Tuesday 17 September 2019

Dermot Crowe: 'Quiet man Keane racks up the mileage to get Kingdom on road back to higher ground'

Peter Keane. Photo: Sportsfile
Peter Keane. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

By now the world will be a little more acquainted with Peter Keane though it would be unsafe to say it is much more knowledgeable. If Jim Gavin has a flair for saying little, he may have met his match in Keane, whose public utterances are comically guarded.

After Kerry turned in a wonderful performance in the opening round of the Super 8, defeating Mayo in Killarney, he declared himself to be "reasonably happy" to have "got out of it".

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Told it was a very Kerry answer by his inquisitor, Máire Treasa Ní Cheallaigh, he said, "Well, sure, I suppose, look, do you want me to say I am jumping out of my skin?"

"I would be," she replied.

"Well, you can jump away, I won't bother."

The Peter Keane moving about the team hotel the morning after the drawn match with Dublin is a different creature, sociable and more at ease. In management, he has a good way with players and is capable of a degree of intimacy and empathy which might be alien to others in his position.

His own reputation has been enhanced by Kerry's performance a week ago and interest in him, he'll be sorry to hear, will have deepened. Having an extra man for over half the match needs to be factored into any analysis but, at long odds, he won the tactical battle on his more feted counterpart aiming for five-in-a-row immortality on the same sideline.

The decision to include Jack Barry, though he had minimal game-time in the lead-in, proved justified and Kerry's match-ups were highly effective as their high press was courageous - in line with the Keane philosophy of trusting his players' high skill component.

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The most glaring malfunction was the failure to tie a rope to Jack McCaffrey, who finished with 1-3 and had a direct hand in two more Dublin points. But Keane tends to be phlegmatic, being around long enough to know you are not going to contain every Dublin footballer, as much as you'd like to.

They restricted much of the Dublin attack, dominated its midfield and caused numerous problems for its defence.

A little more end-game composure would have had Keane joining Gavin in the group of mangers who won an All-Ireland in their first season. It was a noble attempt and nobody will be taking him or Kerry lightly the next day.

Shrewd is a word used to describe him. One who has worked close to him said he could be saying one thing and thinking something else. Before they played Clare in what would be his first outing as Kerry senior manager in the championship, a Munster semi-final in Ennis, he was asked about Dublin and how they might be beaten. Naturally, Dublin is on any team manager's thoughts who has designs on winning an All-Ireland but there is a time and a place.

It sparked a short story, or parable, which had the desired effect of making his point while disarming his interrogator.

"I remember learning to drive and I remember going out the main road," he began. "It was kind of different then, when you were learning to drive. I was inside in the car with my father and we were driving out the road from Cahersiveen and we were heading out to Valentia Island.

"We were at the Points Cross, which was only a short bit out, and I started asking a question which was about a road that was about two miles out. And he chewed me and said, 'We'll worry about that when we get there, at the moment we'll worry about this'. So there's about as much point as me worrying about a Dublin or anyone else worrying about a Tyrone or a Mayo or someone else. We have Clare in the first round, and we'll worry about that."

Keane's predecessor, Eamonn Fitzmaurice, was appointed Kerry manager around the same time Gavin took over Dublin. From his time on the Dublin team of the 1990s, winning an All-Ireland in 1995, Gavin had a certain status coming into the job. The reality of managing Dublin is that if you did not possess much of a public profile beforehand you will soon be a figure under constant surveillance. Gavin seems to be forever resisting that pressure and spotlight.

While Dublin went on to conquer virtually all in their wake under Gavin, losing just one championship match in the seven seasons since, Keane began an impressive climb from relative obscurity. Having brought his original club, St Mary's, to an All-Ireland junior title in 2011, he became part of a revitalised youth development drive, with the county's underage squads revamped and a more thoughtful and precise approach brought to coaching Kerry's teenagers. Keane was a product of this system and owes his emergence as county senior manager largely to it.

The irony is that his initial involvement in 2012 as a part of Mickey Ned O'Sullivan's minor management team came about by chance, when Seán O'Sullivan stepped away after having come out of retirement to play for Kerry. Keane filled the vacancy for the next two years before returning to club management with Legion in Killarney, bringing them to a county final in 2015 for the first time since 1946 and coming agonisingly close to winning it.

While he is the same age as Jim Gavin, 48, Keane entered this level of management six years later than the Dubliner. Outside Kerry he became more conspicuous when masterminding three All-Ireland minor titles in 2016-'18, which completed the cycle of five-in-a-row, an impressive achievement.

This year's Kerry minors twice defeated Cork, before Cork went on to win the All-Ireland, showing how precarious the job of keeping minors on course can be. To win three, and remain unbeaten, adding to the two won previously by Jack O'Connor, is a laudable feat but the competition is now for under-17s and the leap to adult football is massive.

Even if he was not a luminous name from Kerry's football past, that minor winning streak was going to have some credibility, and there were his other legacies from club management which made it hard to overlook Keane when Fitzmaurice stepped down after defeat by Kildare in the Super 8 last year in Killarney. Keane, who was at that game, soon began receiving messages to see if he was interested in filling the vacancy.

The man he later replaced had won three All-Ireland medals, and served with Jack O'Connor as a selector when Kerry won the All-Ireland in 2009. Keane, a county minor and under-21 player, had worked his way up through the system without relying on a famous playing career as a springboard.

He has brought James Foley and Tommy Griffin from the minor set-up, but Donie Buckley came from outside the group. Buckley has been welcomed by Keane as a vital asset given his prior experience of football management and coaching at this level. He has useful prior knowledge of eyeballing Dublin and working on various ploys to stymie them in previous All-Ireland final attempts with Mayo. He is seen as highly capable on defensive strategy.

Like Gavin, who brought back Diarmuid Connolly, and left off Bernard Brogan, Rory O'Carroll and Eoghan O'Gara from the match-day panel last Sunday, Keane has made some contentious calls. Before the season began he left high-profile names like Barry John Keane and Fionn Fitzgerald off his panel which led to criticism of the manner in which they were dispensed with. Keane's argument was that they were never part of his squad in the first place and the new management was starting afresh.

Keane's knowledge of Kerry players stretching back to his own playing days in the late 1980s and early 1990s is comprehensive and his relationship to the new generation of players is obviously a major advantage. Under his management the decision was taken to recall players whose careers had seemed over: Tommy Walsh, Jonathan Lyne and Jack Sherwood all saw action in last Sunday's final and made valuable contributions. Walsh made his championship debut against Clare in 2008 when Keane was a long way away from the Kerry senior management's job. At that stage it would have been a fantasy.

In the final Super 8 game against Meath in Navan, he took off a visibly displeased Micheál Burns after just 27 minutes. Burns, having started that match, has not been part of the match-day panel in the two games since. Whether related to this display of frustration in Navan or not is unclear, but that is how some have interpreted it.

The smooth winning record at minor, and on the club circuit, has rolled seamlessly in the senior inter-county arena. The team has only been beaten twice under his stewardship: in the National League final by Mayo, and earlier in the league campaign by Mayo in Tralee. They reversed those results emphatically later in Killarney. The league included a thrilling one-point win over Dublin in Tralee in February.

Ultimately, however, standing up to Dublin in an All-Ireland final is the acid test. It is all the more impressive when you consider that last Sunday was Keane's seventh championship match and first All-Ireland final at senior level. Jim Gavin was managing Dublin for the 47th time in the championship and participating in the sixth final, not counting replays.

Keane, from a family of nine, says he got a useful schooling growing up in the Ringside Rest Hotel in Cahersiveen which his parents ran. Each day presented challenges useful in management now and dealing with people and a changing working environment. His late father, Tom, served as chairman of the South Kerry board and was a well-known builder.

The addition of Maurice Fitzgerald to the Keane management team means he has rejoined forces with his old team-mate in St Mary's - they played in the same attack. In 1988, Keane won a Kerry under-21 title with Fitzgerald for South Kerry and played minor for the county in 1989, county junior the following year, and captained the under-21s to a Munster title in 1992.

In his working life he showed ambition in leaving a job in the bank after four years to pursue a career in retail. He runs a thriving outlet in Killorglin. By 2009, the year Kerry last defeated Dublin in the championship, Keane was managing Beaufort junior footballers and guided them to a win in the county semi final over his native St Mary's, then victory in the final over Dromid.

In 2010, he began travelling down from Killorglin where he worked to Cahersiveen to manage St Mary's. His younger brother, Ray, more recently a successful manager with St Finbarr's in Cork, was playing on the team. He led St Mary's to win the South Kerry final.

The next year, 2011, they won the All-Ireland junior football title and later the same year he was managing the Kerry under-16s, his first step on the county ladder. Later in the year Kerry lost to Dublin in the All-Ireland final, a pivotal moment in the rivalry.

When Mickey Ned O'Sullivan brought Keane is as part of his county minor management team in 2012, he explained the reason why. "Nobody knows more than Peter does," he told The Kerryman newspaper.

Some of the older players in the Kerry team, like Adrian Spillane, Jack Barry, Gavin Crowley, Shane Ryan and Tom O'Sullivan, are from that period, leaving very few that Keane has not worked with previously and helped develop. In that spell with the county minors under Mickey Ned, John O'Keeffe did much of the coaching. Keane's role had more to do with dealing directly with players and building that relationship.

"People say you have the momentum going into the next day, how do you see it?" the RTÉ interviewer asked Keane after last Sunday's draw.

Looking less than enthused, he sighed deeply, shrugged his shoulder, and said: "I don't know."

The questions will keep on coming. But the ones that most engage him will be those asked of his players, again, on Saturday.

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