O’Connor ticking all the boxes as Kerry turn focus to real business

League final routing of Mayo showed new defensive steeliness allied to an incisive attack

It’s hard to imagine a manager who has faced into his first year under such pressure as Jack O’Connor. Somewhat controversially put in charge of Kerry for a third time, he was left with no latitude as to what would constitute success: an All-Ireland title or bust.

At his introductory media conference in Tralee, last October, he was keen to play down that notion of pressure, the imperative to win things – and not to come close and carry a briefcase full of “learnings” back to Kerry to peruse over the winter.

He said that in his first senior year, in 2004, he felt under a lot of pressure because he was succeeding Páidí Ó Sé, a vastly decorated member of the Kerry All-Ireland royalty with his eight medals on the field and two on the line.

The memoir Keys to the Kingdom graphically made no secret of the chippiness he felt at what he believed was the caste system in Kerry football, the golden generation of the 1970s and ’80s and the likes of himself, who had no medals to back up his coaching.

By last autumn that had well changed and there was no doubt that O’Connor was by now establishment.

He had become the man to whom the county would turn when an All-Ireland simply had to be won – a Dr Eamon O’Sullivan, who managed eight winning teams over five decades, for our times.

In the aftermath of Sunday's crushing defeat of Mayo, O'Connor dismissed the growing similarities between this season and previous All-Ireland championships, each title prefaced by a league win – "I'm not into piseogs at all now" – despite the achievement being verifiable data rather than simply superstition.

It wasn’t widely commented on but the win was Kerry’s third league in succession, the difference being that it came after a proper campaign, as opposed to the other pandemic-constrained seasons: a shared title last year and one gained the year before by topping the Division One table.

That the previous two didn’t lead anywhere is why O’Connor was appointed.

Sunday’s performance was impressive even if Mayo appeared uncertain what they were doing there.

David Clifford's latest tour de force wasn't the only good news up front where Paul Geaney looked in excellent form. Despite Seán O'Shea being injured, Kerry managed to equal the record score in a league final.

Single defender

You’d still wonder how they might manage in the event of an injury to Clifford, as happened in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, but while he’s on the pitch, he poses a serious challenge on his own to any defence even though few prospective championship opponents will leave him one-on-one with a single defender.

There are further options at centrefield, as the veteran David Moran and promising AFL graduate Stefan Okunbor near fitness.

At the start there were plenty of reservations as to what way Kerry would play. Selectors Diarmuid Murphy and Mike Quirke are experienced and know the county well but O'Connor himself acknowledged the doubts about excessively defensive football.

These were made all the more profound by the recruitment of former Tyrone, Down and Galway coach and Down manager, Paddy Tally, which was portrayed in some quarters as a lurch to the dark side.

O’Connor protested in his opening media conference that his teams had always played good football and echoed the advice of his one-time collaborator, the legendary Johnny Culloty.

“‘Jack, it’s not enough just to win in Kerry, you’ve to win with a bit of style’. That’ll be our intention.”

Yet O’Connor has always been a pragmatist, steeped in the county’s tradition of harnessing whatever innovations have been instrumental in their overthrow from the tactical innovations of Down in the 1960s to the hyper-fitness of Dublin in the Seventies and the positional fluidity of Tyrone in the 2000s – even the last All-Ireland in 2014 was won by an ingenious mirroring of the Donegal system that had floored Dublin.

The manager who avidly absorbed tackling drills on the Ulster GAA website when reconstructing after the 2005 All-Ireland defeat by Tyrone, was never going to have difficulties in retaining an innovative, defensive specialist like Tally to assist in addressing the abiding problem of a leaky defence.

Jason Foley is a former underage athlete but never appeared to have quite the confidence to back his mobility. This season though, he has used pace and improved tackling technique to become a formidable defender.

As one Kerry man said, if it happened just once you wouldn’t think twice about it, but when he’s been doing it throughout the league, there’s obviously serious work going on, on the training field.

Defensive shift

Underpinning all of this is O’Connor’s non-negotiable industry. It has been noticed even in club matches that Paul Geaney, for instance, has a revitalised work rate. Foley and Tadhg Morley galloping down the pitch in injury-time to create a goal told its own story after a good defensive shift from both.

The manager kicked to touch on he subject of a venue for Kerry’s Munster semi-final against Cork but the main concern for him will be lack of competitiveness in the province and not where the matches will be played.

This year the qualifiers are restored and there will be All-Ireland quarter-finals. Kerry need as much stress testing as possible before coming up against the type of opponents likely to be roaming around after the Ulster championship.

The old investment caution about past results being no guide to future performance might make sense in finance but Kerry have disregarded it in the football context. So far so good. No pressure.

This article was amended on April 7th

READ MORE