Thursday 23 November 2017

O'Neill and Buckley trading places in the hunt for Sam

Cian O'Neill and Donie Buckley have swapped coaching roles with Kerry and Mayo and can provide valuable insight on the opposition

Mayo trainer Donie Buckley will come up against the Kerry team he used to coach at Croke Park on Sunday. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Mayo trainer Donie Buckley will come up against the Kerry team he used to coach at Croke Park on Sunday. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Without a transfer market, the windows of speculation can be limited in Gaelic games.

Talk of movement is often restricted to the managerial merry-go-round that generally kicks in around this time of the year. Sometimes the potential movement of a coach or a trainer can provoke interest too.

Like that period in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 All-Ireland final when confirmation came that Cian O'Neill was ending his season-long association with Mayo.

The rationale was simple. O'Neill lived in Limerick and the road to any part of Mayo was far too taxing for a back injury that was the legacy of a car accident he was involved in a few years earlier.

Round-trips that lasted more than five hours were always going to preclude him from taking on a second year.

But rumours were already in circulation that he was on his way to join Eamonn Fitzmaurice's new team in Kerry, a shorter trek from his Limerick base.

O'Neill has always insisted that no agreement that he would join Kerry was ever reached before the 2012 All-Ireland final, a point reaffirmed by Fitzmaurice only last week.

When Fitzmaurice contacted him for advice on who could look after his team's physical conditioning, O'Neill provided a list of names and they both went about their business.

But crucially the new Kerry manager, appointed at the end of August that year, left confirmation of his back-room team until the October meeting of the Kerry County Board, when O'Neill was revealed as part of the team and, more significantly, was listed as a selector, the first 'outsider' to fulfil such a role in the Kingdom.

By then James Horan was searching for a replacement for O'Neill, who had fulfilled coaching duties in Mayo throughout 2012. The trawl took him to Ennis where Donie Buckley resides and was preparing for his annual winter trip to Florida that can consume up to three months of his year.

For a coach with such a big reputation, Buckley's footprint across inter-county football has been limited.

He was joint manager of Clare with Michael Brennan in 2006 before Páidí Ó Sé's arrival for a brief spell in charge and was involved with Limerick when Mickey Ned O'Sullivan was manager as they came close to winning Munster finals in 2009 and 2010.

Jack O'Connor brought him on board with Kerry for 2011, but Buckley left in the middle of 2012 when he returned from knee surgery and found that the coaching role he had been fulfilling the previous season had been distilled. The offer to be a selector didn't have the same appeal.

Buckley's departure in such circumstances didn't go down well among the Kerry players, who liked his style; ironically, Fitzmaurice was brought back in for the 2012 championship, having stepped down from the Kerry back-room team after the 2010 campaign.


As a consequence, Horan would have had to use all his persuasive powers to convince Buckley to invest time in the Mayo project. But it has been a good fit.

O'Sullivan and Brennan both see the qualities in Buckley the coach. A retired engineer with Clare County Council, they talk of his appreciation of ergonomics, structure, method and systems.

Brennan recalls his old friend from NUIG and the Eire Og club in Ennis taking out sheets of paper and drawing diagrams of football drills in his company.

He appreciates the technical detail that can be applied to sport.

Is it too much of an assumption to make that Buckley's arrival in Mayo has coincided with their development as the most clinical tacklers in the game?

Kildare native O'Neill provided the physical conditioning template for Tipperary for all three years of Liam Sheedy's management and for the first year of Declan Ryan's stewardship.

But football is in the blood and the prospect of 'coaching' a team as opposed to solely overseeing athletic and strength development appealed greatly. Now head of the Department of Sports, Leisure and Childhood Studies at Cork IT, having previously been a sports performance course director at UL, O'Neill is a respected sports scientist who has never harboured a desire to one day manage an inter-county team.

As with Buckley and the improvement in Mayo's tackling, is it too much to assume that the creation of space in the Kerry full-forward line that has set free James O'Donoghue and Paul Geaney, in particular, this summer has its source in O'Neill's blueprint?

O'Neill admits that being the first 'outsider' on a Kerry management team hasn't been easy, especially when they were in the midst of a losing sequence at the beginning of last year's League.

He expected a backlash then and he expected that he would be at the forefront of it. But it didn't materialise and they rode out the storm.

In an age where analysis of opponents is such a vital commodity for managers and coaches, their status in opposite camps is an interesting sidebar to Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final.

What the camera doesn't always pick up, human instinct often can - the likes, the dislikes and the bad habits that perhaps only the repetitive viewing of the coach on the training ground can pick up on.

Buckley and O'Neill have both had that magnified technical insight into opposite camps in recent years.

Fitzmaurice believes O'Neill may have a slight advantage because the pace of player turnover has not been as swift in Mayo over the last four years as it has been in Kerry.

"There has been a good bit of flux in our panel over the last couple of years going back to 2012 and that is not so much the case with Mayo," he said.

"They are a battle-hardened group, they are similar enough to the group that James Horan put his stamp on since 2011. Cian probably knows a lot of the lads but Donie would be very familiar with the club scene in Kerry, so he would have a good knowledge of players that he did not put through his hands when he was involved before.

"Donie is a top coach. Both of them have obviously good knowledge of the opposite camp.

"But we are two years down the road now in terms of where both camps are and it has moved on a good bit.

"In Division 1 especially, it is taken so seriously that opposition are so familiar to each other really.

"I don't think it is as big a factor as it could be."

Irish Independent

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