McCreery: Football is far too negative - people are becoming bored by it
Now a top racehorse trainer, former Kildare star Willie McCreery has strong views on game he adorned
Willie McCreery talks like he played football - direct, honest and without frills. A straight question deserves a straight answer, no dodging and no evasiveness. So I toss a few at him, just to get things started.
Q: What do think of modern-day football?
A: "Horrible. I prefer watching hurling - and I never played the game in my life."
Q: What bothers you most about it?
A: "It's too defensive. When you see a guy taking a free on the opposition '45' and he kicks the ball back into his own half… where's the entertainment in that? As for passing back to the goalkeeper... it's shocking stuff. The GAA should try 13-a-side - it would free up space."
Q: Will Kildare win an All-Ireland any time soon or even well into the future?
A: "Can't see it happening. I don't see us beating the really good teams twice. Even the best team can be beaten on a given day but now they get back in. I'd have a straight knock-out among 32 counties. No second chance. So what if Dublin draw Kerry in the first round? It's one more monster out of the way. We'd still have a good All-Ireland.
Q: Who will win the All-Ireland?
Q: Who will win the Irish Derby?
Q: Should the Derby be taken out of the Curragh while the redevelopment is going on?
A: "Definitely. Run it in Leopardstown for a year. The racing surface in the Curragh is fantastic but the rest of the place is a building site. It would be a pity if people got cheesed off with racing because of a bad experience while the Curragh is being re-built."
From an office in the corner of the yard, McCreery can see all around his Rathbride Stables on the Curragh, now home to 55 horses. They are showing good form. Successes by Bloomfield in the Curragh last Saturday and by Mauricio in Roscommon on Monday evening took his winners total for the season to 16.
"They're running well but it's like football. You're only as good as your last win," he says.
It's midday; he has been up for over six hours and there's still a lot to do. There are no idle moments in the pressurised world of horse training, which now consumes the man who wore the Kildare No 9 jersey with such distinction in the county's most successful era since the 1930s.
Twenty years ago, he was preparing for a Leinster semi-final with Meath, a tie that took three games to decide. It eventually nudged Meath's way but Kildare's close call convinced them that something big was imminent. A year later they were Leinster champions for the first time in 42 years.
McCreery didn't know in midweek whether he'd be able to attend this evening's Meath-Kildare clash in Tullamore. He had entered a horse, Vicky Cristina, in the first at Limerick today ("depends on the ground") so he couldn't finalise of his weekend plans.
He doesn't get to as many Kildare games as he would like but whether he sees football live or on TV, it frustrates him.
"I was at the Galway-Kildare League final (in April) and felt disappointed at our style of play," he says. "We were losing by two points late on, Galway had one player in our half and we had two lads back marking him.
"To me that doesn't work. We had the ball and were trying to go forward but they had an extra man because we had two-on-one in our half. I wasn't at our game with Laois a few weeks ago but my spies were happier with the line-out and how they played."
The modern game, complete with massed defences, does nothing for him. "It's too negative," he says. "All this zonal defensive stuff… Anyone can handpass the ball a few yards. Players have changed in fitness and physique but has it done anything to improve the game as a spectacle? No. People are getting bored by it.
"The GAA needs to do something radical. Why not try 13-a-side? It would leave more space for attacking football."
Ironically, McCreery's style of play, underpinned by a capacity to run all day, would be ideal in the modern game.
"I was always as fit as a flea and loved running. Kicking was a different story. I'd get away with that now. Lots of lads hardly kick the ball anymore," he reasons.
He accepts that training is highly professional but queries whether it's making better players.
"Kildare went to Portugal this year - a lot of other counties went abroad too. In my day, Micko (O'Dwyer) brought us down to his place in Waterville. We loved it.
"All this so-called professional training hasn't made players better with the skills. It seems to be all about going into the gym now, pumping weights, posing in front of mirrors and not enough about playing the actual game."
McCreery has concerns over the standard of player being produced by Kildare clubs - pointing out that despite dominating the county championship for much of the last decade, Newbridge clubs Sarsfields and Moorefield have a small representation on the county panel. "You expect players from top clubs to be producing players who are good enough for the county team. When we (Clane) won a good few county titles in the 1990s we had a lot of lads on the county team," recalls McCreery
In fact, they had six - Martin Lynch, John Finn, Eddie and Paul McCormack, Brian Murphy and McCreery - on the Kildare squad that reached the 1998 All-Ireland final.
McCreery is also unhappy with the failure to keep the Kildare championship running through the summer. "Galway beat Mayo last Sunday and are playing club championship games this weekend. We don't have that in Kildare," he says.
"If you continue with your club games, you might even find a player who has come into form, rather than relying on a squad picked a few months earlier. Okay, so he might not have trained for 200 hours or whatever, but if he can kick a point when you need it, he's the lad you want.
"You should have a constant feeder system into the team. I'd have horses that might look like Derby winners in the middle of January but by the time the Derby comes around, they could be over the top and others have come through. Things change all the time."
The memory of the 1998 All-Ireland final loss to Galway still hurts him and his colleagues, but they will always be regarded with huge affection in Lilywhite-land. Under O'Dwyer's guiding hand, they electrified the county, winning Leinster titles in 1998 and 2000.
"I loved working under Micko," says McCreery. "I found the training easy because I was into running so much. It was the football I found tricky. Micko got respect straight away. I always said he was like a peacock - when he walked into a room, everyone looked at him.
"He had that aura about him. Clubs rowed in behind him, they respected him. We all did - he brought such passion for the game. If we were training at half-seven, he'd be there at seven, having driven from Waterville. In fairness, we had a great panel too, and a brilliant captain in Glenn (Ryan)."
If football was in Micko's blood, horses have been always a way of life with McCreery, whose late father Peter was also a successful trainer. Willie spent several years as assistant trainer to Charles O'Brien and later became a stud manager, prior to launching his training operation in 2010.
He finds his involvement with the GAA helpful in opening doors and has also noticed the growing popularity of the organisation among racing people with no previous background in the Association. "People have said to me, 'that's some organisation'. They talk about their kids playing football or hurling or camogie and how everyone is asked to participate. They might have known nothing about the GAA before but they do now. It's something the GAA can be proud of."
His busy schedule in racing means he can't commit to any structured role in the GAA but it remains very much part of who he is. As for pastimes away from the demanding environment of the turf, once again time is the enemy.
"I walk the dogs in the evening. That's about it. And then I'd snooze off watching sport," he says.
"I'd like a game of golf but I can't be off the phone for four or five hours. If someone who's thinking about sending a horse your way rings and he can't get you for hours, the horse might end up next door. You have to be available."
You need winners too. McCreery's star has risen rapidly in recent years and is shining especially brightly this season. His father advised him not to go into training but the lure eventually proved too much.
"Horses are great, the paperwork involved not so great. The thrill is getting horses to improve and, hopefully to win," he explains. "They're like footballers - managers are always looking for players of county standard and it's the same with horses. You're always hoping for the right ones.
"Good advertising comes from horses running well. Bad advertising is when they don't. The figures are there for everyone to see all the time. You can't hide in this game."
Whether McCreery makes it Tullamore this evening or watches on TV, the passion for Kildare will run high.
"It's a huge game. Meath used to look down on Kildare, believing they would beat them," he says. "It's not like that anymore. They're pretty even nowadays. We need to get to a Leinster final - we haven't been there for a long time."