APPOINTED AND ANOINTED: KEANE ASKED TO LEAD KINGDOM BACK TO THE SUMMIT
Iwas asked last Thursday if the Kerry County Committee had got the right man in Peter Keane. My reply was that they had got a manager, but only time would tell if they got the right manager. And there is only one criterion by which that will be judged: All-Ireland titles.
Like every other manager of the Kerry senior football team before him, and those to come after, Peter Keane will be deemed a success if he wins All-Ireland Championship and he’ll be considered a failure if he doesn’t. That might seem harsh, but such is the heightened level of expectation in Kerry - rightly or wrongly - that delivering the Sam Maguire Cup to the Kingdom is the only metric that matters.
Keane, the 47-year businessman from Cahersiveen, will know this better than most, and whatever number of seasons he stays in the position he will be under pressure to maintain the unbroken chain of All-Ireland winning managers stretching back from his immediate predecessor, Eamonn Fitzmaurice, through Jack O’Connor and Pat O’Shea to Páidí Ó Sé.
That pressure to deliver will be further heightened by the expectation that five All-Ireland winning minor teams should be building toward inevitable success at senior level, notwithstanding the general acceptance that Kerry have considerable ground to make up on a five-in-a-row chasing Dublin team that shows little sign of slowing down.
Fitzmaurice will be the first man to give a wry smile when it is suggested that Keane must be afforded some time and latitude to bed into the position, but the honeymoon period will be short, and the learning curve steep for the St Marys man who hasn’t been involved in any way in a senior inter-county management team.
In simple empirical terms, the Kerry senior team is starting the 2019 season a long way off the top level. A fifth place finish in Division One of the National League was followed by a disappointing Championship, which ended with a mediocre ‘Super-8’ run. That the four teams that headed Kerry in the final League standings were the same four teams that made the All-Ireland semi-finals suggests that Kerry are firmly back in the general pack of challengers to Dublin. And yet it is still widely felt that Kerry is the team that seems best equipped to dethrone Dublin: whether or not that can be in 2019 is a different matter altogether.
For good or ill, also, there will be an implicit pressure on all concerned to try to stop Dublin from achieving that five-in-a-row. While there is a general acceptance - even respect - in Kerry that Dublin are operating on a different and enchanting level altogether - it would go deep and hard on the Kerry psyche if Dublin do next September what Kerry failed to do back in 1982.
Keane will be aware of that appalling vista too, but they desire to dethrone Dublin shouldn’t derail this new management team from the longer game. Insofar as it can be palatable, a 2020 target for an All-Ireland title might be more reasonable than next year, although that’s not to say Kerry cannot go out and capture the Sam Maguire in 11 months time.
Nevertheless, patience will be pleaded for - by Keane and by the County Board executive - but as Fitzmaurice found out to his cost, that’s a virtue in short supply in this county. And yet everyone concerned - Keane and his management, the executive and clubs, and, perhaps most importantly, the supporters - will have to decide sooner rather than latter what can be deemed a ‘successful’ 2019.
As ever, staying up in Division One is a given, while a League final or even a League title would be a bonus, and would give Keane some early currency with which to sell his bigger vision. Beyond that a Munster Championship title should be very achievable, if for no other reason that there’s hardly a serious challenger among the other five counties. But it’s July and August that will define Keane’s first season and an All-Ireland semi-final will be the minimum requirement to keep the natives from getting restless.
Perhaps what will qualify Keane’s first year as a success more than silverware and raw results, however, will be the way Kerry are set up, how the team plays, and how assured the new management team look in what they are doing and trying to achieve. that end the addition of Donie Buckley in a coaching role seems a key appointment, and while Keane and Tommy Griffin can justifiably say they know a thing or two about setting up their teams in the right way, Buckley, crucially, brings senior inter-county nous to the table.
James Foley transferring across from the Minor team management strengthens Keane’s hand further, and that trio of Keane, Griffin and Foley will have to have utter conviction in everything they attempt to do.
Maurice Fitzgerald is on board too, and in every sense it makes sense. Keane is going to have to win and impress the dressing-room from day one and Fitzgerald - a St Marys club mate - will be a good ally in that regard.
If, in year one, Keane can stabilise the defence - which by any metric performed well below what would be expected from a Kerry team - and show that a well-conditioned and coached team and squad is being built for the future it would probably be considered a good year’s work.
Of course, there is and will be much more to do than just that. When using Dublin as the barometer it might be argued that the Kerry players weren’t as fit and as well conditioned as they needed to be, and that early S&C work and gym work - winter training, essentially - will be crucial to how the team performs next season and in subsequent years. The imminent appointment of an S&C practitioner will be a crucial one.
In terms of style of play Keane will have to marry the pragmatic and the romantic. There’s a general acceptance now that any notion of Kerry teams playing some romantic version of ‘catch and kick’ is long gone, and it won’t be lost on Keane that Kerry’s last All-Ireland title win came on the back of a most un-Kerry 70 minutes of football in the 2014 final against Donegal.
In this brave new world of Gaelic football pragmatism is winning out. Even this Dublin team under Gavin has morphed and adapted and shape-shifted year on year to stay ahead of the pack.
What those last three Minor Championship have shown is that Keane can prepare a team very well, set them up to play attractive and open, yet pragmatic and structure football.
He has also shown to be a shrewd manager on the sideline, and that was never more in evidence that in this year’s All-Ireland semi-final and final against Monaghan and Galway respectively when Kerry fell behind and the management and players had to react accordingly.
Of course, who Keane brings forward from those last five minor teams will be crucial to his and the county’s success over the next few years, even though there’s no guarantee that five Tommy Markham Cups can be melted down to fashion a Sam Maguire in the immediate future.
But that’s the thing: the last time the Sam Maguire wintered in Kerry was the first year the Tom Markham Cup came back to the Kingdom in 20 years. ‘Baby Sam’ has been a permanent fixture here since, with Keane guiding the county to the last three of those All-Ireland Minor titles. Now Kerry folk are getting beyond restless for Baby Sam to grow up and come back to the county in its big form.
Peter Keane’s credentials are good and he has gathered good football men around him but nothing less than the delivery of ‘the cannister’ will be of any use.