Kingdom awaits return of team captain Joe O’Connor

‘Joe has developed into a natural leader on the pitch in the way he drives the team forward’

Only in Kerry could there be so much interest in a footballer who has played so little for his county.

Among the many positives aired by manager Jack O'Connor after Kerry extended their unbeaten league run against Mayo on Saturday night was the potential return of his team captain, who has yet to make his first start in the league or championship for that matter.

Joe O’Connor (no relation) was nominated for the captaincy in early February by his club Austin Stacks: only Kerry and Kilkenny still keeping the old tradition of affording their senior county champions that right. If, however, O’Connor can’t secure a regular starting place, or is out injured, the manager or country board chairman can make the captaincy decision come big match day.

It can be a sensitive subject, O'Connor's situation not helped by the fact he's still returning from the knee injury sustained in the Munster club final in mid-January, where Austin Stacks narrowly lost out to Cork champions St Finbarr's.

That meant he missed Kerry's McGrath Cup campaign, during which three other Austin Stacks players, Greg Horan, Dylan Casey and Jack O'Shea, featured. Casey (21) also started against Mayo on Saturday, Horan coming on at midfield after 66 minutes.

O'Connor is, unquestionably, the most senior of that club quartet, taking over from last year's captain, Paul Murphy. Although he's yet to start for Kerry, he did make some fleeting appearances last year under then manager Peter Keane. He came off the bench against Roscommon to score a goal and saw some game time in the six-goal hammering of Tyrone.

There is some debate about O’Connor’s best position, which for his club has been at midfield: as it happened that wasn’t the strongest part of their game on Saturday. O’Connor, named at number 25, wasn’t called upon.

Now the Kerry manager feels his time has come, indicating he is likely to feature against Armagh this weekend, with Kerry virtually certain already of their place in the league final. "Joe O'Connor will almost definitely see action next week," said O'Connor. "He played a club game last night just to get a bit of mileage into the legs. There are a few more of them pretty close. Gavin White is going pretty well and the injured lads are getting closer, but it is up to the physios to say when to press the green light."

Once it became known O'Connor's knee injury was less serious than first feared, the club had little hesitation in their nomination. A club statement from chairman Shane Lynch at the time said "there is no greater privilege for a club than to nominate one of its own to be the Kerry captain. This is a very special moment for all in Austin Stacks and of course most especially for Joe, his parents Jim and Helen and family.

“Joe has developed into a natural leader on the pitch in the way he drives the team forward at critical moments and everyone on the Rock can’t wait to see Joe lead out the men in green and gold and drive the Kingdom on to glory this season.”

Also a capable forward, O’Connor established himself one of the leading players on the Kerry’s club scene since making his league debut in 2017.

A former Munster youth rugby player, he won club player of the year in 2019, before marking a special individual mark during the club’s run in 2021, named man of the match in the club and county championship finals.

Still, O'Connor may find it difficult to nail down that regular starting position, especially at midfield, with David Moran also in the mix again for 2022 along with Jack Barry, Diarmuid O'Connor, Adrian Spillane and Stefan Okunbor, also out injured.

David Clifford served as Kerry captain on Saturday night, Seán O'Shea also playing the role this season. O'Connor (the manager) suggested the captaincy issue doesn't bug him anyway: "It's irrelevant the way I feel about it because that is the system. I am a pragmatist and there is no point in me getting excited about it. Sure you cannot have everything you like. That's the system and it's stood Kerry well in the past and until that is changed, that is good enough for me."

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics