Posted by Ewan MacKenna
Tuesday 14 August 2012
Man, was he angry. It wasn't just his language, it wasn't even just his furious tone, it was the noise coming down the phone line and booming out of the speaker as he screamed and roared for 20 minutes.
It was probably better that Jack O'Connor was in Kerry and I was sitting at home at my desk in Dublin because to be close to the manager may not have been safe at that point in time.
At one stage I took the mobile away from my ear, laid it flat on the table and could still clearly hear every furious word bouncing around the room and into my punch-drunk mind.
To repeat some of the phrases here would turn this into a column for over-21s only and to repeat some of the claims made in that conversation would serve no one well bar a couple of teams of lawyers.
In part it was my fault though. Young and naive and relatively new to the game in 2009, I was behind a group of far better journalists in the Sunday Tribune.
So when Jack O'Connor agreed to sit for a couple of hours alone and talk exclusively ahead of the All Ireland final, any demands he had were agreed to without considered thought.
When he said he'd need to see the article before it went to print, it brushed off me like a light breeze and kept on going, when such a request should have had me realising the implications. But none the wiser, off I went to Kerry to meet him, and for a while in that interview O'Connor played it cool.
He got into a pair of shorts, lay on a deckchair out the back of a Killarney hotel and fired off answers without even looking in my direction. But then we got to his insecurity when it came to ex-players, legends in the county, who were criticising his efforts and the fact he'd never reached the levels they had on the field.
He'd written about it in his excellent and surprisingly honest book Keys to the Kingdom but to go back into it was clearly uneasy for him. He sat up, took off a pair of shades, complained about the line of questioning and tried to change the subject.
And when he finally got the article the Friday night before that All Ireland clash with Cork, he exploded at the fact two paragraphs referred to this. He wanted them changed and for quite a while, as we headed for midnight, there was a fiery stand off.
But O'Connor did what he could get away with. He may have been paranoid in stretches, a control freak in part, but he was a winner. The fact he could spend much of that night, just 40 hours before throw-in in an All Ireland final, arguing about some relatively tame and harmless words showed just how assured he was as a manager.
Capturing the All Ireland would take care of itself after all the work he'd put into the team, but this he had to take care of right away and while his methods were intimidating, it was taken care of. By that Sunday, Gooch kicked six points, Tommy Walsh four points, Kerry won by four points and O'Connor had his third and last All Ireland title.
On the Monday I text him complaining about his outburst but never heard a word back. It was further naivety on my part. That battle won, he'd others to win and had moved on already from me and from that All Ireland.
For a man in his position he'd no time to waste and with a team full of potential emigration and age, his off-season was going to be as busy as his on-season.
The players he lost that winter meant he never got back to winning in September but to judge him by that in recent seasons is unfair. The fact he kept a team in transition competitive and introduced the next generation while competing with the best showed that those All Irelands under him weren't simply about great players, but a fine manager too.
When he resigned from his job as Kerry manager last week it was a pity because while he may come across as dour on television, he is gutsy and talented and adds a lot to the game.
That argument we had showed that perhaps he never got over his limitations as a footballer himself, but if that still is the case, he should realise that he's been a far better and more successful manager than any of those 1970s and 1980s players who were quick when it came to sniping and needless comments.
It took skill and courage to come from his background in a county like Kerry and win it all in 2004 and 2006. It took a great communicator and a brave man to come back into the same dressing room after a book that criticised players. To take them to another title in 2009 never got the credit it deserved.
Nor did other more recent achievements. Last summer, for the first time in O'Connor's career, he faced a Cork team that were better and were expected to beat Kerry.
But that 1-15 to 1-12 win was one of his finest moments because he beat up Conor Counihan on the line and could take the majority of the credit for a statement victory. The fact that a team under his control lost Darragh, Tom O'Sullivan, Mike McCarthy, Tommy Walsh and Tadhg Kennelly yet can feel hard-done by in an All Ireland final was testament to the depth of talent in the county for sure, but also to O'Connor's ability to change a team and keep winning and to develop new footballers while maintaining high standards.
He knew well the team wasn't as good as before and this year his tactics were cynical and negative but they had to be. And while Tyrone 2012 will be talked about as he finally got one over Mickey Harte, that was a different Tyrone team. What was more impressive this time around was going toe-to-toe with Donegal for so long.
Other Kerry legends have managed victorious teams around the country and thought of their own reputation and not of the county they were in charge of. The result is they won while present but the county lost when they left because they'd neglected the future. Not O'Connor though and despite his insecurity and despite our personal falling out, the fact he kept Kerry near the top and leaves them in a very decent place as he retires says a lot about him.
He may never have been a Kerry legend on the field but he's made sure he is one with his work off of it.
Follow Ewan at twitter.com/EwanMacKenna
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