Thursday 29 September 2016

Tomas O Se: ‘I have my own views on Jack’s management style but the sanctuary of the dressing room is sacred'

People imagine that I just didn't get on with Jack O'Connor as soon as he became Kerry senior football manager - that it was instant conflict, immediate and continuing. They forget that I knew Jack for a long time before that.

Published 17/10/2015 | 02:30

Running onto the Tullamore pitch alongside Jack O'Connor for the SFC game against Antrim in 2009 after being left on the bench for a 'breach of discipline'
Running onto the Tullamore pitch alongside Jack O'Connor for the SFC game against Antrim in 2009 after being left on the bench for a 'breach of discipline'

Jack was the manager of the Under-21 teams I played on, and PO worked with him then. I'd heard of him before that again as an up-and-coming coach in south Kerry who was bound to go far.

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Jack has a distinct personality. If you met him and didn't know him you might get the impression that he's a rude man. I know him, and I don't think so at all: he's a grand fella and a very good manager, as he's proved, over and over.

I go back with Jack and he has a pile of good points. Absolutely. Coming in after Páidí, he probably thought we had an issue with him, given the way Páidí went. Now, we probably had an issue with the way Páidí went, but that didn't mean we had an issue with Jack. Those two thoughts didn't necessarily connect.

I'd won an Under-21 All-Ireland medal with Jack and reached two finals and an All-Ireland semi-final. That's a lot of training sessions, a lot of games. I knew well that he had a different personality and a different approach to Páidí long before he came in as manager.

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His greatest strength was in setting out a way of playing tactically, and in analysing the opposition. He was the first manager we had, really, who broke down the opposition. For instance, a lot of the time people never copped it, including journalists, but I was always put on someone who suited me. The backs were always put on fellas specifically, particularly the corner-backs. Wherever Bernard Brogan went when we played Dublin it didn't matter, Tom O'Sullivan always went with him. He was the man-marker, him or Mike McCarthy, or our Marc.

I was always put on a guy who would suit my game, which meant I was generally kept away from forwards who might cause us problems on the scoreboard. I would have marked them, and I could have, but it might have taken away from my attacking role. To be fair, Jack was the first manager at inter-county level who recognised what I could offer there.

If you were to break down the six forwards on any modern inter-county team, there'd always be one or two who'd range around the middle of the park, and they'd be the men I'd pick up, because it suited my game. I could cause trouble by ranging forward and forcing them to back-pedal in order to cover.

In fairness to Jack, he was the first fella to spot that. Páidí would have been more of a traditionalist, along the lines of his own playing days: 'You're the number five. You wait there for your man to come into you at the start of the game, and you mark him. That's your job for the day.'

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Páidí's attitude was that, as a wing-back, you were a defender, there to defend. Anything you could manage after that, fine, but your first job was to stop your man. Páidí wouldn't always have welcomed me going upfield on the attack.

In 2004, when Jack came in, An Ghaeltacht had got to the All-Ireland club final. All that year I'd been bombing forward from centre-back, flying it, fit as a fiddle and well able to get up and down the field supporting the attack, as well as comfortably carrying out my defensive duties. And Jack allowed me to carry on like that with Kerry. 'If you have the legs to go, go' was his attitude. I'd had six years, from 1998 to 2003, when I'd been playing for Kerry without having that freedom. Maybe if I'd had that run with the club earlier in those years Páidí might have given me that freedom. But I'm not sure.

I can remember playing for the club at 16 in a senior game and nearly getting killed by older fellas. I'd solo up the field from the half-back line and present a fine target for more developed lads trying to break me in two with shoulder charges. 'Toots' Mac Gearailt from back our way told me, 'You won't last two years if you keep going up the field like that'. Sorry, now, 'Toots', but I got a bit more out of it than that.

It was Jack who gave me that freedom. Certainly he had other areas where he was stronger than Páidí. For instance, he put more importance on the league. Páidí was all about the championship, always, but the first year Jack came in we won the league.

He'd always make sure we got as much as we could out of every game, and since those days Kerry have always treated the league a lot more seriously, getting something out of every game.

In breaking down the opposition, Jack would use video of the other team - their strengths, their weaknesses, how they attacked and defended. Páidí had done that - a little bit - but he used to do it all himself; he had done everything, from organising the food to training us. But Jack brought it on.

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When you look back at Páidí's workload in the cold light of day, or in the cold light of 2015, it was too much. But that was just the way it was. Jack had someone to do the work with the video. Fitzmaurice did it at first when he came in as a selector. And he didn't just do it for the opposition: he'd break us down in video sessions as well - lengthy meetings.

Those meetings could last an hour, an hour-and-a-half, and I half-dreaded them, they went on so long. But they were useful, and I recognised that. You learnt a lot: every time you came out of a meeting you had another nugget that would help. Every single player on the opposing team was analysed. What did they do with the ball? What way did they attack? What did they do when they were under pressure? There would have been 10 or more different ways of analysing the opposition.

That has come on again in recent years. Practically every county now has access to a computer system in which their players can enter the name of an opponent from another county and - bang! - every instance of that opponent touching the ball in a league or championship game is brought up instantly.

Before Jack came in, the notion of doing that level of analysis was unheard of. If you were playing Tipperary you'd know of Declan Browne, but you wouldn't be hearing 'their number seven will play at number five' or 'they like to bang the ball in long to their full-forward'. A lot of the players from so-called weaker teams wouldn't be known at all to us. That was dangerous, and it was leaving yourself wide open to the unknown.

Jack would also ring you during the week to tell you who you were on. If one of the younger lads wasn't going well in training he'd zone in on them and spend a lot of time on getting them right. He paid attention to that kind of thing and was good at it.

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His weak point for me was that when a player wasn't going well in games, he didn't go the right way about helping them. You need to push certain buttons with certain guys. Take Declan O'Sullivan when he was going through a rough patch and got booed off the field below in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. (That was a low point for those Kerry supporters who did so, by the way.) I don't know the full facts of it, but I'd know that Jack and Declan would have been travelling to training and games together, and I don't know if that was a huge help to Declan in that situation. Maybe it put pressure on him that was unnecessary.

There was pressure on Jack, obviously, because Declan was the captain he wanted - his own club-mate - and it wasn't working out for them. It was a very tough move for him to have to take Declan off in such a big game. That wasn't easy.

I suppose the media drove it on a bit too by suggesting that there was a problem between us. But Jack wouldn't be able to say, really, that we had an issue with him.

One time Darragh was struggling with his game, and the management were trying everything they could to get him firing. Ger O'Keeffe actually met him one evening on a pitch in Tralee to fire balls out to him so that Darragh could fetch them and get his timing back. Did you ever hear the likes of that? In the end Darragh just picked up the phone to Jack and said to cut the bullshit - to either pick or drop him.

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I'm a teacher myself, and maybe I recognised that we were treated like children in class at times. Sometimes that was good and sometimes it wasn't, but whichever it was you'd have to say that he was the most successful manager we had.

One thing about Jack was that, while he'd let on that he's thick-skinned enough, I think sometimes things got to him. Being Kerry manager is a tough job: you're in the public eye, and when the results aren't coming it's easy for fellas with six, seven, eight All-Ireland medals in their back pockets to be making comments.

And I'd say Jack took that personally: 'Oh, the lads think now that, because I didn't play at the level they played at, I can't do the job.' He need not have felt like that. He was a far better coach than the lot of them put together, and he shouldn't have felt insecure about that. Maybe he'd disagree, but that was my impression.

He achieved more as a manager than every one of those guys, which was some feat, and I don't think he's finished yet. I think he's doing superbly with the minors, and management is like a drug for him: he gets a buzz off it. It's brilliant for Kerry underage football that they have a guy like him there.

He knew the pressure the job could heap up on top of you before becoming manager, though. Remember, he was a selector with Páidi when Páidí wasn't playing Maurice Fitzgerald and I'd say that Jack, coming from south Kerry, heard plenty of complaints in his home place about Maurice being dropped from the team.

In my experience, though, the buck stops with the manager when it comes to picking a player and Páidí must have had his reasons for not picking Maurice. He had a huge impact on games when we were bringing him on as a sub in 2000, But I don't know if he'd have had the same effect as a starter. Páidí won the All-Ireland that year but it was still an issue because Maurice is an icon, not just in south Kerry but also in the rest of Kerry and in Ireland. And Jack is the kind of person who'd remember the comments made to him, or about him, at that time.

When Jack came back to manage us the second time, it was different though because, in the interim, he'd written a book about Kerry and it went into fair detail.

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Now, as I've mentioned, there was a lot more he could have written in that book - stuff that would have rubbed us and others up the wrong way.

We'd have stepped offside in our time. I'd have no problem admitting that. But, as I've said, trust is hugely important in a team set-up like that, and specifically the trust between management and players.

How did we keep winning together, you might ask? I got on well enough with Jack, most of the time. We had a laugh together a lot of that time.

In fact. I'd hate to fall out with him, because we won an awful lot together, and I have great time for him and for what he has achieved. We had great times, and some not so great ones, but the good far outweighed the bad.

But coming back after the book … It was spoken about among the players, and we - or I, at any rate - would have expected him to say something like, 'Look, I wrote a book, and it might have pissed some of ye off,' or whatever. Maybe he did that on an individual basis, but it wasn't raised with the group as a whole.

In his book he referred to the game against Longford I was taken off in, after which I shot off out the dressing-room door back to Cork before the game was over. That was wrong, and I knew it was wrong. When he rang me about it he said I'd have to apologise to the team.

So down I went to the bottom of the field in Fitzgerald Stadium before the next training session, and I had to stand up and say, 'I walked out the last day after being taken off, and I apologise for that. The next game is in Croke Park, so I won't be able to get a car outside the door for that, anyway.'

Jack mentioned in the book that I made a joke of it, but it was a harmless enough one. I don't agree with giving away secrets like that, though, particularly if you're going to come back and coach the team again.

Someone might point out that I'm discussing matters myself in this book, but most of it is related to myself and my experiences and I wouldn't be giving away secrets about anyone either. That's important to me.

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There were stories Jack used, such as (Aidan) O'Mahony considering retirement after a training camp rumpus, and I thought that implicating fellas when you were going to be taking over the team again - I'd have been sceptical anyway, because of the trust issue I'd had with him in his first stint. But in the second stint he had I was dubious (though, to be fair, that's only my personal view).

We won the All-Ireland his first year back, but not afterwards. Did it make a difference? At that level, the very top, I think it does. Every half per cent adds up and I think it was an issue. Darragh was the same.

This isn't a witch-hunt, or a matter of settling scores with Jack: he has positives and negatives, as had Páidí and Pat O'Shea. So does Fitzmaurice. My abiding memories of the time with Jack are more positive than negative. He changed things up when he had to and he was brave enough to make bold moves.

Moving Kieran Donaghy to full-forward for the Longford game back in 2006, for instance, was a masterstroke from Jack. It was the making of Donaghy, and it energised the team.

We weren't going well at the time, and it can be unbelievably difficult to change things around. Just saying that things are flat isn't enough to improve things and, in fairness to Jack, it was a roll of the dice with Donaghy that worked out brilliantly: nobody could handle him. I'd joke with Donaghy in the dressing-room: 'That ball is going in, no matter what angle or height. If we're under pressure, you're going to get it.'

And we'd laugh, but he'd field it. To be fair to him, we'd try to put it in to him at an angle because, if you put it on top of him you were giving the full-back the advantage.

We weren't just bombing in the ball: Jack would bring up clips showing Donaghy winning the high ball, but winning it out beyond the 21. Jack would be saying, 'I don't want him to win the ball there: I want him winning it in on the edge of the square, so that, when he comes down, one tap and it's one on one.'

In Kerry, the buck always stops with the manager, and Jack deserves the credit for it. He had to make tough decisions, and he made them. I'd have felt that 'Gooch', Declan and Moynihan were his men, that he didn't feel threatened by them the way he was by Darragh, say.

He lived and breathed the job, he took time off work for it, and he worked hard for his success.

Bringing Mike McCarthy out to centre-back was another great move in 2009; so was the tactic of driving the ball into Johnny Crowley in 2004, who was the best man for dominating any ball to come into him.

I won four All-Stars under Jack, and I don't think I'd have won them if he hadn't allowed me to play my game. He's won at colleges, minor, Under-21 and senior level, so you have to give him credit: he doesn't have to answer to anyone in relation to management.

I texted my best wishes to him before his minor team played their games in 2014, and, as I said, I wouldn't be wanting to fall out with him; but I have my views on his management style.

I think the sanctuary of the dressing-room is sacred, and at times I don't think you have the right to breach that.

I had issues with his man-management; but nobody has all the virtues, have they?

Jack had stepped back after we won in 2006. The funny thing about him is that he has a knack for spotting winning teams, and he's always had that.

When I saw him taking over the Kerry minors in 2014 I knew well that they had a great chance of winning the All-Ireland.

Did he think we were maybe going over the top? Possibly. He said he was mentally tired in 2006. And maybe he was.

But a point worth making now is that we were certainly disappointed to see him go. People should know that. And he could well have been tired at that point.

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