Sugrue keen to end Kerry football's U-20 famine
By John Harrington
For a county of such footballing pedigree, Kerry’s lack of success in the U-21/U-20 grade for the past couple of decades has been stark.
They’ve won just one All-Ireland U-21 title in the last 21 years, and that was back in 2008.
Jack O’Connor was tasked with ending the famine when he was appointed U-21 team manager ahead of the 2016 season, but, after four years of trying, he failed to deliver.
He was working with players who won five All-Ireland minor titles from in a row from 2014 to 2018, but his cause wasn’t helped when stars of those teams like David Clifford and Sean O’Shea by-passed the U-20/21 grade to make the leap straight to the Kerry senior team.
Even considering that considerable factor, Kerry’s inability to build on those minor triumphs in the U-20/21 grade is still regarded as an underachievement in the Kingdom.
It’s a testament in the county’s determination to do something about it that they recruited former Laois senior manager, John Sugrue, to take charge of the county's 2020 EirGrid U-20 football campaign.
Sugrue proved his worth guiding Laois to successful League promotions in 2018 and 2019 as well as a Leinster Final appearance in 2018, so he’s a big-name appointment.
That brings the same sort of expectancy that O’Connor did before him, and Sugrue is well aware that anything other than silverware will be regarded as failure.
"My role is to manage a team in Kerry and get the results we need,” he said. “On a national and provincial scale at this grade, we have been relatively absent in the last 20 years.
“We've not performed to the level we need to perform at and we need to try and develop our identity at this level.
"That's my job as far as I'm concerned. The other job is that you have an obligation to players, to try and facilitate their development, their thinking about the game.
“Their ability to play within a team, their ability to play with structure, their ability to develop themselves physically and mentally for the challenges that lay ahead."
Dublin’s dominance in the senior grade has been hard to stomach for Kerry football supporters and has fed a gnawing hunger for the county to get back to the top of the pile.
You could see it on night’s like last Saturday in a packed Austin Stack Park against Galway when the ground was packed and there was a real crackle in the air.
Sugrue is well aware of the heightened sense of anticipation in the county.
“It’s one of those things you don't want to let go on too long,” he says. “It does need lots of people to get up off their bums and do a bit of work or create a bit of energy about it.
"Thankfully, this Kerry (senior) team are playing a reasonably solid brand of football and seem to be determined to go about their business in the right way so it's great to see it."
Kerry have put a lot of work into their coaching structures in recent years to close the gap on Dublin, and the success of their minor teams bears witness to that.
Sugrue is now working with players who have come through the Kerry Academy system and is in a good position to judge how well its working.
"They're quite good overall,” he said. “Donal Daly, a friend of mine, is the manager of coaching games in Kerry.
“He's a very a good guy, very interested and a real Kerry man through and through.
“He's working very hard and there's development squads there that are doing quite good work and with the strength and conditioning and the new facility in Currans, there's certainly a basis for a lot of good work to be done and being done currently."
It was something of a surprise when Sugrue stepped down as Laois manager because he had done so well with them, but, as he says himself, the opportunity to work with the Kerry U-20s was “one of those I couldn’t turn down”.
He leaves the Laois team in a very good place after his two years in charge, and was happy to give some advice to his successor and fellow Kerry man, Micheál Quirke, who seems to be settling into the job nicely after last Saturday’s impressive Allianz Football League Division 2 victory over Armagh.
“Yeah, I had one phone-call with Micheál,” said Sugrue.
“He just looked for a little bit of background information more than anything else and I gave him what I felt was relevant.
“He's gone in and is doing a great job there now. I was in at their game last Saturday night and it was a great win. It was great to see them play such solid football, it was super.
“I have been living in Laois for ten years now so I've developed an affinity towards them as well as my own county Kerry. Our little fella goes to the games and so does my little lady. So it's great to see them going so well.”
It would be an incredible achievement were Laois to go straight from Division Four to Division 1 of the Allianz League in three successive seasons, and the win over Armagh means they’re right in the mix now in Division Two.
Sugrue believes Sunday’s match against Cavan will ultimately determine whether they can make a concerted push for promotion again.
“The league is very different from week to week,” he said. “You're up one week and the next, if you take your eye off it, you're down. Really, for Laois, all they've got to do is keep their head down and keep motoring and go as hard as they can.
"It's wide open, and they have that little bit of freshness and appetite. They're momentum has been positive the last couple of years so it's great to see it.
“This weekend is going to be their acid test I think. Two relatively good results, and they just need to keep the head down now and go through this weekend."