Stephen O’Brien believes Kerry shipped unfair criticism
‘There’s this thing about Kerry having a bad year but we only just had one bad performance’
Stephen O’Brien in action against Kildare at Fitzgerald Stadium. “There’s this thing about Kerry having a bad year but we only just had one bad performance.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
We don’t know if Stephen O’Brien’s name was mentioned in the infamous letter sent to a Kerry player last year and, in truth, it’s probably better that way.
According to Eamonn Fitzmaurice, a player whom the former Kerry manager didn’t identify was advised to “jump off a cliff and take three or four other players with him”.
It was, of course, an ill-advised piece of penmanship though it’s the broader theme of criticising Kerry for gross underperformance that O’Brien takes issue with.
They missed out on an All-Ireland semi-final place for just the third time this century but, as far as he’s concerned, it wasn’t actually that bad a summer.
They played five Championship games, suffering just one defeat – a three-point Super 8s loss to Galway – leaving O’Brien frustrated at reports of the death of a football superpower.
“It was really just the game against Galway at Croke Park,” he said, pinpointing their solitary slip-up.
“It wasn’t down to preparation, we prepared just as well as normal. We just didn’t perform. We got a tough draw with Monaghan in Clones, that was probably an okay result if we’d won the week before. Then we beat Kildare in the last round. There’s this thing about Kerry having a bad year but we only just had one bad performance. That is still unacceptable at the end of the day.”
Beating Kildare would have sufficed if Monaghan had lost in Galway but that didn’t happen and the Kingdom exited the championship on the August bank holiday weekend.
O’Brien, a starter and scorer in all of Kerry’s championship games in 2018, learned the bad news earlier than he’d have liked. Team-mate Tom O’Sullivan confirmed it as the players returned to their positions after a score.
“I was just thinking, ‘Would you not have given me five minutes? I’d have found out anyway!” said O’Brien, who never got to enjoy the result.
“It was hard to play the last five minutes of that game. Everyone refers to it as ‘When Kerry lost to Kildare’, that it was like a defeat to Kildare because it felt like a loss. And then Eamonn stepped down that day.”
It’s been all change since. They have a new manager in Peter Keane, a new coach in Donie Buckley and a new (ish) player in towering forward Tommy Walsh who, at 30, is back for a third spell.
On the debit side of Kerry’s ledger, they have lost Darran O’Sullivan, Kieran Donaghy, Anthony Maher and Donnchadh Walsh to retirement.
They begin their Allianz League campaign on Sunday week against Tyrone though for all kinds of reasons, not least of which is their absence from the McGrath Cup, nobody is quite sure what to expect.
Asked if he knows what style Kerry will play, O’Brien shrugged.
“Not really, we played a very offensive way before but we haven’t played any games yet,” he said. “He definitely wants us to kick the ball and he wants us to attack, which is the Kerry way. It won’t be much different.”
Keane managed Kerry to their last three All-Ireland minor titles and the anticipation is that he’ll lean heavily on young players he has previously worked with.
So far, seven players – Brian Ó Beaglaoich, Tom O’Sullivan, Micheál Burns, Jason Foley, Gavin White, Sean O’Shea and David Clifford – have come through from successful minor teams to play in the senior championship.
All of them, bar O’Shea and Clifford, were minors in 2014 and 2015 so there are clearly plenty more in the running to be upgraded from the 2016, 2017 and 2018 teams.
It could leave O’Brien, who has never played for Keane, at a disadvantage.
“Maybe, but Eamonn Fitzmaurice had no experience of me either,” replied O’Brien.
“You earn your own crust. I don’t think previous experience would make any difference with him if you weren’t pulling your weight.”