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Adam Moynihan: Fans need to hear the players speak

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James O'Donoghue speaks to Colm Parkinson after the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final victory over Galway. Pic: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile.

The question asked of Kyle Sinckler was fairly standard. The Bristol prop had just picked up the Man of the Match award for his role in the Bears’ victory over Bath in the English Premiership and the interviewer summed up his performance and the result as a “pretty decent afternoon, right?”

The England international laughed. But as he began to reply, his voice trembled. He struggled to find the right words. “It has been an emotional week,” he offered, before thanking his teammates and loved ones for their support.

This was on Saturday last. Earlier in the week, Sinckler had been omitted from the Lions squad ahead of their upcoming tour of South Africa. When the interviewer asked how he felt about it, the 28-year-old became visibly upset. “I’m not gonna lie, I’m quite emotional right now. It has been tough. It means so much to me.”

By this point the Englishman was fighting back the tears. Over the course of the next two minutes, he shared what he was experiencing and explained how he used the anger inside him to fuel his performance on the pitch. It was hard not to be moved by the frankness and sincerity of Sinckler’s words. Here stood a man who has given his life to his chosen sport (as all top sportspeople do), laying bare on live national television exactly how heartbreaking it is when you fail to achieve your goals.

Even if you knew nothing of Sinckler before watching the clip, you felt like a friend of his after.

The video prompted Kerry GAA legend Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston to draw comparisons with the GAA.

https://twitter.com/EoinListon/status/1391383665746317313?s=20

Paul Brennan of The Kerryman and Tim Moynihan of Radio Kerry agreed and, responding to the latter, Liston added that: “Fans need to know more about their players to fully connect with their team”.

As a journalist who has been covering the Kerry team for a couple of years, I’d have to agree with Bomber’s assessment. First of all, trying to get a Kerry player on the record during the season is not easy. In fairness, all the players I have approached in the past have been absolutely sound and very polite about it, and some have kindly agreed to take part in whatever it is I was doing, but it’s pretty obvious that they have been discouraged from engaging with the media. This approach seems to be deployed across the board as far as intercounty teams are concerned. In recent times, it has even been the case with certain club sides.

And when players do engage, for example in pre-and-post-match press conferences or TV interviews, you rarely get the impression that they’re being 100% forthright with their views.

Why is this the case? Well, a lot of teams seem to adopt a “bunker” mentality (or, in some instances, have a “bunker” mentality imposed upon them). This “us versus them” mindset, aimed at cultivating team unity, is based upon the idea that no one outside the camp can be trusted. The media, understandably, are considered to be firmly outside the camp.

Some managers also fear that their players will say the wrong thing, in turn drawing unwanted scrutiny on the individuals themselves as well as on the team. A stray comment can provide ammunition to the opposition and, in a game of inches, removing the possibility of that comment ever being uttered is seen as a desirable option.

The impression I get, both from playing in and working in GAA circles, is that some managers feel as though this approach to the media is ultra-professional. The irony, of course, is that the most professional teams and sporting organisations in the world fully embrace the media and encourage their athletes to engage with them openly and often.

If you take the NBA as an example, players never stop talking to the press. Journalists mingle with the athletes and coaches in the locker room and virtually no questions are off limits. And this is an environment in which the stakes are incredibly high. Say the wrong thing and players stand to lose literally millions of dollars in endorsements and cause huge reputational damage to their franchises, which are also multi-million-dollar operations. Yet the players are given free reign to say, more or less, whatever they like, to whomever they like, whenever they like.

In fact, you’d probably get an interview with LeBron James the week before the NBA Finals far easier than you’d get an interview with David Clifford, or any Kerry player, the week before the All-Ireland.

Clearly, as far as the likes of the LA Lakers are concerned, the positives outweigh the potential negatives. Allowing players to express themselves and share their personalities helps to promote the team’s brand, not to mention the sport itself.

It also breeds an affinity between the fans and the players. After watching that two-minute video of Kyle Sinckler, many Kerry supporters will feel like they know him better than they know half the Kerry panel, even though the latter are their neighbours. I would wager that the majority of Kerry fans couldn’t tell you what the majority of Kerry players sound like, let alone what kind of personalities they have. There’s something wrong about that. There should be more of a connection.

It’s a shame because there are some good characters on this Kerry team, just as there are on every team. There are guys who are good craic. There are guys who are passionate. There are guys who are intelligent and articulate. There are plenty of very capable young men who have things to say, and who won’t fall to pieces when someone puts a microphone in front of their faces. And if some lads don’t want to do interviews, that’s completely fine too. It’s not for everyone. But some people thrive in the spotlight, and the fact that so many former Kerry players go on to become pundits shows that we are well capable of producing media-savvy footballers.

Another upside is that being more open when it comes to media relations would almost certainly lead to more commercial opportunities for players. Brands like to align themselves with likeable characters, but it’s hard to decide who’s likeable when everyone is sticking to the party line and saying the same thing, or not speaking up in the first place.

We have seen what can happen when players and managers do express themselves. John Mullane’s “I love me county”. Kieran Donaghy’s “Well Joe Brolly, what do you think of that?” Ger Loughnane at half-time (half-time!) in the 1995 All-Ireland final declaring that “We’re going to do it”.

These are iconic moments that still resonate with fans many years later. Real people with real emotions speaking from the heart. It adds so much to the spectacle.

The very fact that it’s the Bomber, a hero from Kerry’s Golden Years, who is making this argument indicates what the attitude was like when he lined out in green and gold. If you watch or read interviews from the seventies and eighties, you will find plenty of strong words for opponents, for officials, even for those within the bunker itself. Isn’t that what sport and the GAA is all about? A game of opinions. To pretend that the players don’t have any is, when you think about it, fairly ridiculous.

It might scare the managers but encouraging players to use their own unique voices has the potential to be a real game-changer.

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100 days of Jack O’Connor

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Our sports editor Adam Moynihan analyses the first 100 days of Jack O’Connor’s third spell as Kerry manager.

The McGrath Cup isn’t exactly the acid test – it has been distinctly alkaline so far, truth be told – but Jack O’Connor’s feet are now firmly beneath his desk. It’s hard to believe but he has already put down his first 100 days as Kerry’s manager. I think that gives us the green light to start analysing the poor man to within an inch of his life, as is the custom in these parts.

Kerry have played just two preseason games during O’Connor’s third stint but there is still plenty to pore over. (And if there wasn’t we’d find something, says you.)

THE BEGINNING

Going back as far as Day 1, and even before that, there was significant controversy surrounding his appointment. O’Connor was officially ratified on October 4 but he appeared to publicly flirt with the idea of returning to The Kingdom on an Irish Examiner podcast in August. Some people felt that this was disrespectful to Peter Keane – Kerry had just been knocked out of the championship by Tyrone – and O’Connor later admitted that his comments were “naïve”.

However, I wouldn’t personally go along with this idea that Jack O’Connor ought to have been more mindful of Peter Keane in this situation. The two were competitors in a very competitive field and Keane was technically no longer the Kerry manager after the Tyrone defeat because his term was up. If a journalist asks Jack O’Connor if there is an “allure”, why should he lie and say there isn’t?

The interview process that followed drew sharp criticism in some quarters, particularly amongst Keane supporters, because there was a perception that O’Connor was the preferred candidate before he, Keane and Stephen Stack were interviewed. So what if he was? Complete impartiality is impossible in this kind of scenario. The candidates are known to the board, so some sort of bias is inevitable.

That doesn’t mean they were wrong to meet with Keane and Stack. If Keane was turfed out without getting the chance to make his case, his supporters would have been livid over that as well. There is no nice way to lose a job, particularly one that is as prestigious and coveted as the Kerry gig.

Off The Ball AM went one step further and, quoting an unnamed source, alleged that O’Connor had been hired even before the interview process had started. If true, that would have been a different story. That would be completely unfair and a real slap in the face for Keane and Stack and their respective teams. But the accusations were denied in the strongest terms by outgoing chair Tim Murphy, and OTB AM later apologised for their “groundless, false, and incorrect” claims.

The bottom line, when you sidestep all the politics and gossip, is that Keane was given a three-year term and Kerry were knocked out of the championship by underdogs in Years 2 and 3. No Kerry manager has ever survived such a sequence. There was appetite for change and the board acted.

Only time will tell if they made the right decision by opting for Jack O’Connor. He will be judged by his results, just like every Kerry bainisteoir before him.

LEAVING KILDARE

O’Connor faced some more understandable criticism over the manner in which he left his previous post in Kildare. From the outside looking in, it did appear as though he left them high and dry, but he subsequently explained that he hadn’t actually committed to The Lilywhites for 2022. In fact, he had “more or less” made his mind up that he would be standing aside.

“This thing that I left Kildare because I was asked to manage Kerry or that it was a done deal is absolute and total nonsense,” the Dromid man said. The commute was taking its toll and his management team had largely disbanded.

Even if he had another year with Kildare in the tank, the reality is that no Kerry-born intercounty manager is going to turn down Kerry if the opportunity arises.

CALL-UPS

Now, down to the real business of assembling a squad. Whereas previous regimes were condemned for sometimes overlooking players who were performing well for their clubs, O’Connor has taken a different approach.

Three Austin Stacks players – Dylan Casey, Jack O’Shea and Greg Horan – were drafted in on the back of the Rockies’ heroics in the County Championship. Two more of last season’s most eye-catching club players, Andrew Barry and Jack Savage, were also added to the panel.

Dan O’Donoghue and Darragh Roche both starred for East Kerry in their title-winning campaigns in 2019 and 2020. One could argue that they both might have been looked at sooner.

Elsewhere, goalkeeper Shane Murphy was recalled after being dropped by Peter Keane in 2018. Shane Ryan has done well over the past three seasons but there has been a nagging feeling in the county that Murphy and his unique attributes, particularly when kicking from the tee, might merit a recall. Clearly, Jack O’Connor is of the same mind.

There is also great excitement amongst Kerry fans surrounding the return of Stefan Okunbor. The former Geelong Cats player had made just a couple of appearances for Na Gaeil and St Brendan’s when O’Connor’s first panel was drawn up, but Okunbor was included anyway. He started at midfield in the first McGrath Cup game against Limerick and his eye-catching fetch from the throw-in left those of a green and gold persuasion rubbing their hands with glee.

THE KERRY WAY

There’s no denying that we consider ourselves to be the aristocrats of Gaelic football down here in Kerry. We demand that our senior footballers play the “Kerry way”. This “traditional” style of attack apparently includes plenty of kicking and catching, conveniently ignoring the fact that our best ever team was built around the handpass.

Nevertheless, we do enjoy a fast, direct game, and if the opening two matches in the McGrath Cup are anything to go by, Jack O’Connor intends to deliver on that front.

So far it has been an obvious tactic to get the ball into the hands of the team’s best passers – Paudie Clifford, Seán O’Shea and nominal corner back Tom O’Sullivan – and allow them to spray long, accurate passes into the full forward line.

O’Sullivan in particular appears to be operating as a free man and playmaker, taking advantage of the fact that most opponents drop an extra player back in defence.

This tactic has worked so far with Paul Geaney and Killian Spillane reaping the rewards in the opening preseason fixtures. That has certainly been encouraging. Whether or not the approach will continue to function as well when things get serious remains to be seen.

PLAYER WELFARE

One of the biggest talking points from O’Connor’s first 100 days arrived on the 100th day itself. Last Wednesday night up in Templetuohy, Co. Tipperary, Tony Brosnan and Jack Savage entered the fray as second-half substitutes. The problem? They had lined out earlier that same day for MTU Kerry in their Sigerson Cup victory over UCD. Another MTU Kerry player, Paul O’Shea, was also named on the Kerry panel, but he did not feature against Tipp.

O’Connor’s decision to play Brosnan and Savage just hours after they had finished another match in a different county was rightly called into question. After all, player welfare is a hot button topic and surely there is no shortage of footballers in the county who would be delighted to receive a call-up.

There were mitigating factors, though. Kerry were missing 14 players due to club and college commitments. Without the MTU Kerry trio, they would have travelled to Tipperary with just 20 players. While it should be possible to find replacements, even at short notice, perhaps O’Connor was keen to keep the circle small, so to speak. Particularly with Covid so rampant.

The Kerry boss also indicated that the players were left to decide for themselves if they wanted to play. You might say, well, a fella scrapping to get on the Kerry team is hardly going to say “no”, and that’s a fair enough point to make. Who knows, maybe O’Connor was testing the players to see if they were willing to go above and beyond?

Either way, it’s not something I’d like to see happening again, although in this instance there was no harm done.

GOOD VIBES

By and large, O’Connor has made popular choices up to this point and the mood on the street is positive. Victory over Cork on Saturday in front of a healthy home crowd will add to those good vibes, and with that in mind he is likely to name a strong starting lineup.

But, as the man himself knows all too well, the temperature will gradually increase over the next 100 days or so. O’Connor’s third coming will ultimately be judged in the boiling heat of championship action.

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Fleming and Doherty top Killarney crew at Boggeragh

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The Boggeragh Rallysprint, organised by Cork Motor Club and based in the forest complex of the same name, took place over the Christmas break.

Based near the village of Nad, the event attracted a strong 60-plus car entry and was won by West Cork driver David Guest and his Millstreet co-driver Liam Moynihan in a Ford Fiesta Rally 2. The latter is a member of Killarney and District Motor Club.

The first all-Killarney crew to make the finish were David Fleming and Kieran Doherty in their Honda Civic. The Killarney-based crew finished 20th overall on what was only their second time competing on a gravel rally.

World Rally Championship launch

The new Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid that Craig Breen and Paul Nagle will drive in this year’s World Rally Championship is set to be unveiled on Saturday in Austria.

The World Rally Championship will undergo major environmental changes this year when new technical regulations drive the series towards a more sustainable future.

The season launch takes place at Red Bull’s headquarters near Salzburg ahead of the first round of the WRC, next week’s Rallye Monte Carlo, as a new era for the sport dawns.

Breen and Nagle will be in attendance and the launch will be live streamed on WRC.com

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