Friday 24 October 2014

'Páidí deserves his place among sideline greats'

Published 18/12/2012 | 05:00

The eight-time All-Ireland medal winner, the raconteur who would invariably be the focal point of an audience of influential politicians, members of the judiciary, Hollywood stars and sports people from every other walk of life, the heart, soul and character of west Kerry who almost seemed like an extension of the place every time he posed for one of the photographs that had had the majestic sight of sweeping mountains and crashing waves in the background.

All of these strands to Páidí Ó Sé's life have been reflected upon with great warmth over the days since his untimely passing.

But lost among the tributes have been his abilities as a manager, the catalyst behind Kerry's revival in the middle of the 1990s and his subsequent sojourn into the midlands, when his time with Kerry was done, to win with Westmeath their one and only Leinster title at the first attempt.

Taken at source this achievement in 2004 has to rate as one of the great managerial successes of the modern age, ranking right up there with Clare's plundering of the 1992 Munster title under John Maughan or Leitrim's first Connacht title (1994) since their only previous success in 1927.

Think about it, Westmeath hadn't won a provincial title before Páidí's arrival and they haven't won another one in the eight years since, yet they delivered their one and only Delaney Cup on his watch within nine months of his much-questioned arrival.

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But why is it that despite this, and the two All-Ireland titles he delivered for his native Kerry in his eight years as manager, Páidí never rated as highly as his managerial contemporaries. Why has he never been fully accepted as a sideline visionary like many of those he came up against?

"For a number of years, he resurrected Kerry football from the doldrums," reflected Dara ó Cinnéide, his An Ghaeltacht colleague and one of the main architects of that mid-1990s revival.

"He deserves so much praise for that and that might be recognised now that he has departed," suggested ó Cinnéide in an RTé interview just hours after Páidí's passing.

It's a point worth reflecting on now. Naturally, Kerry managers have to do that bit more than most to gain suitable recognition, but was it his colourful, roguish persona in an era of serious-minded sideline generals that prompted people to look differently at him and away from the records he built up?

The nature of his character was that he was always considered a players' man first and foremost, a sentiment reflected well by ó Cinnéide in the same piece.

"He loved every single player that put on a Kerry jersey and would have died for them. I like to think it was vice versa as well. He injected so much loyalty amongst the players."

By his own admission he let that rapport with the dressing-room go too far after Kerry won their first Munster football title under his command, breaking Cork's three-year grip on the championship in the rain in Páirc Uí Chaoimh for what was only their second in 11 years.

Celebrating in their company for too long 'out west' in the days after that was a lesson he put to good use the following year when he reconciled to keep his distance.

Páidí relied on instinct more than any textbook or manual for the art of communication. "The fact that I know so many politicians hasn't done me any harm in dealing with people and players," he once said.

In this opinion, one of the best spells of football Kerry have played in the last 25 years came under his command. After losing the 2002 Munster final replay to Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh they transformed themselves for the rest of the summer.

For five and a half games against Wicklow, an emerging Fermanagh, Kildare, Galway, Cork and, finally, Armagh they were quite scintillating in their movement, a sequence perhaps only bettered by the 2006 recovery in similar circumstances when Jack O'Connor shifted things around to make Kieran Donaghy the focal point with a stunning return and victories over Longford, Armagh, Cork and Mayo by a cumulative total of 34 points.

But losing to Armagh in an All-Ireland final and to Tyrone the following year (in the semi-final) blew winds of change across the Kingdom that he couldn't withstand.

By selecting O'Connor (three All-Ireland titles in seven years over two different terms), the move to change was justified.

But the greater magnitude of O'Connor's record as Kerry manager shouldn't displace the fact that at a difficult time Páidí was the right man in the right place to lift that 11-year siege.

Páidí got so much right as manager. On the back of successive All-Ireland U-21 successes he was appointed as coach with Séamus Mac Gearailt officially deemed manager and made sure to build a team around his nephew Darragh, who wasn't always the dominant force in those early years that he grew to be.

He had the conviction to take Séamus Moynihan away from his natural habitat in the half-back line to solve the crux of full-back in 2000. Moynihan ended up Footballer of the Year and quelling the threat of the game's most dangerous forward at the time, Padraic Joyce, in those two matches to decide the 2000 All-Ireland.

And he didn't think twice about introducing a slip of a lad called Colm Cooper to inter-county football at 19 years of age in 2002.

The debate of whether Maurice Fitzgerald should have started in 2000 was one that victory that year still didn't settle, while the failure to integrate Paul Galvin and Aidan O'Mahony into his teams was retrospectively a couple of points of contention on his watch.

Will Ó Cinnéide's hope that history will be kinder now to Páidí the manager than it has been come to pass?

Had they won that 2002 All-Ireland final against Armagh his place in the pantheon of great managers would be assured. That's how close it was. As he would say himself, "a grain of salt can tip the balance."

Irish Independent

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