Tuesday 19 September 2017

Mayo's backing singer moves to centre stage

Reluctant hero Buckley hailed for vital role in Westerners' rise

Mayo coach Donie Buckley has been credited with refining the approach of James Horan's men after an unfulfilled spell with his native Kerry
Mayo coach Donie Buckley has been credited with refining the approach of James Horan's men after an unfulfilled spell with his native Kerry
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Michael Brennan vividly recalls lifting a phone one wet November night a few years ago and hearing Donie Buckley's enthusiastic voice on the other end of the line.

"You'll never guess where I am," chirped Donie.

Knowing the lengths that his old sidekick would go to extract even a morsel of information about coaching in any sport, Brennan couldn't even hazard a guess. On such missions, the world can be his oyster.

It turned out Donie was just pointing his car away from Omagh where he had been watching a Tyrone session with a specific theme.

"Mickey Harte had told him the content of the session would focus on ball retention and advised Donie it could be worth his while to come up and watch. So he did. Four and a half hours of a journey on a really bad night before there was a closed season," recalls Brennan. "Those are the lengths he goes to."

He tells the story to give the essence of Buckley's insatiable thirst for coaching knowledge. If there was an edge to be gained from travelling to Omagh that night, then Donie wouldn't have thought twice about it.

SOLDIERED

Brennan and Buckley have soldiered together through various layers of Gaelic football, at club level with Eire Og in Ennis where they met, at third level with NUIG and at inter-county level with Clare for one year in 2006 before the county board thought it best to displace them, despite a progressive year, with a high-profile figure – the Banner were the late Paidi O Se's third inter-county team in management and the only post that didn't work out for him.

The whole business of their removal is thought to have disillusioned Buckley to the point where he thought he would never see the inside of an inter-county dressing-room again.

Yet, on Sunday, he will take his place among the Mayo back-room team in the lower Hogan Stand. His presence will be discreet, just the way he likes it, but his impact is something every player has elected to highlight at any opportunity.

At the Connacht championship launch in May, Mayo captain Andy Moran declared him the best coach he had ever played under. Kevin McLoughlin had a variation on a similar theme last month.

Those who have worked with Donie Buckley talk about the mechanical mind he brings to his football teaching. A retired assistant engineer with Clare County Council with responsibility for roads for many years, technique is paramount in what he tries to get across.

"Donie will revert to his understanding of ergonomics and how the body works and he generally looks at the game in that light," reflects Brennan. "He's a very intelligent, bright man.

"He could take out a sheet of paper and a pen in conversation and start sketching diagrams of football drills in your company."

He's also a very private man, not receptive to limelight or publicity.

Brennan recalls one of their first meetings when they got together as joint managers of Clare for 2006: "He said to me, 'Michael you do all the public stuff now, I won't be talking.'"

Mickey Ned O'Sullivan would easily identify with Brennan's synopsis of Buckley, who won an All-Ireland club medal with Castleisland Desmonds in 1985.

When Cian O'Neill, who Buckley has replaced in Mayo, left the Limerick footballers for the Tipperary hurlers at the end of 2007, O'Sullivan went looking for help.

Michael McGeehin, now director of Coaching Ireland, pointed O'Sullivan in Buckley's direction. He took persuasion to even dip his toes in the water with Limerick, the Clare experience still clearly fresh in his mind.

It wasn't a reluctance to commit but a reluctance to be centre stage.

O'Sullivan recalls beings suspended for a league match that they needed to win in 2008 against Leitrim in Kilmallock. The terms of a two-month suspension for alleged verbal abuse of referee Derek Fahy were such that he couldn't present himself in dressing-rooms before or during games.

The players needed addressing and O'Sullivan twisted Buckley's arm hard.

"'I don't care what your future is in terms of what you want to do but I want you to get in there and talk to them', I told him. He did it, we turned it around and never looked back."

O'Sullivan and Limerick would reach the 2009 and 2010 Munster finals and feel somewhat unlucky not to have won at least one. Buckley, acknowledges O'Sullivan, made that difference.

"He was an engineer by profession and he brings something different to it than what I had. He certainly complemented me and vice versa, he has a different angle on things, he's very structured and very methodical where he works through any problems systematically.

"He brings a great enthusiasm and he has a great passion for the whole thing. He was excellent and I learned lots from him.

"I stood back because I knew he would probably do a better job than I would so I was okay about that," says O'Sullivan.

"It's the small things he works on. He will identify something that each player has to work on: balance when kicking, weight on either side when jumping, things like that. He'd be obsessive about that. All you need is that five or 10pc difference and that makes a difference."

Oddly, his rating just doesn't soar as high in his native Kerry.

"I really don't know the reason for that," says O'Sullivan, while Brennan references the old phrase about being a prophet in your own land. Something about Buckley just hasn't sat with some of the Kerry hierarchy over the years.

He had a season with Jack O'Connor in 2011 as coach but after knee surgery, he returned in 2012 to find that his role was being reduced and that a position as a selector was being offered to him.

EMBRACED

Buckley left and the Kerry players who had embraced his methods so keenly were angered by his departure prior to the 2012 championship. It left a taste.

Brennan shares O'Sullivan's belief that there is no more passionate about the game than Buckley.

"I haven't come across as passionate a fella or as consumed as Donie Buckley, and I grew up in a house that talked about nothing else but football. People say it's a Kerry thing; it's more than a Kerry thing," says Brennan, a brother of former Galway player Barry and a accomplished player himself.

"I think there isn't a part of his day where he doesn't think about Gaelic football and how players play it."

Every winter Buckley removes himself to Florida for up to three months where he plays golf and is known to take in the coaching sessions and games of any of the local teams across the spectrum of American sports. He's been to Australia to brush up on AFL techniques.

The last Florida trip was cut short to hook up with Horan and Mayo. The improvements in techniques have been incremental through the season; the near hand tackle, the primacy of improving skills coming on his watch.

O'Sullivan spoke to him earlier this week and detected a sense of optimism. With Buckley, it's never confidence. He'd be too modest for that.

But the voice of the eternal backing singer has come centre stage.

Irish Independent

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