GAA Football

Jack O'Connor "a breath of fresh air" says Paudie Clifford as Kerry prepare for Mayo All-Ireland quarter-final

Paudie Clifford takes on Tyrone's Conor Meyler in last year's All-Ireland semi-final. Pic Philip Walsh.
Andy Watters

KERRY were well fancied to end their seven-year drought for a Sam Maguire last year but a tenacious Tyrone team ripped up the script in a thrilling semi-final that went to extra-time.

If Jack O'Connor's men are going to do better this time around, they'll have to do it the hard way and their mettle hasn't been remotely tested yet because the Munster Championship was an absolute doddle for the Kingdom.

Kerry hammered Cork by 12 points in the semi-final and then annihilated Limerick in the final. That game finished 1-28 to 0-8 and so the first real test comes on Sunday when they face-off against Mayo in the last of the quarter-finals.

The three weeks since the Munster final have been well spent, says Paudie Clifford. Sparks have been flying in training as the Kerry players battle for starting spots with ferocious intensity.

“We just have to make sure the training is as competitive as possible to get ourselves ready for what we know is going to be a very competitive quarter-final,” said Clifford.

“It's just back to the heads down now and getting ready for what is basically the second half of the season, the All-Ireland series.

“We enjoy hopping ideas off each other in training and working on things and hopefully bringing it to the game and it's very competitive. There is a lot of strength-in-depth and whoever is in the (starting) spot on any given day we know can perform.

“We probably will pick up an injury or two like every team does so it's great to have the strength in depth and it's down to the lads coming in then to stake their claims like Killian (Spillane) did.”

After the loss to Tyrone last year Peter Keane stepped down after three years in charge. The 2021 semi-final was controversially delayed by a fortnight due to an outbreak of Covid-19 in the Red Hand camp and after the defeat Kerry were criticised for lacking composure and being overly-reliant on David Clifford.

“I wasn't paying too much attention to the criticism last year,” said Paudie.

“I was just disappointed that we hadn't gotten over the line and maybe I felt I hadn't done enough to get us over the line.

“I didn't pay too much attention to what a lot of people were saying, I was obviously disappointed myself, which is what I would think of first after a game.

“It was tough watching the final but it's always the same... we lost semi-finals with Fossa and it was very hard to go to the finals. We lost a quarter-final last year and it was very hard to go to the semi-finals and final. Any competitive person or footballer is going to have those feelings.”

Jack O'Connor has returned to the Kerry helm for a third spell. Toorsaleen native O'Connor delivered three All-Ireland titles for Kerry in his previous two stints and each was preceded by a National League title after Tyrone had won the Sam Maguire the previous year.

Kerry were League champions again this year and hammered Mayo in the Division One final. Is history about to repeat itself? Clifford certainly hopes so.

“Peter did a lot of great work and we were very close last year and then Jack came in, a new voice with new ideas,” he said.

“He's been a breath of fresh air to us really. We're really enjoying the training and really enjoying how we're preparing for games. It's just a new voice is the main thing.

“He knows... how would I put it? He knows the right things to say to players before the game and they know their role from it.”

His competitive nature was honed in countless backgarden All-Ireland and World Cup finals against his younger brother David who missed the Munster final but it is expected to lead the Kerry attack against James Horan's westerners on Sunday.

"He got a dead calf at the end of the Cork game," Paudie explained.

"He was close to being ready, but they just said they'd wait another week. So, I think he's back training now."

The Clifford brothers line out for the Fossa club just a couple of miles outside Killarney. Fossa is not among Kerry's traditional powerhouses - they are currently top of Division Four in Kerry (there are seven divisions) with seven wins a draw from nine games – but the Cliffords were Kerry senior championship winners with East Kerry in 2020.

Their father Brendan is a diehard Fossa clubman who “just lives and breathes football” according to Paudie

“He's very passionate about Fossa and trying to bring Fossa on to the next level,” he says.

“So that's his main aim and Kerry is probably second for him. He doesn't discuss much when it comes to Kerry. He stays out of that side of things but when it comes to the club he discusses things.”

A hard-working, creative half-forward, Paudie Clifford is in a different mould to his younger brother but then again forward genius David Clifford is really in a class of his own.

Following in his footsteps must have been complicated but Paudie's credentials were publicly endorsed by the likes of Tomas O Se and he has since proved his worth in the green and gold jersey.

“I didn't really ever think about it as proving people wrong but I had to prove to myself that I could do it,” he said.

“That's probably the main thing. As a player you have to look at yourself first and see if you can prove yourself right. Having people back you is all well and good but it's yourself that you have to prove right.”

And if he needs inspiration or advice on how to operate in the Kerry attack, he doesn't have to go too far. Former Kerry playmakers Declan O'Sullivan, Paul Galvin and Colm ‘Gooch' Cooper are three players he aspires to imitate in the role he'll play on Sunday.

“If you can be a combination of the three of them…” he says wishfully.

“I don't have to look too far, I don't think have to look outside Kerry for that.

“Yeah, I've spoken to them all in the last year and they're great to give advice if needed or whatever because they're so knowledgeable.

“They were unbelievable footballers and they're very knowledgeable so I'm just trying to get as much out of them to improve my game and to improve Kerry as a team.”

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