Praise for Jack O'Connor these past seven days could not be high enough. Last Sunday, by first stopping, and then clinically dismantling his All Ireland final opponents with amazing dexterity and speed, he proved beyond all doubt that his football brain was the sharpest in the land in 2009. This was not like before, when Cork have met up with Kerry in Croke Park. On this occasion Cork did not freeze. This time, a Cork football team was left in bits and pieces in an All Ireland final with almost half a game of football still to be played.
It was an astonishing piece of work brilliantly cooked up by Jack. At the end of this decade, he stands shoulder to shoulder with Mickey Harte, each with three All Irelands to their name, and the pair of them virtually inseparable for any of us attempting to judge Ireland's greatest living, breathing Gaelic football manager.
It doesn't really matter that they never got to play one another in the final game of the 2009 season! Of course, it might matter a little bit to Jack O'Connor, because he was denied the personal satisfaction of victory over Mickey Harte which, almost certainly, would have come his way had the two gone toe-to-toe last Sunday. Nevertheless, they end a long and enthralling decade as equals, and as it should be.
Last Sunday's game was, indeed, a strange one. The game itself as a contest, or as a work of sporting art, was entirely forgettable, but by the end of it, I was not only left enthralled by Jack O'Connor's excellence, I was also left applauding the four or five vastly superior individual performances within his team. And here I'm not talking about Tommy Walsh, who was once-again extraordinary in his general calmness and clinical point-scoring, or Declan O'Sullivan or Tom O'Sullivan who were both exemplary, at either end of the field. I'm actually talking about two of the characters whom, so often in the past, I have considered to be just below accepted standards for inter-county footballers.
Tommy Griffin, after such a stomach-churning beginning to the game for a full-back, gave one of the most courageous performances in true leadership which we have viewed on this great stage in almost a generation. Seamus Scanlon, however, for me, was the most inspired Kerry footballer of all on this occasion. A footballer who can give 100 per cent of his absolute ability on All Ireland final day is a rare enough breed. Scanlon is a footballer with the most basic, rudimentary skill levels, but last Sunday he must have performed at 200 per cent of his natural ability, and when Kerry needed someone to step up and stop Cork's early surge, it was Scanlon who was the first to be seen.
For so many reasons, he was my 'Man of the Match', and now is the right time for me to personally apologise to him and anyone who knows Seamus Scanlon, for being so consistently dismissive of his abilities and his role on this Kerry football team. I do so very happily. There was no score in the last 11 minutes of the game, which is one extremely strange statistic from last Sunday's final, but the real reason behind this lies in the fact that the contest had ended sometime before then.
The Cork football team did not freeze over, but their manager did appear to be incapable of doing anything about what was happening on the field, and right in front of his nose. Conor Counihan, all winter long and into the spring, will feel that the blame for this bitterly disappointing defeat lies, in the largest measure, with him. And so it does.
He watched his magnificent defence being made to look miserable, and he watched his powerful selection of footballers in the middle third of the field being entirely overpowered. Also, he watched 14 wides being kicked over the 70 minutes, most of them tame, most of them lily-livered in their execution – and one of the many, many things which will surely cross Counihan's mind in the months to come is why on earth he didn't put Michael Cussen into the middle of the field before half-time to do something about Kerry's complete authority there, and why on earth he then didn't shove Cussen into full-forward for the final 15 minutes of the game? Instead, Michael Cussen was sent onto the field in the 66th minute.
But Michael Cussen is just one of perhaps a dozen different regrets which Conor Counihan will have to labour his way through, and deal with in the best way he can, before we see him and his team again in 2010. How he deals with this self-analysis might be the making of him as an outstanding football manager. Unfortunately, however, even if Counihan comes back stronger and far smarter next year, the nature of his particular defeat is only going to be further debilitating for some of his senior footballers who should be forgiven if any of them choose to throw the towel in and forget about ever winning that one precious All Ireland medal.
Last Sunday, it was informally announced within this column, that the three or four years of domination which Cork enjoy over Kerry every quarter of a century was about to commence, if it had not already done so. Such a period of domination hinged entirely on victory, and any kind of victory at that.
This Kerry team, after five All Ireland titles in a busy, and truculent decade, is indeed pretty much over and out. Seven of the nine players who lined out last Sunday in defence and midfield are in their 30s, and some are three and four years past that point of no return. O'Connor has a whole pile of work ahead of him.
It's work, now, we know for sure, that he will enjoy – and should be allowed to enjoy, whether this work ends with further All Ireland titles or not.
In Cork, at the same time, a new team surely now has to be built, and if Counihan decides that he is the man for such a job (and he should!) then he's going to have to start thinking and planning without his most trusty warhorses, Anthony Lynch, Graham Canty, and Nicholas Murphy – and even start looking beyond the likes of Pearse O'Neill and Donnacha O'Connor, who are also moving fast to the 30-year-old mark.
Question is, will Counihan decide to regroup and afford this team one more year of a mighty, extraordinary effort? Most likely he will, and most likely that is a gamble which he or most other managers would choose to take. From looking certain for an All Ireland title in 2009, Conor Counihan is going to be into gambling with 2010.
As for domination? And domination over Kerry for three or four years? That must now be considered a giant-sized miscalculation which I and others bought into.
It was Jack O'Connor's day, and it was Jack O'Connor's year, and while he has much to do if he chooses to remain as Kerry manager for the first half of the next decade, it is now suddenly very hard to imagine any single team – outside of Tyrone – dominating Kerry in the immediate future.
The next decade will start as it should, with Kerry and Tyrone leading the way and building a whole new set of standards for everyone else. In many respects, it's tempting to think that the enthralling rivalry between the two counties is only just beginning, or is only halfway through. There's a pleasant thought to help us all through the next few months of rugby football and association football!
It was Jack O'Connor's year, and nobody else's in my view. He was gutsy and always strong when his team looked to quite distressed and disorientated in the middle of the summer. There's so much about O'Connor which I too admire. His trust and belief is made of rock. It showed, perfectly, in his answer to a big question asked of him within minutes of the final whistle last Sunday, when it was put to him that he must have been thinking twice about Tommy Griffin 10 minutes into the game when Colm O'Neill had a goal and a point scored, and a severe roasting looked on the way for the Kerry number three.
O'Connor, as an example to all up and coming manages, and club managers throughout Ireland, instantly replied that when Kerry needed Tommy Griffin's help and support by taking up the fairly treacherous offer of wearing the number three shirt in the first place, Tommy Griffin gave it to the manager and his teammates, and did so unconditionally. Last Sunday, as O'Connor rightly stated, was not a day for the Kerry management and the rest of the Kerry team to give up on Griffin after 10 lousy minutes. O'Connor and his teammates owed him more than that.
It was superbly acted, and superbly said by the Kerry football manager. It is a pity, it also has to be said, that Jack O'Connor is less gracious than he should probably be, and less respectful and humble in victory, than team bosses of his rare ability should be. Jack's big fist up to photographers, and in the face of the nation first thing Monday morning, does not do him justice. Neither does his need to instantly beat his chest in front of those of us who ever doubted him.
In the world of Gaelic football, Jack O'Connor is bigger than all of us who have raised small and big questions about him personally and about his team. Far bigger! In how he deports himself and presents himself, at this stage of his football life, he is still not the equal of Mickey Harte.