Sport

Thursday 24 August 2017

Fighting with Shaun Edwards, pursuing excellence and why Mayo won't win Sam: Paul Kimmage meets Fergus Connolly

Fergus Connolly
Fergus Connolly
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

When I first met Fergus Connolly, he was a gifted but frustrated woodwork and construction teacher who had chosen the wrong path and aspired to a career he would never attain. His passion was sport. He yearned for a life working with coaches and teams and was fascinated by what made them tick.

His thirst for knowledge was extraordinary. He had read every sports book that had ever been written and was working through a list of brilliant minds to pick. He had met Charlie Francis, the former coach of Ben Johnson, in Toronto. He had travelled to New Zealand to see Ashley Jones and watch how the All Blacks trained. He had spent a fortune in Porto on an interpreter for Vitor Frade, before anyone had ever heard of him.

Padraig Harrington was next on his list, then Roy Keane and Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara. I’m not sure what he wanted with me but the following morning, he sent an email:

Paul,

Thank you for your time last night, hope you weren’t too tired this morning and apologies for the interrogation and all the questions. 

Best regards,

Fergus

That was the thing that struck most about Fergus: he was thoughtful and generous and polite. I remember thinking, ‘What a lovely guy but he should go back to teaching. There isn’t a chance he will ever fulfil his dream. He’s far too nice for this game’.

Seven years later, we are sitting in his office at the University of Michigan and he’s steaming like a kettle: “They fucking blew it,” he says. “Mayo will never win an All-Ireland! I’m fucking telling you! Write this down! Put it in block capitals! AS LONG AS I’M ALIVE MAYO WILL NEVER WIN AN ALL-IRELAND.”

This is the story of what happened in between.

1

“Let’s start at the beginning.”

“Right.”

“You’re from Monaghan.”

“No, I’m from Scotstown.”

“But you were born in Clones?”

“I’m not from Monaghan, I’m from Scotstown.”

“Scotstown?”

“Yeah.”

“What does that mean?”

2

Mary Reynolds, the third born of six children from Drumlish in Co Longford, travels to New York at the age of 17 and finds a job at JP Morgan. One summer — her 11th in the metropolis — she meets Pat Connolly, a woodwork and construction teacher from Clones, over for the holidays.

They date and write and become a perfect match. In 1977, they return and settle in Clones where Fergus is born.

A Christmas eve from his boyhood stands out: he’s at home, pinning his stocking to the mantelpiece, and his father arrives back from a job he’s been measuring in the hills outside the town. “Jesus!” he says. “It was snowing up there and some idiot was running laps of the field!” Fergus listens to his father and makes a mental note.

Barry McGuigan trains on Christmas eve!

But it’s his mother who shapes him.

She’s at home one afternoon when he arrives in from school feeling bummed about the day and the monotony of learning. “You know, Fergus,” she says. “If you work hard enough at anything you will get whatever you want.”

The notion seems preposterous.

“Are you serious, mammy?” he asks.

“Absolutely,” she replies.

“Work hard and I can get what I want?”

“Yes.”

And that’s when the demon bites.

OK, we’ll see about that.

He applies himself at school, takes two extra subjects — art and woodwork — and gets 12 honours in his Junior Certificate. He gets up early on Saturday mornings and spends the day grafting and learning from his dad:

“The height of a rail is 640 millimetres.”

“The thickness of a thread is 32 millimetres.”

“The width of an external wall is 300 millimetres.”

“The cavity is 100 millimetres thick.”

He’s learning and working hard, because mammy says working hard will get him whatever he wants. And what he wants, more than anything in this world, is football.

The Monaghan minors are warming up in Clones for a game with Down.

He’s 10 years old, has just finished an

ice-cream and his nose is pressed against the fence. His father is pointing towards one of the Down forwards.

“See that wee mon there, Fergus?”

“Emmm . . .”

“The one with the bandy legs in the corner.”

“Yes, dad.”

“His father was Jim McCartan, a great player.”

James McCartan is not easy on the eye; the red and black jersey hanging around his shorts, a slovenly gait, but Fergus follows him like a hawk. Doing nothing. Going nowhere. Then . . . bang! The ball is in the back of the Monaghan net.

‘Wow! How did he do that?’

They move to Dernagrew. The Ballyalbany bridge and a 20-minute walk separates their new home from the Diamond in Monaghan town. A man calls to the school one day with applications for Monaghan Harps. Fergus fills out the form, excited to be joining his classmates, but there’s a problem — the parish border ends on the town side of the bridge.

He runs home and finds his father digging spuds in the garden. Darkness is closing in. It feels like a verse in a Seamus Heaney poem.

“Dad, why can’t I play for Harps?”

“I’ll take you out to Scotstown, Fergus.”

“But Dad, I want to play for . . . ”

“No, no, Fergus, you don’t understand.”

Scotstown is a 20-minute drive but it takes him longer to understand. Weeks of travelling in his mother’s battered old Fiesta on those bumpy roads. Months of riding over there on his bike — 35 minutes out, 35 minutes back — to supplement his workouts. Years of growing and learning with the juniors until he is finally invited to join the senior men.

That first session is seared into his mind. Sean Mulligan, perhaps the nicest person in Monaghan, opens him with a shoulder that almost fractures his sternum. Ten minutes later he takes an elbow in the mouth and tastes blood. But it’s the language that hurts most.

“You’re not good enough, kid.”

“You’re fucking soft.”

“How many medals did you win with the juveniles.”

Nothing. They give him nothing.

A week later, he’s selected to start against Truagh when he feels the warm breath of a team-mate on his ear: “Remember son, these fuckers are scared of that jersey you’re wearing. The only reason we have a wire around the field is to fucking stop them getting killed on the road running away from us.” 

The game starts and he has hardly broken sweat when he is punched off the ball. His team-mates are apoplectic and round on the Truagh man like savage dogs: “You’re a fucking coward,” one shouts. “Picking on a kid!” Another rushes in and levels the aggressor from behind. Everything. He gets their all.

And two days later, when Fergus returns to training, he is feeling pretty good about himself. They’ve accepted him. Fergus Connolly has arrived. 

“Well boys,” he smiles, chest out.

But Sunday never happened. It is business as usual.

“Shut the fuck up.”

“The postman doesn’t get medals for delivering letters. That was the mentality at Scotstown,” he says. “Shut up, do your job and don’t look for praise. Scotstown was the most successful club in the county and produced some of our greatest footballers — Ray McCarron, Gene Sherry, Fergus Caulfied, Gerry McCarville, Tommy Moyna, Gerard McGurk, Jack McCarville — heroes for me growing up.

“And I was lucky enough to get to play with some of these guys in the last years of their careers. If we hadn’t moved house (from Clones); if the Harps from Monaghan town hadn’t rejected me, I’d have ended up with a team that won nothing. But I ended up in Scotstown. I played with heroes.

“They abused me and beat me around the football field but they also made me. Those people are the people that made me. Iron sharpens iron.”

3

To reach Fergus Connolly, you catch a seven-hour flight to Boston, a two-hour flight to Detroit and a 30-minute Uber to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. It takes longer to find him. I sent a first request to interview him in January, 2012.

Paul,

Thank you sincerely for the invite. I will take you up on the offer sometime, but not just at the minute please. I’ve never done a proper newspaper interview, and I’d rather achieve something before I do any media or look for attention. Perhaps that is unusual, but it’s just the way I am.

Regards,

Fergus

And five years later, he is slow to engage and spends the first hour bombarding me with favourite quotes:

George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Terence MacSwiney: “It is not those who can inflict the most. But those that can suffer the most who will conquer.”

TS Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

And facts about the football team:

We are Michigan.

We hold the record for the most

all-time wins in college football history.

We have had more winning seasons than any other team.

We are the most televised school in college football history.

We have had the largest crowd witness a football game at our stadium (115,000).

But that’s not what I’ve come for.

“We can spend hours talking about your work here but I’d rather talk about you.”

He laughs: “OK, let me show you this. This is about me.”

He gets up from his desk and unlocks two large metal cabinets. They are crammed with manuals and books:

The Cerebral Cortex and the Internal Organs.

The Transformation of War.

Dr Jensen’s Guide to Better Bowel Care.

Pulse Diagnosis.

The High Performance Mind.

The Secret of Life.

“Interesting,” I smile. “But what does it tell me?”

“It’s not about the books,” he says. “It’s about the breadth, the range. There are books here about sales, marketing, war, psychology . . . everything. Why? Because this is a people business and I have to know everything that might influence these kids.

“Take marketing. How the fuck do Coca-Cola and Gatorade do it? How do they sell their drinks to these kids when I can’t get a message across about broccoli! These are the people I learn from . . . Performance under pressure. Who does it better than anybody else? Well, a surgeon does. A Delta sniper does. How? Why? How does it work?

“Remember that quote from TS Eliot? That’s the key. All of the questions we have, have been solved — you just have to know where to look for them. And you’ve got to be fucking ruthless about it.”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“You have to accept that you don’t know the answers; you have to be humble enough to go and look for them. You can’t assume.”

“That’s not ruthless.”

“It is,” he insists. “It’s being ruthless with your own personal ego. Fucking ruthless! That’s why I keep going back to honesty. It’s about getting up and looking in the mirror each day and saying: ‘I’m not good at this. I’ve got to get out of my comfort zone.’ The only fear I have is complacency — that’s the only thing that scares me. I’m not scared of dying.”

“You’re not?”

“The only fear that I have is complacency.”

“You’re not scared of dying?”

“No. It doesn’t bother me.”

“You’ll have to explain that.” 

4

For more than 600 years, conquerors with far more resources at their disposal who attempted to colonise the Yucatan Peninsula, never succeeded. Hernan Cortes was well aware of this fact. And it was for this reason, that he took a different approach when he landed in the land of the Mayans. Instead of charging through cities and forcing his men into immediate battle, Hernan Cortes stayed on the beach and awoke the souls of his men with melodious cadences — in the form of emblazoned speeches . . . But, ironically, it would only just be 3 words which Cortes murmured, that would change the history of the New World. As they marched inland to face their enemies, Cortes ordered, “Burn the boats.”

— BurningBoats.com

5

Fergus has just turned 21. He is studying to be a woodwork and construction teacher in Limerick but his ambition is to play football for Monaghan. He returns home every Friday, puts a concrete block in a rucksack, and runs up and down the hills.

He’s training twice a day. Everyday. Giving it his all.

“Are you serious, mammy?”

“Absolutely.”

“Work hard and I can get what I want?”

It’s a Wednesday evening in summertime. He’s playing for Scotstown in a minor final and they lose by a point. He’s exhausted, has picked up a bug, but the seniors have a game on Friday and he togs out on the bench. He’s sweating. Feeling rotten. There are 10 minutes left and the game is tight.

“On you go, Fergus.”

First play. A ball pumped into him. He runs and tries to gather but is seeing double — two balls — and has to wait for one to bounce. Then he catches it, turns, and fists it to an opposing player . . .

“For fuck sake, Fergus!”

“You fucking eejit!”  

But it’s obvious there’s something wrong. Pains in his chest. Coughing in the dressing room. A frantic drive to Monaghan County Hospital and a night spent wrestling with some sobering news. A virus. He’s had a heart attack.

Four days later, they take him from the ward to a treadmill and wire him to an ECG: “If you feel anything at all just let us know,” the doctor warns.

The treadmill starts.

‘What if I die?’

They steepen the ramp.

‘What if I die?’

They increase the speed.

‘What if I die?’

He starts to sweat.

‘What if I die?’

He keeps pushing.

‘Why should I stop doing the thing I love?’

Two years later, he’s Player of the Year at Scotstown and convinced he will fulfil his ambition to play for Monaghan. But the selectors never call.

Had his mother got it wrong?

“The funny thing about working hard for something is that you don’t always get what you’re looking for,” he says, “but you get something else. Something better. It’s said that God has three answers to our prayers.

“1. Yes

2. Not yet.

3. I have something better in mind.

“And most of the time it’s been number three for me. I never ended up playing football for Monaghan but I wouldn’t be here if I had. And none of this would have happened.”

A torn hamstring was the start of it. He went to a physio, was told to work on his flexibility and, being Fergus, stretched until he could almost scratch his ear with his toe. Then he resumed training and pulled it again. “Flexibility wasn’t the problem, it was strength,” he says. “The physio hadn’t a clue.”

He found the answer in books.

“The world is full of idiots who work hard but you have to work intelligently. One of the great influences I had growing up was two sets of encyclopaedias — a children’s set and a Royal Britannica set. If dad didn’t know the answer to something it was: ‘Go get the encyclopaedia, Fergus.’ This was the internet years ago. I was taught to self-learn.

“There’s a brilliant book every kid should read called A Message to Garcia. It’s paper-thin and you’ll read it in 10 minutes but it’s about that (taking initiative). If somebody asks you do something, just go and do it. There’s an answer out there so go find it. Read, study, buy books, figure it out.”       

He figured his hamstring, and his groin strain, and spent so much time studying anatomy and performance in the library at UL that his peers were confused.

“You’re doing sports science?”

“No.”

“PE?”

“No, I’m doing woodwork.”

“Oh! You didn’t get the points? 

“No, no, I got the points.”

He took a Masters in Manufacturing, and a PHD in Computer Optimisation, and enjoyed Limerick so much that he applied for a job lecturing at the university. “I was the only woodwork teacher with a PHD in the country and I didn’t get it,” he smiles. So he took a job teaching in Navan at St Patrick’s Classical School.

He loved woodwork and liked teaching but was intoxicated by performance in sport. He took a part-time course in physical therapy and was at a conference in Dublin one afternoon when he spotted the Armagh trainer, John McCloskey. “There were two questions I always asked,” he says. “What are the best books you’ve read? And who’s the best guy you’ve come across?”

McCloskey sent him to Craig White, the strength coach at Leicester Tigers. White sent him to Charlie Francis, who was consulting for AC Milan and the Chicago Bulls. Francis sent him to the All Blacks to meet Ashley Jones. He travelled to the four corners of the globe and spent $800 dollars once for an hour of one expert’s time . . . a lot of money for a woodwork teacher.

But you reap what you sow.

In April 2007, he took a call from Phil Richards — a strength and nutrition coach he had met at Bolton Wanderers. “Sam Allardyce had just left and gone to Newcastle,” he says, “and I got a phonecall from Phil shortly afterwards . . . ‘Big Sam has left and taken all of his sports science people with him. There’s a job here for you’.

“I went over and they made me an offer, and I applied for a career break at St Pat’s. It was supposed to be for five years, but they called after a few months wanting to know if I’d be back.

I thought: ‘No, take a chance, let’s do this’. I didn’t know anything about soccer but it was fascinating and very different. And I had all my mates texting me: ‘Saw you on Match of the Day.’”

His tenure at Bolton was sweet, but short. The results were poor, the manager (Sammy Lee) was sacked, and Fergus was out of a job. Two months later, he accepted an offer from Craig White to join the Wales rugby team. “I’m there a few weeks,” he says, “and I get a call from Warren Gatland to come into the office. ‘Fergus we have a problem, you haven’t signed your contract.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t want a three-year contract, I want a one-year contract. I want to come in here each year and tell you what I’ve done. I don’t ever want to become complacent.’”

“That’s interesting,” I observe.

“Why?” he asks.

“Because it goes against human nature.”

“That’s true,” he says. “People worry about the future, and worry about the past, but fuck that. I could have taken the five-year deal at St Pat’s but for me it’s all or nothing. Nothing bad has ever happened to me. The knocks? I’m fucking grateful for them.

“I’m grateful for every elbow in the mouth I got at Scotstown, and for every time I was dropped. I’m grateful because it made me better. I could choose to become a victim but I refuse to accept that. No excuses. It’s one of the signs I put up for the kids here:

Did you win?

Yes.

No.

No excuse.

“Did you do it, yes or no? No excuse. I don’t want to fucking hear about anything else. Now don’t get me wrong, if somebody comes to me and they’ve got issues (they will find a sympathetic ear). But you have to remind them: ‘It’s your responsibility. You are accountable for your actions.’ But people make excuses.

“I’ve a list of excuses as long as my arm but I just get on with it. You can’t dwell on the past, you just keep going. If you keep thinking about yesterday you’ll get complacent: ‘Look at how good I am?’ Take a look at this (his office). There are no medals or trophies here. There are no jerseys on the walls of the teams I’ve worked with.

“I’m with Cortes: ‘Burn the boats and go!’ And I’m not saying that’s right, I’m just saying that’s me.”

But there’s one story that truly explains him.

6

LOSING HIS HEAD

Three days after Shaun Edwards met officials from the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and was told that he would remain in his position as assistant coach, sources within the Wales camp, including one senior player, have told the Sunday Times that the confrontation between him and sports scientist

Fergus Connolly was sparked by Edwards launching into a song

about wife-beating.

They have also said that when Connolly voiced his objections to the Englishman on the squad’s return to the team hotel, the Vale resort in Glamorgan, Edwards responded by butting him. Edwards last night denied the butting allegation.

“Fergus got the wrong end of the stick with a song which was totally a bit of fun with the lads,” he said. “He approached me afterwards clearly annoyed, and there was an altercation: our heads may have touched because we were standing so close to each other but I definitely did not head-butt him.”

The incident — which led to both being fined £500 and banned from attending the match against France in Paris last weekend — had its origins on the team bus as the players and coaches returned to their headquarters in Henson, west of Cardiff. Wales had beaten Ireland and the squad were in good spirits on the coach, with Connolly, an Irishman from County Monaghan, taking good-natured banter from the Welsh players.

Connolly, who is highly regarded in his field, countered by singing the Irish song ‘The Wild Rover’ and was joined in a duet by Warren Gatland, the head coach and New Zealander. Edwards then countered with his own version of ‘The Wild Rover’, which replaced the familiar line “I’ve played the wild rover for many a year” with the refrain “I’ve been a wife beater for many a year . . .”

When the players dispersed on arrival at the hotel, Connolly approached Edwards to complain about his version of the song. What then occurred has been variously described as a “major altercation” and an “aggressive stand-up row”, in which both men confronted each other, forehead to forehead. 

— The Sunday Times, March 27, 2011

7

“So we’ve been talking for almost two hours now.”

(He starts laughing.)

“Why are you laughing?”

“I’m laughing because it’s uncomfortable for me to talk about a lot of those things. Everybody wants to talk about themselves but it’s not me. That’s why I respect the Keanes, the O’Garas, the O’Connells, they’ve no interest in telling you how great they are.”

I smile: “Hmmm, Ronan has written . . . is it three autobiographies? Keane has at least two, and O’Connell has just published his.”

(He explodes with a huge guffaw.)

“OK, I mean people who self-promote as opposed to just talking about themselves. There’s a difference.”

“Why has it taken me seven years to catch up with you?”

“Because I refuse to believe I’ve done anything extraordinary; I don’t believe I’m any better than anybody else.”

“But there was one time you did make headlines.”

“Yeah. I was uncomfortable with that.”

“Why?”

“I was uncomfortable about the publicity and the fact that my name was out there, not about the incident. Myself and Warren were up the front of the bus singing ‘I’ve Been a Wild Rover’. He took the mic and turned the words of the song around: ‘I’ve been a wife-beater.’ I said, ‘Hey, you can have a go at me. But don’t have a go at Irish people.’ Boom! He head-butted me.”

“And you did nothing?”

“There was a bunch of players around us. I was pulled back.”

“Were you not being a bit precious? A bit . . . sensitive?”

“Possibly, but it was the manner in which it was said. I thought: ‘You want to intimidate these Welsh guys? Go for it. But you’re not going to do that to Irish people. You ain’t bullying me!’”

“So you’re called to a meeting?”

“Yeah, we had a recovery session and nothing was said. Then the next day we are called to a meeting: Alan Phillips (team manager), Warren Gatland, Edwards, and myself. Gatland says: ‘Right guys, what happened the other night? Let’s go through this.’ Edwards says: ‘Let him go first.’ So I said: ‘Yeah, there was an incident and we had words but it’s no big issue.’ Because as far as I was concerned he was in trouble.”

“Right.”

“So I finish and Gatland says: ‘Shaun, what happened?’ And he opens this black, hard-back (notebook) with a red stripe down the back and starts reading: “I was standing at the bar, quietly enjoying a drink with some friends. He came rushing at me in an aggressive manner, swearing.’”

“You’re joking?”

“No. I remember thinking: ‘I’ve just tried to save your job you prick, and this is what you do.’ It was such bullshit that Gatland, his friend for years, said: ‘Shaun! Shaun! We’ve seen the video. He didn’t come running at you.’ It was embarrassing. You should read the (Sunday) Times article with Stephen Jones.”

“Yeah, I have it.”

“I played with some proper hard men in Scotstown, a place where, as long as it was the same day, there was no such thing as a late tackle. They didn’t need to let you know how tough they were. They didn’t walk around all day with a scowl. So I wasn’t intimidated by this guy. I thought: ‘Get the fuck out of here.’”

“But you’re both fined?”

“Gats says: ‘Right boys, here’s what we’re going to do. You’re both suspended for a week. And a £500 fine.’ Shaun gets up and leaves and I’m stunned. I said: ‘Gats! Gats! Can I pay an extra £500 and work for the week?’ ‘No,’ he says, ‘just take some time off.’

“I can’t believe that.”

“I’m telling you.”

“You would have paid him an extra £500 to work for the week?”

“I had no family there. What the fuck else was I going to do?”

8

Paul,

I left the WRU a month ago. It was a tough last eight months but such is life. It could have been worse, I shouldn’t complain. It won’t stop me getting to the top and being the best in the world.

Regards,

Fergus

— September 9, 2011

 

Some people he has worked with: Nicolas Anelka, Kevin Nolan, Sammy Lee, Joey O’Brien, Dai Young, Nick Easter, Gary Speed, Amir Khan, Warren Gatland, Bernard Dunne, Kenny Dalglish, Brendan Rogers, Declan Kidney, Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Joe Schmidt, Eric Mangini, Rob Chudzinski, Colin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh, Vernon Davis, Justin Smith, Frank Gore, Alastair Clarkson, Leon Cameron, British and US special forces.

Some dressing rooms he has seen: Bolton Wanderers, Wales, Munster, Liverpool, Ulster, Harlequins, New York Knicks, Cleveland Browns, Northampton Saints, Warrington Wolves, Jacksonville Jaguars, San Francisco 49ers, University of Michigan, Atlanta Falcons, Cricket Australia, Great Western Sydney Giants, Collingwood.

But few have lit his fire like Dublin and Jim Gavin.

“When it all came together at Dublin it was beautiful to watch,” he says. “We’d have rows — huge fucking rows — but it was brilliant. There were no egos. I could say anything to those guys: Jim Gavin, Declan Darcy, Mick Deegan, Shane O’Hanlon. The best group of people I have ever been around.”  

It started with a message on his phone from Gavin in the summer of 2012. He was at a dinner for Kenny Dalglish in Liverpool and had to slip outside to return the call. The Dublin job had come up. Gavin was throwing his hat in the ring and wanted Connolly on his team.

“I’m with Liverpool, Jim. I can’t,” he replied.

“Well I’d like you to be involved.”

“OK, let me think about it.”

A week later they met and the chemistry was obvious: Jim Gavin was his kind of guy.

“One of the first things I said was: “No foreign trips. This is Dublin. We don’t need to go abroad to train. It works when you’re training really hard for one-off events but you’re not learning anything. We were trying to train habit, and the only way you train habit is to create the same scenario: boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

“It’s not about fitness. Fitness is important but it’s about the ability to play and make decisions. And from day one that was the goal: How do we produce the best footballers? How do we train them to make decisions in the spur of the moment? With fitness for sure, but there must be a Commander’s intent.

“In the US military, every single action carried out by a soldier on the battlefield must be traceable back to, basically, the Commander in Chief. But if there’s too much structure, the guys will look for approval for everything and fuck up. So it comes back to the Mike Tyson rule: Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. But everybody needs a plan when they get punched in the face.

“So every player on the field has a clear objective. How he does it at that point in time, I don’t care. I give you the tools — you figure it out. And where it becomes beautiful, and it was beautiful, is when you have 15 guys on the field improvising.”

In his first season, they beat Tyrone in the National League final and Mayo to win the All-Ireland. But it’s a drawn game seven months later that stands out. They’re playing Mayo again at Croke Park in Round 5 of the National League. Paul Flynn is injured, Stephen Cluxton is sent off and they trail 1-9 to 0-8 at half-time.

“I’m up in the booth with two of our game analysts, Frankie Roebuck and Seaghan Kearney. The whistle blows for half-time and we run to the lift. A few of the Mayo boys are there. Seaghan drops his clipboard and they start sniggering: ‘How are your stats looking now, boys?’ I wasn’t annoyed, I was staggered. I thought: ‘They think the game is over! It’s only half-time!’

“And what happened in the second half? They blew it. Write this down! Put it in block capitals! AS LONG AS I’M ALIVE MAYO WILL NEVER WIN AN ALL-IRELAND.””

“Why?” I ask.

“Well, you’ve that attitude for a start. And a midfielder, Aidan O’Shea, rushing around doing TV shows. What the fuck? You wouldn’t see it in Kerry. You wouldn’t see it in Dublin. Why? Because you win your medals and then talk about it. Do what you’re going to do. Deliver: Yes, sir. No, sir. No excuses.”

“They gave it a good run last year?”

“Bah! They do it every year. I saw it when I was in Meath — glorious failure. They’re never going to do it.”

“How would you change that?”

“Well, there would be no media. It’s about The Team, The Team, The Team, not what I can do for myself. Aidan O’Shea does media for himself. He’s not doing it for the team. It’s bullshit.”

“And that impairs his ability to play football, does it? Talking to journalists?”

“It’s not talking to journalists. It has nothing to do with journalists. What he’s doing is self-promotion. It’s about himself, not the team.”

“Bernard Brogan’s face has been on every billboard in Dublin. So that’s different to Aidan O’Shea?”

“Yeah. Do you want to know why? Four reasons: Celtic Cross 1, Celtic Cross 2, Celtic Cross 3, Celtic Cross 4. He’s done it. He has delivered.”

“So that’s your point? Win the medals first?”

“Yeah.”

The interview is drawing to a close. He has a book to write, a season at Michigan to prepare for, and plenty more he wants to learn. “What happens next?” I ask. “Where’s the next step on the ladder?”

“I have no idea,” he says. “I will probably set up a consultancy company at some stage, but who knows? I have never really planned anything. John McCloskey said to me once: ‘If you’re the best at what you do, somebody will always come looking for you.’ I’ve 12 months left on my contract here to fulfil and my door will be open.”

“What if Monaghan call?”

“I have no interest in working for Monaghan. I offered once and never heard from them so . . . no.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“I’m telling you.”

“You would take that job.”

“No. I’m not from Monaghan. I’m from Scotstown, remember?”

Game Changer: The Art Of Sports Science by Fergus Connolly (with Phil White) is published by Victory Belt Publishing in September

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