O’Connor has elite club in his sights
Kerry boss bidding to join legends by landing fourth All-Ireland title
DUSK was dropping quietly but rapidly across Walsh Park, Waterford on an early September evening in 2003 as 30 young footballers continued to test each other to the limit into the final minute of the Munster U-21 final.
Kerry were leading Waterford by a point, an unexpectedly small advantage since their forward line included Colm Cooper, Declan O'Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy.
Then, in one last desperate attempt to become the first team to bring the Munster title to Waterford, the home side launched an attack, hoisting a high ball into the Kerry square.
The full-forward -- Shane Walsh, who is far more famous as a hurler nowadays -- soared into the autumn sky and flicked the ball to the net past Kerry goalkeeper Bryan Sheehan.
Yes, the same Bryan Sheehan who will be at midfield tomorrow.
There were still 90 seconds remaining but Waterford held out quite comfortably. Cue Waterford ecstasy, Kingdom despair.
Kerry manager Jack O'Connor walked towards his joyous counterpart Pat Nugent, shook hands and went to join his players as they waited silently for Waterford to be presented with the trophy.
The implications could have been serious for O'Connor. Ten days earlier, Kerry seniors lost the All-Ireland semi-final to Tyrone by seven points, effectively ending Paidi O Se's eight-year term as manager.
It would take several weeks for O Se's formal departure but it was always likely to happen after Tyrone's crushing win in a game where Kerry managed just six points.
O'Connor was among the fancies to replace him but presiding over a U-21 team that lost the Munster final to Waterford wasn't exactly the perfect audition.
Still, the then Kerry chairman Sean Walsh was among those who saw the bigger picture, believing that it would be unfair and unwise to judge a manager on one disappointing result.
O'Connor was appointed to the senior job.
Almost eight years later, he is knocking on the door of a very elite club.
In fact, it has a membership of only three: Mick O'Dwyer, Sean Boylan and Brian Cody (based on the premise that the cult of the manager, as opposed to the coach/trainer, only became a phenomenon in the GAA in the 1970s).
If Kerry win this year's title, O'Connor will have presided over four successes (2004, '06, '09, 2011), the same as Boylan, three behind Cody and four behind O'Dwyer.
O'Connor will have even moved ahead of the Kevin Heffernan, who led Dublin to three titles.
And since Kerry also won the 2007 title, it's logical to assume that if O'Connor hadn't left after the '06 success, he would now be pursuing a fifth All-Ireland win.
Pat O'Shea was in charge in 2007-08, before O'Connor returned for his second stint in '09.
By the end of that season, Kerry were back as All-Ireland champions, having regained equilibrium via the qualifiers.
They were well fancied to retain the title last year, especially after beating Cork in a Munster semi-final replay, but like four Kerry teams before them, they couldn't quite figure out the enduring puzzle that Down present for the green and gold.
The loss of Tomas O Se and Paul Galvin to suspension was crucial in that game as Down picked up a huge amount of breaking ball far easier than would have been the case if Kerry's absent terriers had been scrapping for possession in the middle third of the pitch.
It wasn't the first time that suspensions cost Kerry dearly. Galvin was banned for most of the 2008 championship and while he was eligible to play in the All-Ireland final against Tyrone, he was short of match-practice and didn't start. Would a fully tuned Galvin have made the crucial difference in the decider? Quite possibly.
O'Connor would bristle at suggestions that his Kerry teams are less disciplined than their predecessors, but then the past has tended to be uncomfortable country for him.
He has always been seen as something of an outsider, the guy who wasn't part of the most famous era in Kerry football when they won eight All-Ireland titles in 12 seasons.
Mickey Ned O'Sullivan, Ogie Moran and Paidi O Se, all heroic figures in the record-breaking Mick O'Dwyer era, were O'Connor's managerial predecessors and there were many in Kerry who felt the county board should have continued to fish from that pool in late '03.
O'Connor knew that, so it was crucial for him to make an early impact, which he duly did in '04.
After the disappointment of the '03 Munster U-21 final, plus the pressure he experienced as the 'outsider' slipping into the senior role, he would have felt he deserved a lucky break in his first season.
It duly came in the form of a championship where the standard of opposition wasn't particularly strong, certainly nowhere as good as at present.
Even then, it required an exceptionally lucky break for O'Connor to avoid becoming the manager who led Kerry to their first championship defeat by Limerick in decades.
Kerry held on grimly in the Munster final, earning a draw they scarcely deserved, before winning the replay.
O'Connor was on his way to a first All-Ireland senior success, beating Dublin, Derry and Mayo, the latter by a big margin in the All-Ireland final. Two years later, Mayo would again reach the final, only to lose to Kerry by an even bigger margin.
Truly, O'Connor has a lot to thank Mayo for -- although that may change tomorrow.
In 2009, it was Cork's turn to lose to Kerry in the final, leaving O'Connor with a third success and a yearning ambition for more.
Now, he is two wins away from a fourth title and access to that small club of managers who have won more than three All-Irelands.
It's an imposing record, even if O'Connor doesn't always get the credit which usually goes with such levels of achievement.
Still, the more his judgment is questioned, the more he appears to thrive on it.
In fairness, his decision-making has proved to be consistently good over the years.
Never afraid to take a chance, even if a critical Kerry public isn't always impressed. O'Connor is very much his own man who will back his instincts all the way.
Hence his success in persuading Eoin Brosnan to return to the panel this year after a lengthy absence, not as a forward or midfielder but as a centre-back.
And then there was the repositioning of Sheehan at midfield, a move which many thought would not work.
While nobody can question O'Connor's success rate, it has been achieved against a much-changed background in terms of the perception of Kerry.
Always regarded as one of the most open counties in terms of dealing with the media -- and by extension, the public -- that reputation has altered quite dramatically.
Over recent seasons, Kerry have had something of a siege mentality, a feeling that everybody was out to get them. O'Connor would have done nothing to dispel that.
On the contrary, he seems happy with it. And while he always turns up for the routine post-match interviews, he tends to leave the media with a feeling that the second he exits the room, he checks in case he has picked up fleas or some particularly virulent strain of disease after coming into contact with unsavoury characters.
Still, his brief is to win All-Ireland titles for Kerry and, in that regard, they can have no complaints. There were many who believed after last year's defeat by Down that a serious re-build would be required, leaving Kerry vulnerable for a season or two at least.
Instead, O'Connor carried out running repairs while conducting a very effective league campaign where Kerry's only losses (both by a point) were in away clashes with Cork and Dublin.
Kerry eventually finished on 10 points with Cork but missed out on a place in the final on the head-to-head rule -- they would have been ahead under the scoring difference system which was used to separate teams up to a few years ago.
If it were in operation this year, Kerry might well have won the National League title, just as they did in 2004, '06, '09, the three previous years that they won the All-Ireland under O'Connor.
They are back as favourites to win the big prize again, a triumph which would take O'Connor into territory that scarcely seemed possible on the September evening eight years ago when Shane Walsh attempted to derail his senior management career even before it was launched.