Jack a master of mind games
Kerry boss O'Connor full of praise for the Dubs ... but is he just softening them up?
ONE of the most frequently quoted GAA books of recent vintage is 'Keys to the Kingdom', Jack O'Connor's "story of the outsider who led Kerry back to glory", as the bumph on the cover obligingly explains.
The memoir focuses primarily on his team's meandering climb to the All-Ireland summit in 2006. Part of the reason why sports hacks love trawling through its pages is because O'Connor lays it all on the table, with countless revealing nuggets from inside the Kerry tent.
The other reason? Well, while O'Connor had quit as Kerry boss in the autumn of '06, he was back in the hotseat just two years later. Suddenly, his candour in cold print proved all the more appealing -- and quotable -- now that Jack was back managing the same players against many of the same foes.
Not that it seems to have bothered the man himself unduly: the "outsider" from south Kerry quickly led his county to a third All-Ireland title on his watch (2009). Now he's back chasing a fourth -- one that would elevate him to the same rarefied plateau as Seán Boylan and halfway to the summit occupied by his fellow Kerryman, Mick O'Dwyer, and his Kilkenny hurling counterpart, Brian Cody.
First, though, O'Connor must plot a way past Pat Gilroy's Dublin. Their paths have crossed before -- most famously in 2009 when Dublin's "startled earwigs" (copyright P Gilroy) were steamrolled by a reborn Kerry at the quarter-final stage.
Since Keys to the Kingdom was published in 2007, we don't get any hostage-to-fortune assessment from O'Connor, dissecting Dublin's 17-point collapse that day. We do, however, get some withering opinion on how Dublin frittered away an earlier chance to meet Kerry in an All-Ireland final, five years ago.
O'Connor was in Croke Park for that '06 semi-final, keeping a watching brief on his next opponent. When Mayo come out first and run to Hill 16 for their warm-up, he reckons Paul Caffrey should "take his boys to the Canal end and use it to wind them up". But instead, Dublin "do probably the worst thing they can do" by going to the Hill end themselves -- cue the inevitable "ruaille buaille".
Still, Dublin managed to go seven up, 15 minutes into the second half. O'Connor can only think that some of the tactical switches that followed, notably giving match-time to Darren Magee (who had made a "huge contribution" in Killarney that spring) and moving Shane Ryan from midfield to wing-back, were "in preparation for playing us".
He then concludes: "Dublin's heads weren't right. The attitude wasn't there. They got to a certain stage and the players were thinking of playing Kerry."
O'Connor, the author, was even more damning of Dublin's pre-match routine of marching to the Hill, linking arms. "They're ignoring all the other Dubs in the place, including most of their friends and family in the stands, but they think they are being empowered. To me it looks phoney and orchestrated," he writes, adding: "This was the day they realised there's nothing coming back to them from the Hill. Any yahoo can support a team when it is going well. We discovered that in Kerry this year."
Yet O'Connor also spelled out his relief at avoiding them: "Deep down we know that Dublin would have been a tougher proposition for the final. Physically they were the only team that had given us bother, and they had brought a lot of flow and power into their attacking -- they created five goal chances."
Finally, highlighting their tendency to "shut up shop" with the press, O'Connor writes: "If Dublin had qualified for the final, I had planned to exploit their paranoia and use the media to turn the heat on them a bit."
Fast-forward five years, to Kerry's All-Ireland press day in Killarney last Saturday. O'Connor couldn't speak highly enough of Pat Gilroy and his players. He sounded entirely genuine too, but part of you wondered if this cute Kerryman was again using the media to his advantage by buttering up the Dubs?
"I think Dublin have improved dramatically," he declared. "I mean, Gilroy and (Mickey) Whelan have done a serious job with the team.
"They dismantled the team from 2009 and there are very few of the same players playing the same positions," he pointed out. "What can I say? They are a tough nut to crack and a hard team to break down at this stage, because they have a great defensive system in place."
O'Connor later returned to the same theme, predicting: "This Dublin team, there is no question in my mind they will win an All-Ireland. I just hope it's not this year."
He also spoke about the "romance" attached to a Dublin/Kerry final, dating back to the '70s when his co-selector, Ger O'Keeffe, was involved. "It is a huge challenge for our fellas anda huge carrot at this stage of their careers, to be playing the Dubs, because it doesn't get any bigger than that," he concluded.
Mind you, Kerry folk are never shy about romancing this particular rivalry -- partly, you suspect, because Dublin haven't beaten them in summer combat since the 'classic' semi-final of 1977.
As former Kerry star Dara Ó Cinnéide wryly noted, in an interview ahead of the 2009 quarter-final: "We go romancing about the rivalry (with Dublin) when we're winning. You won't hear a lot of talk about the rivalry with Tyrone, though."
We'll conclude with one final quote from Keys to the Kingdom. "I'm delighted when I see the papers the next day," writes O'Connor after Dublin's exit. "There's any number of pundits saying that Dublin and Mayo was the greatest game ever played ... the more the semi-final gets talked up, the more the pressure switches to them (Mayo). I always think you're better getting into a final with some dour old semi-final that you win by seven points to five, a game that everyone forgets instantly."
Okay, so maybe Dublin/Donegal wasn't instantly forgettable ... but it did finish eight points to six!