John Joe Kearney has everything under control at Slaughtneil
IT’S tough at the top. When the Irish News contacted John Joe Kearney this week, he was just sitting down with his colleague Mickey Moran to select the Slaughtneil team for Sunday’s Ulster Club clash with Kilcoo.
“Can you phone me back?” Kearney, Moran’s assistant with the south Derry club’s senior footballers, asked, “We’re just about to pick the side for Sunday.”
“Certainly, how about first thing in the morning?”
“That’d be perfect,” said John Joe and off he went to plot the demise of Down’s seemingly perennial club football champions.
Bright and early the next day, the Irish News was back on the blower: “So how was the meeting last night?”
“Ach, the team more or less picks itself,” was Kearney’s nonchalant reply, “it was more the bus and the meal I was worried about getting sorted.”
Such is the life of the Gaelic football coach – a finger in every pie, no task too big or too small to take on – but it’s also an indicator of the stability that lies at the heart of Slaugtneil’s success. Kearney, himself, was still playing football for Slaughteil at 46.
The current crop are significantly younger than that, but they have already built up a vast amount of collective experience. More than two-thirds of their Ulster final-winning starting 15 of 2014 are still on the panel, clocking up two provincial titles and two All-Ireland final appearances in the process, despite most being in their early to mid-twenties.
This is before we consider the extent of dual commitment in Slaughtneil. Of the 15 hurlers who started against Dunloy in last weekend’s Ulster Club semi-final victory, only ’keeper Oisín O’Doherty is not on the football panel.
The likes of Karl McKaigue, Meehaul McGrath, Brendan Rogers, Shane McGuigan, Paul McNeill, Sé McGuigan and Cormac O’Doherty all started against Dunloy and are likely to do so again on Sunday against Kilcoo. This commitment to the cause has created a togetherness and stability that has manifested itself in four Derry football titles on the trot.
Of course, Kearney was at Owenbeg to watch the hurlers last Sunday: “Everybody was okay after coming through the game against Dunloy,” he said.
“It was a tough game of hurling, so I’m glad they all came through it without any problems.”
As a result, the team that takes to the field on Sunday for the Ulster preliminary round clash with Kilcoo, a repeat of last year’s final, will have a formidably familiar ring to it.
“Historically, any team that gets out of Derry usually does well in Ulster,” said a confident Kearney.
“But Ulster is also like another Derry championship, in terms of the intensity and the quality of the teams you are coming up against. I watched the Down final and it was a fairly even game, there were only a couple of kicks of the ball in it.
“Burren weren’t that far away and that was up against a formidable Kilcoo team – they had history with them and they’re the team to beat.”
Kearney also knows that, after last year’s final loss, Kilcoo will have that extra motivation to get one over on the Derry men.
“We know we’re going to meet a good team,” he added.
“Kilcoo will have that bit of incentive from last year and they’re extremely competitive, but you’re going to meet a good team sooner or later if you want to win anything.”
As for winning anything, Kearney insists that lies a long way down the road, despite Slaughtneil’s recent run of success.
“We’ve the ambition to get back to Croke Park this year and win it, but that’s a long, long way off at the minute,” he said.
“Whoever wins the game on Sunday has to go out and take on whoever wins the Tyrone championship, whether that’s Omagh or Errigal Ciarán. Whoever it is, it’s going to be another tough game.”