Saturday 24 June 2017

Armagh have gained from having Mike McGurn on board

AT some point during Armagh training sessions, Mike McGurn will utter the name of a noted football pundit and, at the code, the players know what to do. They will lie back on the ground, spread their legs wide apart and draw their arms upwards, completing the movement with the flourish of two fingers being stabbed towards the sky. They even have a name for the exercise: the Joe Brolly stretch.

Around these parts Brolly is regarded as the kind of contrarian neighbour who, no matter how lovingly tended, will always find fault with the patch next door. They'll tell you they don't take him seriously while at the same time getting hot and bothered at the things he says. They'll say it's a free world and he's entitled to his opinion and just as entitled to be wrong.

"We laugh at him," McGurn says. "He slated Armagh during the League. He said we're a team of guys who push weights, never train with the ball. There's this photo of us last year before we played Down in the League final in Croke Park. We were stretching and he used the photo and said 'there, I've proved my point, not a ball in sight'. We were fucking stretching Joe. And we won that game quite handsomely."

It's mid-morning in a cafe adjacent to Casement Park and you find him in a familiar position: defending his record as one of the most prominent strength and conditioning coaches in the country and the sporting principles he has spent a short lifetime accruing. Like Bernard Dunne, the boxer he helped to a world title, McGurn fights his corner with passion and tenacity. But he's in GAA terrain now. It's a much tougher sell.

It is two years since the Armagh County Board hired him as a consultant to work across the county as a whole. He had just finished a stint with the Ospreys in Wales and the opportunity to work closer to home invigorated him. Not that the welcome was universally warm and cheery. A friend brought to his attention last summer a GAA website where his reputation was being trashed. Apart from the upset it causes his wife, McGurn isn't unduly bothered by it.

He imagines it became venomous when Monaghan filleted them in Casement Park during last year's Ulster championship. For disaffected supporters, McGurn came with a bullseye stapled onto his chest. "The rugby boy," he scoffs. "Training Armagh like a rugby team." It suited people to reduce the equation to its simplest, most primitive level. Winning teams were super fit. The losers obviously got it wrong.

He smiles too at the irony of the rugby tag. He grew up in Enniskillen in the cradle of the GAA and had never kicked an oval ball in his life. He'd played vocational schools for Fermanagh. His uncle Joe had been chairman of the county board for 21 years. None of that mattered now. A couple of gigs training rugby teams and they had him labelled for life. Mike McGurn. The rugby boy.

Then there was the guilt-by-association of his involvement in Ireland's 2007 World Cup collapse. He took the brickbats flung his way and dusted himself down. Elements of the Genesis report that shifted the blame away from the team's physical preparation never made the public domain so a hardened perception persists that he'd messed up. He bit his lip and moved on. The offers didn't dry up anyway. Some people thought he could still do a job.

In Armagh he knows he walks a tricky tightrope. When Paddy O'Rourke came on board as manager in late 2009 they sat down together and found common ground. Although it was unspoken, part of it would have been their shared status as outsiders. As a legend of Down football, O'Rourke would have to fight hard for acceptance. And not only was McGurn a non-native, he wasn't even a GAA man to begin with. An interloper on two fronts.

They'd anticipated a tough League campaign. They were missing a few through injury and Crossmaglen's All-Ireland campaign further decimated the squad. McGurn remembers nights when a full turn-out at training meant as few as 15 bodies. Yet as hard as things got and as much as morale suffered, they resisted the urge to call on the Cross' players to help douse the raging fires. They remained brave and resilient enough to do the right thing.

By the spring, Brolly was on their case again. Armagh, he said, had become a "desperately ugly, boring team to watch". As if they were churning out a bunch of gym rats who couldn't kick a ball over the bar to save their lives. McGurn's rugby background was rehashed as if he was a Cold War agent sent in from another code to destroy the skills of the game. Needless to say, they found a willing audience.

"People always say 'oh why do you want to be in the gym if you can't put the ball over the bar?'" says McGurn in response. "Like Pat Spillane's never done talking about it either. But I'll guarantee you one thing. You put Pat Spillane beside the likes of James Kavanagh or Bernard Brogan or Jamie Clarke and they'd blow him away. I'm sure he doesn't want to hear that. But they'd blow him off the pitch."

On his Armagh travels he hears the myths. The best one this year was that while McGurn was busy destroying Armagh with his rugby drills, Crossmaglen were sailing to another All-Ireland with recourse to nothing but their famous team-spirit and the skills they learned on the field.

"I'll be in Crossmaglen tomorrow night," he says. "Their championship programme for 2011 begins now. I was in Cullaville last week with John McEntee. Cross' had Seamus McGeown, an athlete who ran for Ireland, doing their conditioning last year. No weights? I did all their players' weights programmes up to the All-Ireland. You know, I've got to the stage where it doesn't bother me now. As long as we get the job done."

People knock him, he figures, because they don't understand what he does. Some don't want to. What he does with teams in Armagh isn't essentially different from what he did with the Ireland rugby team or with St Helen's rugby league. He works on speed and power rather than bulk. Gym sessions take on average no more than 25 minutes, tailored to meet the players' needs on the pitch: more plyometrically-based exercises for midfielders, for instance.

On the pitch what they do is nearly always accompanied by a ball. He sees Stevie McDonnell engage with him during drills, sometimes adapting McGurn's exercises to meet his own ends, and laughs at the notion that he might somehow be treating such strong-minded individuals as some sort of guinea-pig experiment for his own designs.

"Ach listen. What I do is common sense. It really is. If you can divide by four, blow a whistle and start a stopwatch then you're half-way there. And just apply commonsense principles. What do players do during a game? They catch, pass, tackle hard. They run fast and they kick. Everything we do is designed in tandem with those needs."

He sees the landscape shifting slowly now. The most enlightened and successful counties buying into the benefits of strength and conditioning. He thinks of Pat Flanagan in Kerry, Cian O'Neill in Tipperary, Paddy Tally in Down and the work they are doing. He thinks of Aidan O'Connell, the Munster rugby fitness coach who has spent four years working with the Cork footballers, and the mistaken assumption that they were a team of physically imposing athletes who couldn't match the skills of the best teams.

"The most successful teams are where you get footballers first and make them into athletes. It doesn't work the other way round. The thing with Cork is that they started not just with the senior team, but also with the under 21s and minors and lower down. That became their focus for four or five years. They found good footballers and made them better athletes. I see it in Kildare now. It's taken four years for Kieran McGeeney to come through. Now they're there. They're my tip for the All-Ireland this year if we don't win it ourselves."

For McGurn, the desire to work with a GAA team was always strong. "An itch that needed to be scratched," he says. Mick O'Dwyer almost signed him up for Laois in 2005, but Micko's fondness for the five-mile laps that do nothing but blunt speed put him off. He talked to Joe Kernan when he was manager of Galway but his wife was expecting their first baby at the time and the long drives dissuaded him.

Armagh was perfect, though. Closer to home and impressively enlightened. A week ago he introduced Oisín McConville and Paul McGrane to help with his drills. He loves travelling the county meeting people like the McEntees and keeps an eye on what McGeeney and Justin McNulty are doing down the country. He sees the work Paul Kelly has done with the hurlers bear fruit and feels privileged to be a small cog in a vibrant set-up.

More than anything, the players have astonished him with the breadth of their ambition and dedication. In the mornings he regularly takes the Belfast-based students for a session in Queen's before heading to Armagh in the evenings where the working boys join them. One evening last week he saw Ciarán Toner roll into the Athletic Grounds at 7.20, cutting it fine for a 7.30 start. He had been held up on the building site where he works. Yet at 7.29 there he was, flying onto the pitch, as if he'd spent the day resting. It is merely how high the bar has been set, McGurn thinks.

And yet when he spots little things like that it crushes him to see the players coming in for the level of criticism they do. He saw the same during his spell with the Ireland rugby team but professionals can brush if off, he thinks, in a manner amateur players cannot. As part of his Armagh brief he regularly attends open forums arranged by clubs and the hostility regularly vented towards players saddens him.

"I like doing it. It's good for me to embrace the people of Armagh and hear their opinions. But when you're sitting up on a stage and hear someone having a go at a player and you're thinking that guy worked 60 hours last week, did three or four weights' sessions, you don't know what he's doing for your team. Drico misses six tackles and gets hammered, but he's a professional. He's getting paid for it."

He's certain the criticism achieved one thing, though. Back in the spring when results were poor and the mud was flying, it drew them tighter as a bunch and hardened their attitude before they faced Down last month.

He can only think of a handful of sporting occasions when a victory elicited so much private emotion. Fermanagh beating Derry in the 2008 Ulster semi-final soon after his uncle had died and it meant so much to his father. Ireland beating England at Croke Park in 2007. Watching Dunne battle his way to a world title with Seán Boylan sitting beside him. And this? Just Armagh eclipsing Down in the quarter-final of the Ulster championship but that's how much it meant.

"I remember with two minutes to go I was sitting on the subs' bench where I always sit and I had to get up and walk away. I was beginning to fill up. I think it was just all the things they'd been saying. They'd said it would be a dour, attritional game. We'd put 13 men behind the ball. Rely on Stevie for our scores.

"The pressure on the players was huge. Because the vultures had been circling for ages. I dunno. I got the impression some people wanted us to fall. So they could say I told you so."

One game and he knows they haven't gone away, but are still hovering at a safe distance, their noses primed for the smell of rotting carcass. Just a reprieve, no medal of honour yet. Not that he'd expect it. Wayne Bennett, the great Australian rugby league coach, once imparted some useful advice. "Mike, you get involved in any sport they'll knock you when you're down," he said. "And when they win you won't get a mention."

He knows the one-way nature of the deal. A slip-up against Derry in Clones today and, more than likely, he'll be the centre of attention again. The positive vibes of the last few weeks will be shredded. He'll be the villain of the Armagh peace once more. The outsider. The rugby man. He smiles and drains the last of his tea and makes for the door, eager to be busy again.

A tough crowd surely, he thinks. But he'll soldier on regardless.

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