Third time’s a charm as Kerry go with safe pair of hands in Jack O’Connor

Three-time All-Ireland winning manager’s elevation comes after a week of entertaining intrigue

Jack O’Connor is to return as Kerry manager for a third term. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Jack O’Connor is to return as Kerry manager for a third term. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

So much for never going back. Assuming he is ratified at the county board meeting on Monday week, Jack O’Connor will take the reins as Kerry manager for the third time after the five-man committee charged with the appointment settled on him on Friday night.

O’Connor will have Micheál Quirke and Diarmuid Murphy as selectors, with an expectation that former Down manager Paddy Tally will come on board also.

O’Connor, who was still the Kildare manager up to just three weeks ago, returns to a job where he brought success in both of his previous stints. Under his stewardship, Kerry won All-Irelands in 2004, 2006 and 2009 and were beaten All-Ireland finalists in 2005 and 2011. Heading into the county’s eighth season without Sam Maguire, the committee went with what looks like the most straightforward option.

Not that they were short of them. O’Connor’s elevation to the role comes after a week of highly entertaining intrigue in Kerry, a proper keys-in-the-bowl orgy of second-guessing. It seems almost comical now to think back to the aftermath of the Tyrone defeat a month ago, when the most common argument put about for keeping Peter Keane in the manager’s job was that there was no significant queue of candidates lining up to take it off him.

It’s fair to say that doesn’t quite chime with events of the past week in Kerry. The best way to offend an ex-Kerry footballer in the past 10 days had been to text him to ask why he hasn’t been touted for a role in one of the three potential set-ups. By the time O’Connor was announced with Quirke and Murphy in tow, the putative runners and riders included three ex-Kerry managers and 14 ex-players.

None of whom, by the by, was Éamonn Fitzmaurice or Tomás Ó Sé, who both pre-emptively took their names out of the picture very early in proceedings. Fitzmaurice made it clear that he had too much on at work as a school principal at Pobalscoil Corca Dhuibhne in Dingle. And Ó Sé signed up as a selector with Offaly less than 48 hours after the Tyrone defeat, not only taking himself out of the running for any role with Kerry but giving up his media roles with RTÉ and the Irish Independent into the bargain.

Micheál Quirke spent two years as Laois manager and will join Jack O’Connor’s new backroom team. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Micheál Quirke spent two years as Laois manager and will join Jack O’Connor’s new backroom team. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

The notion that there was nobody out there to do the Kerry job was always going to be a fanciful one. As the past week has shown, no manager’s gig in the country has more internal candidates capable of slapping down an impressive sounding CV. Indeed, the fact that each candidacy came franked with such readily-available stardust was, in part, what made it all the more difficult for the committee to come to a decision.

Peter Keane began the week in pole position. His three-year term ended with the All-Ireland semi-final defeat but he was by no means out of the running to be handed another stint in charge. At a players meeting last weekend, there was no appetite to make a public declaration on it one way or the other. But the squad is close to Keane and it was accepted by all that they would have had no issue with him carrying on at the helm.

Once he skedaddled out of Kildare, O’Connor was presumed to be Keane’s sole rival for the gig. The initial word was that he was bringing Quirke and Declan O’Sullivan on board with him but it’s believed that O’Sullivan was keen to stay in his role as under-20 manager. For a couple of days during the week, the prospect of Kieran Donaghy joining up was also floated but the Tralee man decided to honour the commitment he had made to Armagh to stay on in Kieran McGeeney’s backroom team.

Murphy has been a Kerry selector before, under Fitzmaurice between 2013 and 2016 and under O’Connor after his retirement from playing in 2009. Quirke has recently finished a two-year stint managing Laois and Tally was over Down for three years up until this summer. Neither man had any great success, it must be said. Yet O’Connor saw their influence – particularly Tally’s defensive instincts, it must be presumed – as key parts of his ticket.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday night, a group of ex-players met at the home of Stephen Stack, the two-time All-Ireland winning corner back who has in recent years managed Austin Stacks to county and provincial success, as well as Killarney Legion. Among those in attendance were such luminaries as Séamus Moynihan, Mickey Ned O’Sullivan and Dara Ó Cinnéide. They strategised for four hours ahead of a meeting with the county board in Tralee at 3.30 on Wednesday.

As word of Stack’s candidacy spread on Wednesday morning, two things jumped out. One was the Avengers Assemble-style gathering of names on the ticket – not just the above-mentioned trio but Aidan O’Mahony and Joe O’Connor to take charge of the strength and conditioning side of things. The other was the presence of Donie Buckley.

Diarmuid Murphy has been a Kerry selector before under Jack O’Connor. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Diarmuid Murphy has been a Kerry selector before under Jack O’Connor. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Buckley has been a curious jigsaw piece in the Kerry story over the past decade or so. His reputation as a coach has been made and burnished elsewhere, most notably in Mayo. Players in plenty of counties – Kerry included – have raved about his sessions and yet both Keane and O’Connor have found cause to jettison him from Kerry set-ups in the past.

And yet, when it all washed out, the committee went with O’Connor. It is believed that Keane’s insistence that he wanted to continue with the same backroom team as before counted against him. And though the committee was impressed by the team Stack had assembled, they felt they couldn’t ignore O’Connor’s All-Ireland-winning pedigree.

Swirling around the appointment was the small matter of internal politics in the Kerry county board. This will be Tim Murphy’s last act as outgoing county chairman. As an indicator of why that matters at all, three different people spoken to by The Irish Times this week brought up the fact that Murphy is the only chairman in the history of the Kerry county board not to preside over the winning of an All-Ireland.

Current vice-chairman Eamon Whelan is the favourite to take over from Murphy and is known to be close to O’Connor. Whatever fundraising or organising the next chairman does over the course of his five-year term, he will ultimately be judged on whether the best crop of young players the county has produced in a generation wins Sam Maguire. Whelan is on the five-man committee to pick the manager. He may end up with the most skin in the game of them all.

Wheels within wheels, intrigue within intrigue. O’Connor recently likened the Kerry job to the Man United one. Right now, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of either gig. Life is never quiet in the Kingdom for long, particularly when Sam winters elsewhere.

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