Jack O’Connor determined to end Kerry U-21s’ losing streak
Talented Kingdom side set to host Munster champions Tipperary in Tralee
Kerry U-21 manager Jack O’Connor: “We had the minors for two years and we felt that the next challenge was to try and develop that group.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
As losing streaks go few are more currently conspicuous than Kerry’s under-21 footballers. For a county that has won 25 Munster titles and 10 All-Irelands these are desperately lean times.
It’s now four years since they last won an under-21 game in the province alone, that being the 2012 Munster semi-final against Waterford. They lost that final to Cork after extra-time (when current senior manager Eamon Fitzmaurice was in charge), and have failed to win a single game in the three campaigns since (when Darragh Ó Sé was in charge).
The man now assigned to end that losing streak is Jack O’Connor, beginning with this evening’s quarter-final against Tipperary – the reigning Munster under-21 champions.
For O’Connor it’s the latest step in a sort of natural recycling process, given he started his managerial career with the Kerry under-21 team that won five Munster titles and three All-Irelands, before moving on to the senior team – where he also won three All-Irelands.
Nine of that All-Ireland-winning minor side feature in the team to face Tipp in Tralee this evening, although O’Connor admits there are different challenges in the under-21 grade, including the fact the competition kicks off at the bitter end of winter.
Injury has also deprived him of eight or nine potentially first-choice players, including under-21 captain Cormac Coffey, last year’s standout minor captain Marc O’Connor, plus the likes of Shane Ryan, Liam Carey and Conor Keane
“I would say it’s the toughest grade of them all,” says O’Connor. “Compared to the minor management, where the thing is much more structured and streamlined, here there are fellas coming at these guys from all angles. You’ve colleges and clubs and bits and pieces of everything. And they’re away from home, they’re going to college, their lifestyle changes. So it’s a very challenging age group.
“What I’ve also found is the fact that the club scene basically went 13 months this year, it just really affected preparations. But we’d the minors for two years and we felt that the next challenge was to try and develop that group, because a lot of them can fall off after minor. .
“And they need a run at their own level to give them confidence. I keep going back 20 years, to the mid 1990s, when I was involved myself and when we won five Munsters in a row and a three All-Irelands, unlucky not to win a fourth.
“That bound the Kerry team for 10 years. So it’s a hugely important age group for developing players.
“They have to get their belief and confidence from somewhere and you can’t pluck it out of the sky. It’s a huge jump from minor to senior. Dublin have won something like three under-21s in the last six or seven years and the results at senior are starting to show as well.”
It’s also the last under-21 championship in its current incarnation, given the decision at Congress last month to drop the age a year to under-20, and to play it during the summer months exclusively of the senior championship. O’Connor is in full agreement with that decision, especially given the problems of finding suitable training venues on the dark, cold nights of February and March.
“The change to summer football is going to be a major benefit certainly. They’re talking about June, July and August, which definitely makes more sense, because we had a huge problem with the weather the way it was, trying to get pitches.”
Although Tipp are the reigning champions and unlucky not to claim last year’s All-Ireland, Kerry start as firm favourites (even to win the All-Ireland outright for the first time since 2008). O’Connor has brought Dromid Pearses clubmate and former student Declan O’Sullivan on board as a selector, and trainer Alan O’Sullivan also worked with him during his All-ireland -winning term with the Kerry seniors.
Still, given that conspicuous losing streak, he’s not being complacent: “Tipperary football is no longer the poor relation and it hasn’t been for quite a while. They’re physically very big, have a huge amount of very big men. Kerry have nothing much to write home about at this age group for the last few years. Our ambition is just to win a game.”
It’s rare any Kerry manager can justifiably admit to that.