By Paul Brennan
OVER his managerial career with Kerry, which has spanned almost 20 years over three instalments, Jack O’Connor has had several championship run-ins with Tyrone, Armagh and Monaghan, but Derry is a far less familiar proposition for the four-time All-Ireland winning manager.
Kerry’s most recent of just four championship meetings with Derry was all of 19 years ago, an All-Ireland semi-final that Kerry won by six points on their way to winning the 2004 championship, in O’Connor’s first year as Kerry boss.
Since then there was a few National League meetings before Derry’s relegation to Division Two a few seasons back, so – oddly enough for an All-Ireland semi-final – there isn’t much that Sunday’s protagonists know first-hand about each other.
A step into the unknown, then, but O’Connor knows what he does know.
“All I’d say is that we’re not expecting a classic or anything like that, because the way Derry have set up all year I couldn’t see it being an open end-to-end game or anything like that,” O’Connor said.
“I’ve been involved in plenty classics down through the years, but they pale into insignificance if you don’t get over the line. You can have all the classics you like, but from a coaching and a management point of view, and from the group inside, it is about getting over the line, and whatever way you do that it doesn’t overly bother you to be honest.
“This game is all about winning. The way you play is irrelevant. That’s for other people to decide. The cold, hard facts of coaching are you try to get the maximum out of the bunch of players you have. That’s as much as I’d say about it.”
So, O’Connor – always the pragmatist – will take an ugly win over an entertaining loss, and the suggestion is that Kerry will tip-toe their way into and through Sunday’s semi-final for as long as it takes to break down a team the Kerry manager’s calls a ‘tough nut’.
“I just think we have to think our way through the game, we have to be really patient, we have to be efficient. They’re a team that pride themselves on their tackling and their counter-attacking and we’re going to have to be good defensively, because they’re well capable of working scores,” O’Connor said in his press briefing on Monday.
“The crowd, the Kerry supporters are going to have to be patient, because the last thing you do is be cavalier with the ball and just be giving it back to the opposition and you might not see it again for a few minutes.
“Every set of coaches set up to get the maximum out of the players they have, and Derry are no different. Every county has a different style, but it’s not for me to be making any comments on the way they play, to be honest. That’s for other outside observers. It doesn’t even come into it.
“Of course, it’s defensive football, it’s not for the purist but, look, when you’re stuck in the middle of it this is all about winning,” O’Connor said.
As to the specific challenge the back-to-back Ulster champions will pose for the reigning All-Ireland champions, O’Connor is clear that Kerry’s semi-final opponent will be far more difficult that the Tyrone team they hammered in the quarter-final just gone.
“We’re approaching it in a very serious way in the sense that we’re expecting a huge battle here, because all the evidence would point to that Derry are better than Tyrone,” O’Connor said.
“They’ve proved that by winning Ulster the last couple of years. They’ve also beaten Tyrone pretty comprehensively the last two times they met them.
“They’re on another level to Tyrone, therefore we’re expecting a huge battle. Regardless of what people are talking about our eyes are fully on Derry the next day.
“They’re obviously a very tough nut to crack. They’re very rigid and systematic defensively. They’ve proved to be a very hard team to break down. That’s proved with Cork, what did they score, 1-8, and we found Cork to be a very good athletic team who have a lot of firepower.
“Yet Derry restricted them to 1-8 and restricted them to a lot of pressurised shots, so we’re going to have be very good with the ball. Very smart with the ball, very efficient with it.
“And then just be good defensively on the counter-attack, because teams that are set up defensively can be very good on the counter-attack and Derry have improved offensively this year in the fact they’re committing a lot of bodies forward and they’re going to be a really difficult team to break down.
“They have some really good forwards, and some really good individual players. That Glen team that reached the All-Ireland [Club SFC] final, you know we’d be raving here if a Kerry club team reached the All-Ireland final.
“Derry consistently are competitive in Ulster and so on, Derry club teams. The standard of football in Derry is very high. They’re probably on a crest of a wave with the minors winning and the chances are they’ll outnumber us supporter wise as well on Sunday.
“The Kerry supporters are going to have to be patient because the last thing you do is be cavalier with the ball and just give it back to the opposition. If you do, you mightn’t see it again for a few minutes.”