Friday 28 July 2017

Kerry's team within a team

Jack O'Connor's formidable backroom set-up is an example to other counties, says Damian Lawlor

THERE was an unmistakable sense of a curtain coming down on an era as Mike McCarthy peeled off his Kerry jersey following last year's unexpected championship defeat to Down.

McCarthy's team had lost by only six points and supporters began totting up the mileage the ó Sé brothers, Paul Galvin, Aidan O'Mahony, Tom O'Sullivan and Colm Cooper had clocked up.

Remarkably, however, 13 of the players who started against Down are still around to face Limerick this afternoon. McCarthy has retired, Tommy Griffin is battling injury while Micheál Quirke and Seamus Scanlon have dropped to the bench. Meanwhile, the other 11 stay in the first team.

Yet, we have talk of renewed hunger and appetite in their ranks. Revitalisation has been this team's release despite their longevity. The only newcomers are Shane Enright (who deputised for the suspended Tomás ó Sé) and Kieran O'Leary (who has essentially filled in for Paul Galvin). Other than that, excepting cameos from the promising James O'Donoghue, it's as you were.

"I just think the lads are enjoying their football a lot this year," Jack O'Connor said after the Munster final. "They got a bit of a break last season for the first time in six years. Mentally, that takes a fierce toll, getting to six All-Irelands in a row. Maybe they needed that break. I just see a real hunger and a freshness here that certainly wasn't apparent last year in the All-Ireland quarter-final."

Looking behind the scenes, however, and another factor in this team's rejuvenation can be found. "It definitely comes from their backroom," says injured Limerick midfielder John Galvin. "Donie Buckley's arrival as coach is key. This year, their tactics and off-the-ball running reminded me of what Donie brought to Limerick."

In the recent provincial final match programme, Kerry wing-forward Donnchadh Walsh backed up Galvin's theory.

"I think Donie's arrival might well give us an edge because he's improving our tackling. This is something that goes uncoached an awful lot of the time but Donie has brought it back to the basics -- how you tackle, how you position your legs and hands, which hand do you go in with.

"We've actually learned so much from Donie that you really enjoy coming to training, enjoy doing his drills as we try and perfect what he's teaching us. The drills change every night so it's nice and fresh. We're all improving and we're all enjoying our football. The year up to now has absolutely flown."

Seven years ago, Offaly's All-Ireland winning manager Eugene McGee gave an interview to the county's supporter website Uibhfhaili.com and wondered if specialist coaches were really needed. McGee felt that every such person who was added to a backroom took from the power and influence of the manager. Instead, he reckoned that a good manager needed to be a bit of a trainer, sports psychologist, communicator, and public relations man combined. His view is shared by many. There's also the risk that having so many personnel on board could lead to overlapping and even power struggles.

"Not if the backroom is handled right," states Liam Kearns, the Kerry native who managed Limerick for six years. "If you're in a job for more than two to three years you simply have to change things around.

"When I started off with Limerick, I did absolutely everything for the first three years. Then I brought in Dave Moriarty to do physical training while I worked on game management and video analysis. But after five years I'd said everything I could to those Limerick players."

These days, qualified backroom personnel are seen as important. For instance, after being told to trim his in Galway last August, Joe Kernan walked away. Kearns insists that different voices are paramount in the modern game.

"A manager needs to keep the wheel revolving -- that's where Donie Buckley will be great for Kerry," Kearns says. "You can already see the enthusiasm they have this year, all this energy. He's definitely playing a huge role in that. Marc ó Sé has been speaking about him in the press, so the players really rate him.

"As long as everyone has clearly defined roles -- and I would imagine that Jack calls all the shots in the lead-up to a game -- it should work fine. In fairness, they have played some terrific football this season for a team said to be past its best."

In this era of GAA management, much to the chagrin of county boards, the criteria seems to be that specialist coaches are hands-on while the manager looks after all other aspects of the set-up, like Declan Kidney who depends upon an array of specialists at the helm of the Irish rugby team. But it can go overboard too.

Last year, Tipperary County Board broke the €1m barrier (€1,106,630 to be precise) for the first time in providing the platform for their senior hurlers to claim championship success, with everything from medical expertise to statistical and video analysis being paid for. But that monumental figure has scarcely been mentioned since their comprehensive defeat of Kilkenny. Because they won.

Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney assembled the biggest support cast in the Association with 17 people in total, ranging from strength and conditioning coach to two goalkeeping coaches and a host of logistical and medical staff. Compare this to the Irish under 19 soccer team who only have 11 in their set-up; small fry compared to GAA teams.

Where do you draw the line? O'Connor has opted to keep his numbers tight but still he must feel he has the best ensemble around.

O'Connor has always been extremely involved in every aspect of coaching, so he has possibly risked his own power diminishing by introducing a top coach like Buckley.

Then again, after steering Kerry to three All-Irelands and five Munsters in six seasons, O'Connor should be wholly comfortable in his own skin.

And Buckley's induction has reaped dividends. A goalscoring hero for Castleisland in their 1985 All-Ireland club final win over St Vincent's, his coaching career started with Clare titles for St Joseph's Miltown-Malbay in 1990 and Ennis amalgamation outfit Faughs in 1994.

He served as joint manager of the Banner's senior squad with Michael Brennan in 2006, before being appointed as Galway forwards coach by Peter Ford a year later. He guided Galway club Moycullen to the All-Ireland intermediate football title before becoming involved with Mickey Ned O'Sullivan at Limerick. Once their tenure ended, there was no shortage of suitors.

Buckley is armed with information from trips to Florida where he dabbles in soccer coaching and has also taken snippets from American football. Last winter, he travelled to Australia to examine coaching at Carlton AFC.

"We certainly saw the benefits of those trips in our drills with Limerick," says Galvin. "Every drill is different. Donie would be on the field an hour before training with cones and systems laid out. He'd spend five minutes explaining the drills and then off you'd go -- high-intensity training, non-stop for 80 minutes. Most counties probably endured years of repetition and drudgery, but not us. He brought energy and enthusiasm and did all the work on the training ground while Mickey Ned managed the set-up. It worked great.

"Kerry's forward movement has simply been phenomenal this year. They've been making runs everywhere and look highly motivated. Donie used to get us to work the ball fast out of the backs and encouraged us all to tear after every long ball.

"Kieran Donaghy is still breaking ball but it's not just the Gooch running onto it, the likes of Darran O'Sullivan are also capitalising -- their forward play is as good now as at any time in the past 10 years. I'm not surprised he went to Kerry, but I just wondered how much say he'd have there. Jack is a proven manager and probably has his own ways but they obviously wanted Donie."

The players were delighted with Buckley's coaching drills and methods at a training camp in Portugal but with match-day approaching O'Connor has most likely assumed full control again -- even if Buckley lives for time on the paddock. Still, he'll have a full role today -- his attention to detail and knowledge of Limerick football will be important.

"It will be tricky," says Kearns. "Donie has an emotional bond with Limerick but I guess he has a job to do."

Galvin adds: "We're playing a different brand of football since Donie was with us and we're missing a load of players, but yeah, he won't have to do much video analysis work on us."

It's not just a new coach that Kerry boast. Also in the set-up is Eamonn Fitzmaurice's replacement as a selector, Diarmuid Murphy, their former goalkeeper. His appointment was a surprise because of his natural link with the older players, but he cut his teeth as a goalkeeping coach with the Kerry minor squad last year under Pat O'Driscoll.

With four All-Ireland senior medals, he has been a very good addition to the backroom. Apart from learning the ropes, Murphy has obviously been working closely with Brendan Kealy, who is gradually looking more assured between the posts.

He links up with the astute Ger O'Keeffe, a long-time lieutenant of O'Connor's and one of the few constants on the Kerry management. An accomplished player in his day, he's a shrewd observer, great organiser and vital link between the players, management and board. His pedigree and experience are settling influences and he is often courted by the media and always speaks his mind.

Further behind the scenes, Joe O'Connor is rated as one of the country's leading strength and conditioning experts and also operates as consultant to the Kerry and Waterford senior hurling teams. When asked to describe what he brings to the table, the Kingdom's hurling manager John Meyler says: "He's organised, up to date, young and enthusiastic, full of energy and ideas and he gets on well with fellows."

A lecturer at IT Tralee, O'Connor speaks at GAA workshops and coaching conferences nationwide and his attention to detail is his calling card. The players say he is constantly talking to them about their fitness and lifestyle.

Another young coach in this polished set-up is 35-year-old Alan O'Sullivan, brother of ex-Munster rugby player John. O'Sullivan regularly joins individual members of the squad for 7.0am gym sessions at Tralee's Mount Brandon Hotel and has got to know the Kerry players who say he's not afraid to embrace feedback to get them peaking at fundamental junctures.

O'Sullivan is a big believer in sports science and has implemented rowing and boxing sessions in a bid to improve the players' explosive pace.

O'Connor's backroom bunch have combined to give Kerry a new lease of life. So far, their progress with a well-travelled team is food for thought for county boards who don't invest in expertise for their teams.

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