Vincent Hogan: Kingdom's old dogs with short fuses still major players in race for Sam
Published 04/06/2011 | 05:00
The game had been over maybe an hour as Jack O'Connor made his way towards a lift beneath the Hogan Stand. Kerry were out of the championship and the muffled hiss overhead of Dublin against Tyrone now gushed down into the Croke Park dungeon like water through a radiator.
Hands in pockets, Jack had no cause to dwell any longer on the premises.
He'd told his press conference that Kerry had a train to catch and, accompanied by three players, getting out onto Jones's Road was his only remaining priority. There are a lot of lifts in the stadium, though, all programmed to a specific purpose and destination. Jack was confused.
Turning for assistance, he spotted the knot of journalists and -- though we'd never spoken -- he recognised the Indo.
"Yerrah, you've been quoting an awful lot of stuff out of that oul book," said O'Connor. "Is it really that interesting?" To which we could but counter that it was and, actually, there is much worth quoting from 'Keys to the Kingdom'.
The book's candour is its distinguishing personality and, on publication in 2007, rightly won it many plaudits. But it also hardened the impression of a man swimming against the conventional Kerry currents. For generations, Kerrymen had mastered the art of charming evasion.
You could spend a side-slapping hour in their company and walk away believing you understood the complex workings of their inner child. Then you played the tape back only to discover that someone had picked your pockets.
It was a common claim around the Christmas of '07 that Jack's willingness to recycle text messages and other, supposedly, private exchanges within the pages of 'Keys to the Kingdom' didn't sit well with county traditionalists.
Their sensitivities wouldn't have worried him. The cover of his book refers to O'Connor as "the outsider who led Kerry back to glory." He had no connection with the golden generation, the Mick O'Dwyer class that claimed eight senior All-Irelands between '75 and '86. This made him different.
And he has always been happy to accentuate that difference.
But two passages, specifically, have been excavated from O'Connor's book more often than any others. The first is his dismissal of the "flash and nouveau riche and full of it" Ulster counties. The second is his revelation that Paul Galvin was the possessor of a "little black book".
It would have been unimaginable for any of his predecessors to open such windows into the Kerry dressing-room, but the only lineage that has ever interested O'Connor is that marked by an All-Ireland roll of honour.
Still, he finds himself in a difficult place now. Kerry's defeat by Down last year will forever be framed in the minds of supporters by the suspensions that ruled out Galvin and Tomas O Se. In other words, the payback for indiscipline.
O Se is suspended again now and, if Kerry overcome Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds this evening, he will also miss the Munster final on July 3.
It has been pointed out recently that O Se's current sentence brings to 18 months the total time Kerry footballers have been cumulatively suspended since Galvin knocked the notebook out of referee Paddy Russell's hand during the '08 Munster semi-final against Clare.
Scarcely a brand of arithmetic associated, traditionally, with Kerry football.
Weeshie Fogarty, the renowned Radio Kerry broadcaster and former inter-county referee, admits to brewing concern in the county. "It's generally accepted that there is a discipline problem," he reflects.
"And that's very unusual for a Kerry team. But some of these lads have a lot of football played and a good many miles clocked up. And you can be inclined to become a bit cranky, especially if you're getting a little bit slow.
"It might just be a sign of a person going off."
O Se's recent dismissal was for an off-the-ball altercation with Tipperary's Hugh Coughlan last Sunday week.
Kerry chose not to appeal the suspension and there is general acceptance that the matter was dealt with fairly.
Yet Tipp manager and Kerry native John Evans admits to being "uncomfortable" with the commotion it stirred. Though standing only 10 yards from the incident, he admits he did not actually see O Se strike Coughlan.
"Look, apparently, it was right and correct that he was sent off," says Evans.
"I'm just uncomfortable about it more than anything else. Kerry have no need to get involved in this stuff.
"Certainly, the public down here were annoyed when Paul Galvin's issue arose a few years ago and they were annoyed with Tomas last year.
"A small thing stemming from it is: 'Do they (Kerry players) whinge a little bit?' I just wonder do some of them draw unnecessary attention on themselves?
"I mean, I look at the likes of Messi, a real team player. He doesn't whinge, he doesn't whine, he gets on with it. I just think it's not a Kerry style to be whingeing and whining about things.
"They're an experienced team. At this stage, they shouldn't be getting involved in this stuff.
"But that little bit of invincibility, of being untouchable has slipped away. Now they know they're a small bit vulnerable, that they can be beaten.
"They just need to go back to what they're good at, playing football as tough and competitive as required."
This focus on cards and suspensions is not something that Kerry football is accustomed to. Historically, they have been viewed as purveyors of a style that, maybe, transcended the ruthlessness and skullduggery of lesser teams. Kerry were purists, an image nourished by the uniquely gifted team O'Dwyer coaxed to those eight All-Irelands.
Yet, in '06, O'Connor's Kerry twice encountered scathing criticism for the "cynicism" of their football from Cork manager Billy Morgan. The comments came after a league defeat by the Kingdom in February and an All-Ireland semi-final loss in August and were, thus, dismissed by Morgan's critics as the sourness of frustration.
Yet, Kerry's All-Ireland quarter-final opponents that year were also inclined to comment upon Kerry's tactics.
Armagh would have been one of Ulster's "nouveau riche" in O'Connor's eyes and a team that, accordingly, needed reminding of Kerry's pedigree.
Even five years later, their players still talk of the treatment Kieran McGeeney received from a succession of Kerrymen that day.
No shrinking violets themselves, they were shocked by Kerry's indifference to scruple.
Aaron Kernan was quoted afterwards as saying that he'd never been hit as hard in a game in his life.
He suggested that if an Ulster team had played as Kerry did, "you would never hear the end of it. They seem to be able to do it and nobody pays a blind bit of notice. I'm not giving out about the Kerry team.
"But what I don't understand is why they're always portrayed as the Brazil of Gaelic football."
Kernan's father, Joe, was on the line against O'Connor that day and chuckles at the memory of it.
"Oh they'd be the Brazil alright," says Joe. "But there's a bit of Argentina in them too (laughing). And that's not the Argentina of Messi I'm talking about. Maybe a bit of Uruguay, say.
"Look, Kerry have always been physical, don't let anybody think that they're not. But one thing about them always was that, if you gave it, they'd take it. Step out of line with them and they'd put you in your box.
"The trouble starts if you cross a certain line. Do it once, that's okay. But, if you do it two or three times, a fella gets singled out and, all of a sudden, the spotlight is on him.
"It's a bit like Francie (Bellew). Like Francie didn't actually have to do anything to get booked. You give a dog a bad name and it sticks with you. And now it's sticking with them (Kerry).
"I think maybe people have gone a little overboard about it because they've been caught on camera doing a few things when there was no ball there. So the scrutiny is now on Kerry instead of Armagh, Meath or Tyrone. We all got that bad press for being over-physical, or going close to the wire.
"So, while they're wonderful footballers, Kerry are like the rest of us. Annoy them and they'll react."
To be fair, no-one could sensibly depict the current Kerry team as dirty. They topped the fair play index in this year's National League, albeit accumulating three suspensions along the way. And, for all the frustration at O Se's second red card in less than a year, he has been a largely model footballer over more than a decade in the Kerry colours.
The problem is the impression of recidivism creeping in. Of a team now running the risk of derailing its own ambition through petulance.
Weeshie Fogarty suggests: "Jack knows it himself. The view in the county is that, if the discipline problem isn't sorted out, they won't stand a great chance of winning the All-Ireland.
"There'd be a feeling it definitely cost us against Down last year and I've no doubt that Jack's preaching it to them morning, noon and night now.
"But you see they're old dogs on the road now. And, if you've been on the road a long time, no matter what facet of life you're talking about, you're inclined to get careless, aren't you?"
Kernan concurs, insisting there is no requirement for any deep forensic here.
"The problem is if somebody runs past me two or three times whereas, a year ago, I know he wouldn't have got past," says the Crossmaglen man.
"It leaves me feeling vulnerable. And that's when you react sometimes. You're thinking: 'Here, I'm being made a fool of here today!'
"You just react. It happens almost before you realise it and the harm's done. In fairness, Father Time take its toll. The legs stop, but the mind doesn't. You make a tackle, end up swinging at somebody and a split second later you're, 'Ah s**t, I shouldn't have done that...'
"That doesn't make you a dirty player. And I ask you who wouldn't want Paul Galvin or Tomas O Se on their team? They made a mistake last year and were punished. And now, unfortunately, the scrutiny is on them more so than other teams."
Evans believes that the All-Ireland is not beyond Kerry, if they park their resentments and remember the team that came back from the dead in last year's Munster final replay. "I thought they were gone at half-time that day," he says.
"Lo and behold they came out and put in a performance second to none.
"So, I was wrong, I pre-judged them. And I won't be doing that again. Write them off at your peril I would say."
Kerry go to Limerick today a little bruised and doubted then, but it's a condition their manager won't find daunting. The last passage of O'Connor's book reads: "Every summer championship is Russian Roulette. Only one survives. In Kerry, we are good at it. Because in Kerry, in South Kerry especially, we are born to survive."
He is different and his life is a celebration of that difference.
Expect Kerry to survive.
With apologies for the quote, Jack.