Kieran Shannon: Beat Killester and it all opens up for Neptune and Kelleher

Neptune's coaching change was made with a view to this Cup quarter-final
Kieran Shannon: Beat Killester and it all opens up for Neptune and Kelleher

18th November 2023.. Paul Kelleher coach of Energywise Ireland Neptune against Tralee Warriors during the Men's Super League game at The Neptune stadium. Picture; Eddie O'Hare

When Neptune signed Jordan Blount in the summer of 2022 it was widely seen as the move that would put the most storied club in Irish basketball over the top and back on top.

The previous season Neptune, inspired by the return of Colin O’Reilly to the club as player-coach, had reached the final of both the Cup and Superleague. With the addition of another prodigal son and prodigious all-time talent, all looked in place to go one better than double champions Tralee and everyone else.

The one bit of good news was that they did indeed edge Tralee in 2022-23. In a classic do-or-die barnburner in a packed Sports Complex last March, Blount hit a dagger three from the proverbial logo with the game and season on the line to secure Neptune a league playoff spot and deny Tralee one.

But that was as good as it got. The following week Neptune’s own season ended in Belfast in the league quarter-final – the same stage they had exited the Cup, having lost to Éanna at home back in December. It wasn’t for that Blount had come home or Neptune had brought him home. The club’s first league title in 20 years and-or its first Cup in 10 was supposed to return with him.

Nine months on and the frustration and sense of underachievement continues.

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Again Neptune were active in what could be termed free agency this past summer by coaxing another native son and Irish international, Conor O’Sullivan, home. But yet again it’s as if the more talent the team has the more problems it has. Like the LA Clippers since the James Harden trade. For The Beard, Kawhi, Paul George and Russell Westbrook, read Blount, Cian Heaphy, Roy Downey and O’Sullivan, only the majority of the Neptune quartet should be approaching their prime instead of being past it. They still haven’t gelled. They still haven’t figured out their roles.

And so, because it has continued, the club has made the call that it can’t continue. Two weeks ago they announced that O’Reilly had been “relieved of his duties”.

It was a huge call. O’Reilly, by the club’s own admission in that statement, had “brought the club back to Superleague prominence” with those two final appearances the season before last. His basketball IQ is as high as anyone who has operated in the Irish league which explains why as a player he was probably the best to ever come out of the country, let alone the club, and why as a coach he propelled UCC Blue Demons to a level of dominance and mastery in the mid-noughties that the league hadn’t known since the Neptune team of Wilkinson, O’Sullivan, Nugent et al.

More so, he commanded the total respect of his Irish players, even their affection. It’s why he came back and was coaxed back when at the end of last season he was ready to finish up.

But the club’s powerbrokers sensed he wasn’t adequately communicating or clicking with the side’s professional imports, and with another season in danger of being a write-off, made the call to make the change. Better, they felt, to do it this side of a National Cup quarter-final than on the other end of it and possible defeat.

Unto the breach has stepped Paul Kelleher. He has a proven record as a formidable trouble-shooter. Ten years ago he took over a talented and proud group of Glanmire players that had lost their way and mojo and by the season’s end had rejuvenated them and transformed them into double champions, beating a magnificent UL Huskies team in not just the best women’s National Cup final ever but in the league final as well.

He also knows Neptune and these players well from guiding them to multiple U18 and U20 National Cups and coaching a core of them in their rookie seasons in the Superleague four years ago. Those players might not be rookies now, and both they and Kelleher might need to have reminded the other that the way he coached them then won’t necessarily be the way he’ll coach them now, but his knowledge of the players, club and scene, along with the experience he’s garnered since as the head coach of various national U16 and U18 teams, meant he was as good a replacement as the club could wish to find.

Since taking the gig Neptune are 0-2 and outside the league playoff spots, but it was never about those two games against Tralee and Star. The change was made with a view to this Cup quarter-final against Killester (Saturday, 8pm, Neptune Stadium). Exactly 12 months on from losing to Éanna, Neptune again encounter a wily, veteran, dangerous team from Dublin who’ll be buzzing at the thought of beating the sport’s great aristocrats in Neptune to ensure a return ticket for the carnival that’s the Cup semi-final weekend in early January.

Neptune have changed Americans as well as their head coach since O’Reilly’s last game. Gone are Max Cooper and Crishon Brigg while in has come Derek Murphy from Florida though it sounds like he’s just from around the corner in Grawn.

Squeeze out the win here and everything opens up for them. A home Cup semi-final. Even the possibility of that long-elusive 12th league title; someone like O’Sullivan, when he adapts to being with a new team and in a new league from the Division One he dominated with Ulster University last season, is primed to have a strong second half to the season.

But the alternative? Too grim to countenance.

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