The Tyrone man has gone ‘behind enemy lines’ in Kerry’s backroom team and is clearly making a big impression
A Tyrone man being an integral part of a Kerry football backroom team plotting and planning an All-Ireland final assault. Peter Canavan considers the “irony” of it.
“If you were to tell me 20 years ago that would happen, it would have been laughed at,” he acknowledged. Especially a Kerry manager, as Canavan observes, “having a few choice words for Tyrone in the past”.
But then, he adds, Paddy Tally’s skill-set is so broad, he’s an asset to any management team and Jack O’Connor’s “single-mindedness” is such that he wouldn’t have been swayed by the optics if he thought Tally could add value.
“It gives you an indication of Paddy’s standing and it also gives an indication that when it comes to winning All-Irelands, Jack O’Connor will do whatever has to be done,” says Canavan.
“He has a proven track record and he will do things his way. This is his way and it has proven to be the right way so far,” said the 2003 All-Ireland-winning captain.
At least once a week, sometimes twice, Tally will set off from Galbally in mid Tyrone where he still lives for the Kingdom, a journey, all going well, of over five hours. No one travels further and longer but, having built a connection with O’Connor when they were with Kildare and Down as managers – O’Connor may have brought Tally to Kildare had he stayed on for a third year – the temptation to work with such players was too great for an ambitious coach to let distance be a burden.
Often he’ll stay over a couple of nights to incorporate a weekend session too, having the use of a room in Tralee when he’s there, time he can spend after taking a year-long sabbatical from his role as a lecturer in St Mary’s teacher training college in Belfast. Canavan muses that his golf handicap must have been shaved by a few points by now!
With O’Connor already a three-time All-Ireland-winning manager, not to mention back-to-back All-Ireland titles as minor manager in 2014 and 2015, Micheál Quirke, a highly-regarded coach just off a two-year stint as Laois manager, and Diarmuid Murphy, routinely touted as a prospective Kerry manager himself, they are already stacked with sideline experience and gravitas. But O’Connor wanted to add another layer and by taking Tally ‘behind enemy lines’ it was a statement in getting to the heart of some of Kerry’s past problems.
Canavan bristles at the notion that his old school friend – they were together at St Ciaran’s Ballygawley while Tally was also a squad member of the Tyrone team that reached the 1995 All-Ireland final – is a ‘defensive’ coach, seeing his input crossing a range of disciplines.
“He is labelled somewhat,” says Canavan. “There is lazy analysis out there that he goes in and works as a defensive coach. He’s far from it. He’s a very good communicator so from that point of view he will be benefiting Kerry players in various ways. For people to think otherwise, that he’s a one-trick pony, they don’t know him and they don’t know the value that he brings.
“I would imagine from a tactical point of view he will put his own touch to it but individually there will be various players who will be benefiting from working one-on-one with him. He was into the science, the physical science and the psychology. It could be as simple as their physical fitness, others it could be their mindset. There are various players in Down and St Mary’s who have benefited and made an improvement as a player.”
Kevin McKernan is one who can testify to that. The former Down player, who retired after last season, has experienced Tally’s approach twice in Down (2010 to 2011 as coach to James McCartan and 2019 to 2021 as manager) while also playing for St Mary’s College in their shock 2017 Sigerson Cup final win over a UCD side laden with Dublin All-Ireland winners, among them Mick Fitzsimons, Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion.
For McKernan, Tally brings great clarity to roles on the field, hailing a double sweeper system with St Mary’s that allowed to keep tabs on McCaffrey and Mannion.
McKernan recalls sharing a couple of hours with the former Meath manager Andy McEntee at a game recently in Croke Park and talking extensively about that achievement.
“We ended up googling the teams to make a comparison,” he recalled. “We had Conor Meyler, Kieran McGeary, Cathal McShane, myself, and then Oisín O’Neill and Aaron McKay who have come through from Armagh, so we were a good team. But we had great security with Kieran McGeary and myself playing a staggered sweeper system where you had one close to the full-back line and another close to the centre half so you were always able to cope with Jack McCaffrey breaking through at pace or a long ball to Paul Mannion.”
But, he adds, that shouldn’t be construed as an over-the-top defensive approach from Tally.
“There was no game we won 0-8 to 0-6 or 0-6 to 0-5. It was always in and around 1-12, getting up to that 15 or 16 mark. I remember him saying a target for a team should be eight to 10 points in a half of football and keeping a team at five or six. That was always his philosophy.”
Three years with Down second time around didn’t work out and there was haste to look elsewhere for guidance but, as Canavan observes now, Down aren’t any further on.
“He wasn’t winning major honours with them but they were performing, since he’s left Down they haven’t kicked on,” he said.
McKernan recalls his breakdown of the Mayo kick-out for a 2019 qualifier as being so concise that it almost paid dividends.
“Anytime I went into battle under Paddy, no matter who we were playing, university or county level, his level of analysis on opponents, picking them apart in terms of their strengths and how you can negate that but also you really go at them was a feature.”
A week out from the 2010 decider when they were on a training weekend in Citywest, also stood out for McKernan.
“He had the boys sitting down, you could lie down on the ground or sit in the chair. And he spoke to us for 20 minutes, went through everything from lifting your bag and leaving your family home that morning, to getting on the team bus to seeing the police escort to being in the changing rooms. He went through everything methodically so boys knew, in their heads, this is what this day is going to look like, not to be shocked by the occasion and be ready for the noise and be ready for the first five minutes of it being helter-skelter,” he recalled.
“Our first five minutes against Cork we could have been 2-2 to no score down. We had a really bad start but we coped well and we were ready then for the second phase. It was the first time I had experienced something like that, that calmness, clarity of thought, listening and understanding your body and how it felt. It was unreal, like meditation and visualisation.”
Tally also had a year with Kevin Walsh’s Galway in 2018, when they reached the All-Ireland semi-final.
In 2003, when Tyrone won their first All-Ireland title, he was a coach and physical trainer and Canavan saw a young man ahead of his time.
“Even then, it was obvious that he was treating players differently and understood that they had different needs and there were different ways of motivating players. At a young age he was streetwise and very intelligent in his approach. It certainly didn’t come as a surprise that he has gone on to achieve what he has in the game.”
Helping Kerry to an All-Ireland title? That would be the wheel turning full circle.