 50-50 call.
“There was an understanding that if you kicked long, there would be an even contest to receive but a Kerry player would be expected to win more contests than they lost. We weren’t putting it on a plate but taking a little chance with the possession.
“It made the game more exciting. Now it’s safety first, making sure of passes. In a way the obsession with stats is killing the game because it’s making players afraid to take chances. They don’t want to be on the end of a review, asking why they turned over that ball.
“Game systems have made defending a collective responsibility rather than an individual contest so that unfortunately, the art of man-to-man defence has disappeared.
“Football will keep evolving and that’s good but I wish there were more contests for the ball.”
It started, like all football careers, in the back garden. His dad Frank had been a Kerry corner forward in the 1940s, playing in the successful All-Ireland of 1946 beating Roscommon in a replay and the famously unsuccessful one in New York’s Polo Grounds a year later.
There was never going to be any great hand wringing over what dreams to pursue on the sports fields.
His warmest recall isn’t always for the headline days. He was on two All-Ireland winning club sides and captaining his local club, Stacks, to the 1977 title remains a vivid memory, as does the previous success with UCD, three years earlier, under the guidance of the late Eugene McGee, who as fate would have it managed the Offaly team that dashed the five-in-a-row.
“I had four great years with UCD and met great characters. Eugene was an outstanding manager. We wouldn’t have won what we did without his ability to get all of the players involved and then get the best out of them. It was really enjoyable football to play.”
Last May, he and others presented together in Longford for the funeral: UCD, the first great team delivered by Eugen McGee.
O’Keeffe is thoroughly encouraged by the performance of a young Kerry team and optimistic as they go into the replay looking to derail their greatest rivals’ five-in-a-row ambitions. More than that, he sees the eternal light of Kerry football undimmed.
“Our best sports people choose to play football as their number one sport and I feel we’re never going to be that far away. We’re lucky to have the tradition we have and the culture and interest is as good as ever. I’d have no fear of football in Kerry.”
A lifetime of achievement
John O’Keeffe was two weeks ago the recipient of the Gaelic Players Association Lifetime Achievement Award, having been inducted into the GAA Museum Hall of Fame in 2016.
All-Ireland medallist: 1969, 1970, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1981
NFL: 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1977, 1982 and 1984
All-Ireland club medallist: 1974 (UCD) and 1977 (Austin Stacks, captain)
Footballer of the Year: 1975
All Stars: 1973, 1975, 1976, 1978 and 1979
Manager: Limerick 1990-94, Clare 1994-98, Ireland (International Rules series, 2002 and 2003).
Trainer and selector: Kerry 1999-2003