‘I’ve no doubt Liam Kearns was looking down on us, that’s for sure’ – Offaly aiming to honour former boss

Liam Kearns had only been with the Offaly team for a few months, but his impact on the squad is undeniable. Photo: Sportsfile

Michael Verney

They may have been rivals on the pitch just minutes earlier, but there was a special bond between the Offaly and Tipperary footballers as they sat down for a poignant meal following their Division 3 football league clash last Saturday.

They had duked it out in Thurles with a valuable two points going the way of the Faithful County, but there was a much bigger picture at play as both squads paid tribute to the late Liam Kearns, who was Offaly boss before his sudden passing on March 12.

Kearns had also guided Tipp to one of their most famous days when bringing them to the 2016 All-Ireland SFC semi-final and tears flowed as he was remembered.

With the Kearns family in attendance, Michael Duignan (Offaly chairman), Joe Kennedy (Tipp chairman) and injured Premier star Conor Sweeney spoke “lovely words and tributes” that touched everyone.

“It was difficult not to get emotional when the speeches were being made because it was just so clear that he had such a profound impact on so many people, no matter who he managed,” Offaly captain Declan Hogan says.

Hogan had fielded a call from Duignan the previous Sunday, given that the Offaly legend had only rung previously amid the O’Byrne Cup debacle earlier this year, he thought something might be up.

He hadn’t figured anything like the tragic news that followed, though, after spending the morning in Kearns’ company as he put them through their paces in preparation for the next league tie.

The players were “stunned” as word filtered through the squad; it was impossible to get their heads around it.

“We were only chatting him as a group on Sunday and to go from that to looking at the tribute to him later that day on League Sunday was so hard to believe,” Hogan says.

In tandem with the county board, the squad met the next day to try and digest the news together, and the 30-year-old couldn’t be more complimentary of Duignan and Co for ensuring that “any support we needed was put in place”.

The “importance of sticking together” was never more necessary than in dark times as they travelled in unison to Kearns’ wake in Limerick before the burial of their manager the next day in Clonlara, county Clare.

It was a “hugely emotional” experience and it wasn’t until the morning of St Patrick’s Day that attentions turned to the pitch with coach Martin Murphy assuming the managerial reins for a kickaround ahead of the Tipp tie 24 hours later.

Football was not front and centre, but Hogan says they were “conscious that we wanted to pay tribute to Liam” by preparing as he would have wanted. They were “emotionally fatigued” heading into the game with only one topic of conversation on the bus journey to Semple Stadium.

“Lads were still talking about Liam and the type of character he was and how he would have approached the game given his strong history with Tipperary,” Hogan recalls.

“Liam was meticulous in his preparation in terms of analysing our own strengths and weaknesses, and likewise the opposition. We were looking forward to seeing what Liam’s approach to Tipperary would be because he studied every team to the last ounce.

“It was clear from day one after meeting Liam Kearns that his football IQ was sky high. He knew the game inside out. He knew every player inside out. He was only with us for a couple of months, but it felt like he had known us forever.”

As seen by his stance to protect the Offaly squad and pull out of the O’Byrne Cup amid a jam-packed schedule, he was all about looking after his players.

“He was a massive players’ man and had this unique ability. If you were playing well, he’d let you know that. You could go out and feel 10-foot tall,” Hogan says. “Likewise, if you needed a kick up the arse or a telling off, he’d do that too, but in doing so, he was able to command the respect of everyone. If he felt the team needed a dressing down, he’d do that. If we had played well, he’d let us know that too.”

The dressing room had a “void” without Kearns, but Murphy rallied the troops as they finished strongly to down Tipp before a wave of emotion hit.

“There was a huge outpouring there, especially with the history Liam had with Tipperary. It was unbelievable, really,” Hogan says.

“Everyone wanted to get the result. There was a huge embrace among players and supporters as well. We hung around out on the pitch for a while. I think it was the perfect way to pay tribute to the man.

“I read Stephen Lucey’s tribute about Liam being ‘The Chief and he always will be The Chief’ and that painted it perfectly. He was the leader in the dressing room and an inspirational man. I’ve no doubt he was looking down on us in Thurles last Saturday, that’s for sure.”

Kearns handed Hogan the “greatest honour” of his decade-long Offaly career when making him skipper and the Tullamore defender is keen to repay that faith with a conversation between the pair a day before his passing sticking with him.

“He wanted to create an unbreakable bond between the squad. He constantly mentioned that,” Hogan says.

“It’s not an easy thing to achieve, but he was well on his way to it and he still is. Unbeknown to him, the group is now tighter as a result and I don’t think it’s ever been tighter. It’s the most tight-knit group I’ve been involved with in Offaly.”

Kearns was all about “helping us to get the absolute maximum out of ourselves” and Offaly are still in the hunt for promotion with a win needed against Down tomorrow in Glenisk O’Connor Park, allied with Cavan defeating Fermanagh.

“We’re relying on results elsewhere, but all we can do is prepare as best we can ahead of the Down game and it’s one we’re looking forward to,” he says. “Liam’s aim at the start of the year was to solidify our Division 3 status, but who knows where we’ll be, come Sunday evening. We know what our job is to do and that’s to try and get two points and we’re going to do everything to try and get them.”

No stone will be left unturned in an attempt to honour him.