Wednesday 26 April 2017

Kearney mixing old-school values with modern thinking

Slaughtneil’s joint manager John Joe Kearney has worked well with his more famous partner in the management team Mickey Moran. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Slaughtneil’s joint manager John Joe Kearney has worked well with his more famous partner in the management team Mickey Moran. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

How hard is your average Slaughtneil man? Well, just as a 'by the way' before we get settled into the interview with joint-manager John Joe Kearney, he mentions that since he saw you the last time, he nearly lost his finger.

He worked in a timber yard for decades and was well used to physical work. But a piece jammed in a logging trestle, the chainsaw slipped and well . . . It became a bit of a mess.

Kearney holds up a reddened and swollen digit that he had sewn back on. There is no feeling in the tendon but he doesn't complain.

Not when there is an All-Ireland final at stake.

Should anyone doubt the deep, mad love that a grown adult can have for playing football, they could extract it from Kearney.

Step down

He lined out in maroon for the last time at the age of 46. He only made the step down from senior football at 38, and because there was a thirds team he saw no reason to stop.

His final day was an epic tussle in a low-grade championship against Ballinderry. They drew the first day. The replay was level at the end of normal time. They were cruising home by two points in extra-time when Ballinderry broke all the way upfield and scored a goal.

While he was centre-forward that day, he names the midfielders as Thomas Cassidy - the inspiration of the club to this day who was buried the week of the Ulster hurling and camogie finals his children played in - and club chairman Sean 'Play on Sean' McGuigan.

"I enjoyed it," he smiles now. "Simple."

And when he was done as a player, he managed the Derry minors to the 1989 All-Ireland title.

While he kept an eye on football thereafter, he was two decades out of all management when Mickey Moran came to him asking if he would be on his management ticket for the club senior team.

"I had a few rest years," he reflects. "I went to matches but I wasn't involved in the underage. I wasn't involved in maybe 20-odd years until Mickey came along."

Moran wanted the Slaughtneil job. The difficulty was, so too did Cathal Corey of Kildress, and he got it.

Kearney recalls being at home one Saturday that year.

He was clipping a hedge and fell off the ladder, suddenly checking himself that he sounds terribly unhandy and accident-prone.

He knew he was in bother but the following day Slaughtneil were playing Bellaghy in the Championship at Swatragh and never told his wife about the fall in case she would confine him to barracks.

The following day, his brother Henry brought him over to the match in his van.

On Monday morning he went to hospital and was told he had a fractured hip socket. He decided against an operation and just rested up for eight weeks.

"During that eight weeks, Mickey Moran came out - now this is the year he didn't get the job - and he said he wanted me to help him out (the following year)," he explains.

"I said between work and farming, I might have been saying 'no' to you because I don't know if I could commit to it, and a job like that, you need to be committed.

"So that was end of story. The next year, Mickey got the job and that's the way it ended up."

In his decades out, football and sports practice changed beyond all recognition.

Kearney soon found the modern game suited him. He wears his intellect lightly and wraps it up in his relaxed, country way. But he studied the classics as a border in St Columb's College in Derry, where John Hume taught him French.

The last time he stood on a sideline, the responsibilities were lighter.

"You trained boys and you put the team out," he says. "You had no sit-downs to do video analysis and make match-ups like we have nowadays.

"You put the team out in the best position you thought for your own players, regardless of what the other team was doing."

Workload

And you won't hear him complain about the workload.

"I think it's great," he says. "Mickey gets all the breakdowns down on DVDs and he does all the analysis. Between us, we'd look at it and decide 'he's going to him'. We agree. We're never too far away on what the lineout should be."

The trick to managing is to always stay relevant. Kearney and Moran would not have lasted as long in the job if they weren't able to relate to the players. It's no surprise that the relationship is underpinned by old-fashioned manners towards each other.

He finishes: "Those young boys in that squad are exceptional. There's no messers among them. They're treated with respect. There's no bad language ever used along the line, we don't believe in that. Nobody makes a mistake deliberately."

How nice it would be to see that attitude scale the highest peaks of Gaelic football.

Irish Independent

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