Stop giving out: a recent history of Kerry football management
New incumbent will need to be given adequate time and space to make their mark
Jack O’Connor: has delivered three All-Ireland senior titles for Kerry in the past and his name is now back in the mix for a possible third term. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
‘Johneen, a chroí, don’t take that job at all, they’ll be giving out to you.’
Among the many overtly delicate passages in Keys to the Kingdom – ‘the story of an outsider who led Kerry back to glory’ – are these last dying words of Jack O’Connor’s mother, Sheila, spoken from her hospital bed in October 2003. What else could she have meant only the job of Kerry senior football manager?
Well before O’Connor’s time it wasn’t so much an appointment as an anointment, or at least a job which came with near sacred expectations. Trace the trail: after Mick O’Dwyer’s 16 unbroken years, and eight All-Irelands later, Mickey Ned O’Sullivan and then Denis ‘Ogie’ Moran did six fruitless seasons before the giving out became too much.
So in came Páidí Ó Sé, and even if they ended up giving out to him too his legacy as Kerry manager will always be about revitalising the county’s standing in the football world, twice returning the All-Ireland to its most accustomed home. Now more than ever that’s the challenge for whoever takes the job next.
O’Connor knew this better than anyone – a cabóg from Dromid about to take charge – only instead of heeding his mother’s last words he used them as moral incentive. Some more giving out and three All-Irelands later and the rest is Kerry football history.
O’Connor didn’t actually have the job at that passage. In October 2003, still raging against the dying of the light, Ó Sé called a press conference at the Gleneagle Hotel in Killarney. After eight years as Kerry football manager, and two All-Irelands later, it wasn’t yet entirely clear whether or not Ó Sé was accepting the Kerry County Board didn’t want to renew his contract – that he resign or be pushed – or was about to fight for an extension of it.
“The battle is now over, we’ll return our swords to the scabbards,” Ó Sé told us in his own audacious and undaunted manner, with some measure of dignity too, albeit slightly spoiled by some departing thwacks directed at the county executive: “Now I’ve made many mistakes in my life. So many that I’ve forgotten. But on this occasion they made the mistake . . .”
One of the first questions asked of Ó Sé in that moment was whether he could ever see himself managing again, in Kerry or indeed anywhere else.
“To be brutally honest,” he said, “I couldn’t see myself at this point in time having the bottle to train another team to go out against the green and gold of Kerry, especially against any group of lads I’ve trained.”
Exactly one week later, at a press conference at the Greville Arms Hotel in Mullingar, Ó Sé was presented as the new Westmeath football manager. Maybe that was his own way of having the last laugh on that one but those closest to him always said the manner of his Kerry exit was one of the lasting regrets in the life cut sadly short just before Christmas week 2012.
O’Connor picks up the story from there in Keys to the Kingdom. Back at his mother’s bedside, he’d a copy of the Sunday World rolled up on his lap, having read an article by Pat Spillane – “an absolute royal among Kerry footballers with his eight All-Ireland medals” – where he said things “were at a piss poor pass” in Kerry when the county board were replacing “a legend like Páidí” with “a fella whose last entry on his CV was being beaten by Waterford in the Under-21 championship”.
And on the day of the press conference in Killarney, O’Connor was at school in Coláiste na Sceilge in Cahirciveen, listening to a live broadcast on Kerry radio, realising Ó Sé was waving the white flag.
“There’s times when I’m reminded that when push comes to shove there’s the aristocracy from the 70s and the 80s and then there’s the peasants, and if I fail in two out of three years in the Kerry job it will tell people all they need to know about the peasantry.”
That O’Connor went on to win two All-Irelands in his first three years – in 2004 and in 2006 – says a little or a lot about the so-called aristocracy but also underscores Kerry’s record for finding the right man for the job.
When he decided on a hiatus in 2007 they found Pat O’Shea willing and able to deliver an All-Ireland that very same year, before closely losing the 2008 final to Tyrone. O’Shea wasn’t without some perceived differences, namely his club allegiances, and his term proved seamlessly successful when he stepped aside and O’Connor returned to the job in 2009 and won a third All-Ireland, making him the fourth most successful manager in the county’s history.
Even considering how close O’Connor came to making it four in the 2011 All-Ireland final, the rest of that being Dublin football history, it’s no small wonder Kerry found their right man the next time too in Eamonn Fitzmaurice, who two years after O’Connor stepped down delivered the 2014 All-Ireland to Kerry, the last county outside the capital to lay hands on it.
It was meant to be Fitzmaurice’s job until 2020, before the giving out – or at least the box full of anonymous letters – also got a little too much. Now Kerry are days away from naming his successor, complete with his selectors, the county board giving themselves until next Monday evening to find their new man for the job.
O’Connor’s name is back in the mix for a third term but publicly he’s been reluctant. Maurice Fitzgerald, the 1997 Footballer of the Year and a selector with Fitzmaurice for the last two seasons, has also attracted their attention only it seems he’s not so sure now either.
Which leaves Peter Keane, who last month, in his third season as Kerry minor football manager, guided the county to a fifth successive minor All-Ireland. That’s the sort of talent the county has to play with.
It may not come through quick enough to halt Dublin’s quest for a fifth successive senior All-Ireland – the one feat which eluded Kerry – but whoever does get the job won’t be helped by the giving out, only the giving of time and space.