Coach to Waterford players, Kerry manager and Croke Park hurling double hopes

FINTAN O’CONNOR CONFESSES to being a bit dazed while watching last month’s hurling quarter-final involving Waterford against Clare.

He is connected to the present Waterford bunch in a multitude of ways through different coaching roles. But tuning in fully was difficult in the aftermath of his own hurling engagement that afternoon.

A pulsating finish at Austin Stack Park saw his Kerry team overhaul Carlow to win by two points. The prize was huge, a berth in the Joe McDonagh Cup decider which is a handed major billing as the warm-up act on All-Ireland hurling final day.

He was glad to see Waterford progress and then was completely focused a week later for their semi-final battle with Kilkenny a week later.

That thundering second-half comeback leaves the Lismore-based teacher with an interest in two camps aiming for hurling glory on tomorrow.

“All the Waterford lads, you’re wicked fond of them, they’re nice lads. I’d know a good few of them from being involved a few years ago but in fairness there’s a fair change since I was there. They all seem to be renewed in their energy.”

O’Connor was selector under Derek McGrath up until the close of 2016 when he took the Kerry managerial reins. He’s guided the WIT Fitzgibbon Cup team involving the likes of Calum Lyons and Austin Gleeson in recent years. He was in charge of the Fourmilewater side this summer.

And Blackwater CS, where he works in the austistic unit of the school, can reel off nine past pupils in the Deise playing ranks – Stephen and Kieran Bennett, Jamie Barron, Jack Prendergast, Mikie Kearney, Iarlaith Daly, Shane Ryan, Tom Barron and Darragh Fives.

The school is a hotbed for GAA. Principal Denis Ring has vast experience managing various Cork teams. Vice-Principal Maurice Geary was a Waterford selector under Davy Fitzgerald and coached Ballyduff Upper to win a county intermediate championship this year.

Then there’s teachers who have had various county inputs like Patrick Cronin (Cork hurling), Alan Lawlor (Waterford hurling), Michelle Ryan (Waterford ladies football), Niamh Rockett (Waterford camogie) and Jackie Horgan (Kerry camogie).

An All-Ireland final week in the run up to Christmas is a surprise but one they have embraced.

“It’s a real distraction,” says O’Connor.

“With so many past pupils and locals involved as well, it gives the school a great lift. A lot of the kids would know them so well. Lismore is hurling mad. Hurling dictates so much. If the club is going well, Lismore is in good form. It’s the same when the county is going well, the people of Lismore are in good humour. It’s given everyone some lift around the place.”

O’Connor got a lift of his own with the semi-final success that propels Kerry into a major hurling game in Croke Park for the first time since 2015. They have lost out three times already this year to Antrim, who they will renew acquaintances with tomorrow.

The teams were due to meet Croke Park last March in a league final. The fixture was announced on a Monday for the following Sunday. As excitement began to rise, the wider world intervened and by the Thursday the spike in Covid-19 saw the country shut down.

“For the Kerry hurlers, playing in Croke Park is a massive thing. I was wicked disappointed for them. So I’m delighted they’re getting the chance to go back up.”

It will be the first time their marquee name Shane Conway has graced the stadium.

“He was broken-hearted the league final wasn’t there,” says O’Connor.

“When you’re that age, you don’t want to let on that it means that much to you. But sure everyone wants to play in Croke Park, any team in the country.

“It’s just the whole thing of being there in the surroundings of it. It’ll be very different now this year but it’s still a massive thing for the lads.”

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O’Connor feels holding it on the All-Ireland final undercard adds prestige.

“It’s a brilliant idea for the Joe McDonagh. I know we don’t want to take away from the minors but it’s a really nice idea to have it as a curtain-raiser because it’ll just give it a little profile. The Joe McDonagh is a brilliant competition, there’s some really good hurlers in all the team.

“I don’t think there’s any need for the two Joe McDonagh teams to play preliminary quarter-finals against two (Liam MacCarthy) teams. I think playing in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day is a way better carrot for Joe McDonagh teams.”

Into his fourth season in charge, the cross-country Munster route from work in west Waterford to north Kerry is no deterrent to O’Connor/

“It’s about a two hour drive after school. I’m lucky that I finish at twenty five to four so I’ve a lot of time between then and training at half seven. Any intercounty manager will tell you, you spend most of your day on the phone trying to organise things, I just use the car for that. You head up the road to Mallow and then on from there, it’s not a nice road at times but you get used to it. We would have trained in Currans up to this year but with Covid, Kerry split up the groups and the teams were in separate bubbles so we actually train in Caherslee in the middle of Tralee, we use that as a base.”

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He’s accustomed to jumping around different hurling environments. Kilcullen in Kildare is where he grew up so their recent Christy Ring Cup success had some meaning.

“We actually had one of the Kildare lads with us, he’s down in FÁS the last couple of weeks in Tralee and just because it’s so far away, he came in training with us instead of going home in the evenings. Jack Sheridan, so we were delighted for him. David Herity was onto Brendan Cummins to see would we take him in.”

The Cummins link stems from O’Connor living in Ballybacon. Their sons, Paul and Finn, are on the same underage teams in the local club which spurred O’Connor to draft the legendary Tipperary netminder in to coach the Kerry squad.

“I’d be friendly with Brendan and when I was going to Kerry, I said to him, ‘Look would you give me a dig out here and that’s where it started from.’

“The experience he can call on just to talk to the lads. They all love talking and listening to him. Not one of the Kerry players would ever hear a bad word said about Brendan.”

He’s hoping to secure hurling silverware for the Kingdom before then monitoring the form of some Waterford players he is closely aligned to.

Stephen Bennett’s renaissance is no surprise when O’Connor thinks of the 16-year-old he scored ten of the 0-11 Blackwater CS posted in the final of the Dean Ryan Cup, the premier Munster junior hurling college grade, back in November 2011.

Look Stephen was an unbelievable schools hurler, one of the best we ever had in the school. He was unreal and it’s lovely to see him fulfilling that potential because Stephen, even the first couple of years when he was in with Waterford, he would have had hip injuries. It’s lovely to see him getting a good run at it.”

And then there is Jamie Barron, the whirlwind of midfield energy that encapsulates Waterford’s improved form.

“Jamie was injured a fair bit last year and the year before. He’s definitely getting a good run at it and he had good form in the club championship for us. It’s nice to see him doing well. He’s a real engine behind Waterford, if he’s going well, they’re going well when he’s buzzing around the place

“That’s what Waterford are really showing in spades the last couple of weeks, they’re really getting work-rate and intensity out of everyone. That’s been a key part of their success.”

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