KERRY HURLERS FACE ITT TEST
Damian Stack caught up with new Kerry hurling boss Tom Howard ahead of Kerry's first competitive game of the season this weekend against IT Tralee in the Waterford Crystal Cup
BEFORE his appointment as senior hurling boss, Kerry folk would have viewed Tom Howard as the quintessential number two.
That was the role he fulfilled in his partnership with Anthony Daly during his Kilmoyley years. Or was it? Well yes and no. When Daly was in town he was the main man. During the latter part of his tenure at Lerrig, however, he was more often that not in Dublin helping to awake that sleeping giant. And where did that leave Howard? Well that left him in charge.
When his appointment by the County Board was announced it was something of a surprise. Until you began to think about it. He's managed teams in his native Clare – most famously last year's Clarecastle minor hurling team – as a man deeply involved in one of the county's top hurling clubs he knew the terrain well and, despite brilliant work put in over the years by men like Causeway's Maurice Leahy, Kerry's best performances in the last twenty years have come with outside managers at the helm. "I thought this is a challenge, but it's a challenge I'd like to take up and I put my name forward," Howard says.
"I arranged to meet with the County Board and I had a chat with them and I still wasn't positive that I was interested in taking it. I did it almost on an exploratory basis and then I met with them and through my conversation with them I saw that this was a challenge I'd like to take. The people I'm working with here are clearly in support of hurling in Kerry. If they want me I'll be really interested in taking it. It was then a case of convicing them I was the right man for the job."
It won't be an easy task for the Banner native. He's got some pretty big boots to fill in replacing John Meyler – a fellow former Kilmoyley alumni – despite the fact his second coming didn't end as he would have liked it. That's both an obstacle and an opportunity to Howard. On one level he picks up a squad dispirited by a very disappointing 2012.
They seemed to have real momentum coming into last year's league. Having been favourites to win backto-back Christy Ring titles they fell flat. What's that they say? It's the hope that kills you?
So Howard is starting with a clean slate and with far fewer expectations than those which weighed down his predecessor. The fundamentals remain what they were twelve months ago – a talented, young bunch of hurlers – but the hype has been washed away.
"The disadvantages are: they playing pool is small, it's from a small number of clubs and I the fact that Kerry hurling at underage or whatever is not playing in the premier compeitions you're disadvantaged in terms of the development of the game," the new manager says bringing a healthy dose of reality to bear.
"However, on the positive side there are some very fine individual hurlers in Kerry. There's a real passion for hurling in the clubs where it's played and for me it was about taking on the talent that was there, trying to marry that with the obvious passion for hurling and bringing it to the county scene. In the club scene people are doing their best to try and develop the game as best they can, but it doesn't always translate to the county team and what I was trying to do was say bring the parochial passionate approach for the club game and bring it to the county.
"We want to bring in some fresh talent and develop talent. If a fella has potential it's about how can you develop him. I saw great potential during John Meyler's term – those Under 21 teams. There is raw material there, but it is raw. "
To help turn the potential into something more tangible, Howard brought a fellow Clare man with him – Fergie O'Loughlin, brother of the famous Ger ' Sparrow' – to hone his squad into a competitive unit.
"Fergie is taking primary responsibility for the training, that's not to say that I will be hands off the training," he says.
"There will be times when I take parts of the training, but he has the primary responsibility for it. I see my role as primarily a management role. I will be involved in sessions and when he's absent I'll take the sessions. With Fergie I will look to help, steer and guide the approach that we will take. He's the expert in that area, but obviously I will have a major influence."
Since Christmas Howard has been able to announce an addition to his backroom team with Ballyduff native Noel Browne coming on board as selector, joining Mikey Burke and Padraig Regan. It's was seen by many, us included, as important that the county champions for the last three years have a presence in the new set-up. Howard takes a different tack.
"I didn't think so [that it was important to get a Ballyduff club man involved]," he says.
"For me what's important is that you get the right personnel into your backroom staff. It's very important, given that neither Fergie nor I are from Kerry, to get people in with local knowledge. To provide us with that insight. What was important was the calibre of the people you get involved that are obviously from the community, but have the ability to stand back and objectively look at the game of hurling and look at what's in the best interests of Kerry hurling, to take off their parish hat and put on their county hat. Noel Browne is of that calibre as is MIkey Burke and Padraig Regan.
"I've been very impressed with their objectivity and their commitment to Kerry hurling."
With the start of the competitive hurling season just days away prerparations haven't been ideal Howard admits. Ideally he would have wanted to put his players through their paces before Christmas. Events conspired to ensure he didn't get quite what he wanted.
First Ballyduff qualified for the Munster Club Intermediate Hurling Championship and Finuge qualified for the Munster Club Intermediate Football Championship final denying him his Lixnaw contingent. There was also a "cultural challenge" holding back the Kingdom's pre-Christmas preparations.
"People tend not to train with the county team prior to Christmas in Kerry, it just seems to be difficult before Christmas," he explains.
"We did have training and the numbers were relatively small. We did have a meeting post Christmas, last week, and we'd a very good response. The numbers have been good and the quality of the training has been very good. A little bit disappointed with the response, for a number of reasons, towards the end of last year, but somewhat encouraged by what we've seen this week."
The panel is pretty smilary to last year's Howard says. He will be without his Lixnaw players for the time being, but by and large it will be the same panel of players John Meyler had at his disposal.
"We've brought in a number of young fellas with the success of the minor team last year – Daniel Collins is in the set-up for example. Ricky Heffernan is club tied but I'd be hopeful he'd be involved and there are a number of Under 21s as well.
"Clearly fellas who'd have been on the periphery of John's team, we'd be hoping would take a more prominent role. We'd be hoping the majority of players who were in with John would get involved. There's one or two of those who I'm still waiting to get a final commitment from and get training this week. The bulk of John's set-up have committed."
A good sign, even if, Shane Brick remains one of those yet to commit for 2013. For now Kerry hurling folk can rest content that they have a committed, passionate and talented hurling man at the helm.
You couldn't ask for much more than that.