Monday 29 May 2017

Spreading the new gospel

Ulster football's success has produced a new wave of dynamic coaches, writes John O'Brien

FROM the outside, Joe Kernan surveys the football landscape and sees it is no country for old men now. Not that Joe is old by any means, of course. Or that there isn't a kick or two left in the bones still. But he sees them coming nonetheless, bubbling with vitality and youthful enthusiasm, bearing new ideas and the impetus for change. Just as he once did too, during those blissful days with Crossmaglen and Armagh.

He sees them spreading their wings and taking flight across the country. He knows, of course, that there will always be a place for wisdom and experience. Evergreens like Micko reinventing themselves and continuing to thrive. Yet their march is sure-footed and relentless. Jim McGuinness in Donegal. Justin McNulty in Laois. James McCartan in Down. Jason Ryan in Wexford. Anthony Tohill with the international rules side.

And Geezer? Well, you didn't need to be clairvoyant to know that Kieran McGeeney would one day prowl a sideline with the same intensity with which he patrolled his territory inside it. "Even a blind man could see it," says his former team-mate Oisín McConville. John McCloskey reminds you that, even as a player, McGeeney was coaching for the Antrim County Board, absorbing ideas from Armagh training drills and adapting them for his own end. And thinking. Always thinking.

Before he joined Armagh, though, McCloskey had spent the summer of 1999 working with Down at McCartan's behest. McCartan had soldiered together with McGeeney on a star-studded Queen's University team that won the 1993 Sigerson Cup and, even then, the Armagh player's manic devotion was well known. When he became friendly with both of them, however, what surprised McCloskey wasn't how much they differed from each other, but how much they had in common.

It struck him that both had earned caricatures in the media and in public that were at odds with reality. Just as McGeeney was easily portrayed as a dour, obsessed Armagh man, McCartan was the insufferably cocky forward who always incensed opposition supporters. McCloskey recalls the heated championship affair when McCartan's boot fell loose and, to the delight of a large section of the ground, a Tyrone player had picked it up and hurled it into the terrace.

"They were similar in that way," McCloskey says. "They both had an aura about them and people sometimes took an instant dislike to them. It was that thing where you either loved or you loathed them. I lost count of the number of people who'd say 'I can't stand that James McCartan'. I'd say 'have you actually met the guy?' 'No'. They were just going on what they'd read or heard."

It was more than that too. Because he was so prodigiously talented and of a light-hearted, cheeky disposition, it was easy to form the perception that McCartan was more casual about the game than the likes of McGeeney or Tohill. That summer, McCloskey caught a glimpse of the truth. McCartan had won the first of two Sigerson medals as a fresher and the first of two All-Ireland medals before his 21st birthday, but there was a price to pay for such precocity. By 1999, his body was on the verge of meltdown.

"I still have this image of James watching the Ulster semi-final on crutches and how frustrated he felt," says McCloskey. "We had Armagh in the final and he was so desperate to get back. He had nerve damage in his back and I remember he had a bad shake in one of his legs. He was flying over and back to Scotland for treatment, doing everything he could to be ready. He had a test the night before the game and he still wasn't right. But the determination he showed was unbelievable."

Ultimately, McCartan would make it for the final 10 minutes of the game. By then, Armagh had already buried them, but he had won his private battle. McCloskey considers the two men who made such a vivid impression on him and how, all these years on, they come face to face on All-Ireland semi-final day, wearing their manager's bibs. Stranger things have happened, he thinks.

* * * * *

FOR a footballer, arriving at Queen's in the late 1980s wasn't particularly auspicious timing. Jordanstown had emerged as the strongest Ulster college that decade and it was Queen's sad misfortune to have won only a single Sigerson title during the previous 20 years. Even claiming another crown in Trinity in the spring of 1990 didn't suggest immediate greatness. Apart from McCartan, only Paul McErlean of Antrim and Colm Hanratty of Armagh had played senior football with their counties.

"Fergal Logan was captain but he wasn't playing for Tyrone then," says McErlean. "But by the summer I think something like 13 out of the 15 guys who started the final were playing inter-county football. We beat St Mary's who had the likes of Peter Canavan, Seamus Downey, Benny Tierney and Jarlath Burns playing for them. It was a great shop window for guys to get on with their counties."

Looking back, they were seismic times. Dermot Dowling coached Queen's to another Sigerson title in 1993 and one of his abiding memories is of how driven McCartan was to win a second medal. Until then only one Queen's player had managed that distinction: Seán O'Neill, the talismanic figure of Down's breakthrough years in the 1960s. "He'd already been involved in an All-Ireland," says Dowling, "but you could tell how much this meant to him."

McGeeney had arrived in Queen's in 1991, joining an engineering faculty that contained Tohill, Paul Brewster and Cathal O'Rourke. Tohill had just returned from a spell in Australian rules and had acquired a knowledge of weights-training and physical preparation that McGeeney was eager to tap into. Word had it that, before he encountered the Derry midfielder, McGeeney had never as much as set foot in a gym.

Dessie Ryan was another seminal influence. After living in New York, Ryan had returned and helped reestablish Queen's as a force to be reckoned with. "We were no-hopers in 1990," recalls McErlean. "Dessie made us believe in ourselves. He had so many ideas. He brought in John Kremer, who was head of psychology at Queen's, to help us when that stuff was hardly ever heard of. That's the sort of thing Dessie was up to and it would have made a huge impression on Kieran."

McGeeney's ruthless determination helped make Armagh a formidable power, but it wouldn't have been so effective had he not been part of a set-up that shared at least a decent fraction of his drive and desire. After they lost to Kerry in the 2000 All-Ireland semi-final, the story goes that Aidan O'Rourke sent him a quote from Theodore Roosevelt which McGeeney subsequently kept on his desk in the Irish Sports Council. That O'Rourke is now a key component of the Kildare set-up is easy to understand.

Those who know him are in little doubt that McGeeney would look back on his playing days with some regret. To varying extents they all probably would. "It was great to win one," says McConville. "But we wanted a second. There's a bit of regret there alright." McCloskey admits to "feeling embarrassed" when he meets people and they dwell on the 2002 success. It cut him that they hadn't managed to follow it up and, worse, that Tyrone went on to win three.

Yet it is possible too that for this generation of Armagh footballers, the story remains only half written. Back in the 1950s, Noel Cantwell and Frank O'Farrell were among a famously progressive bunch of players who fetched up at West Ham whose true reputations would not be forged until they had evolved as deep-thinking managers and coaches. It's hardly stretching it to wonder if Kernan's impressive Armagh team might emerge as their modern GAA equivalent.

Of the All-Ireland winning team, only Steven McDonnell and Ronan Clarke hang on now. Few have stood still, though. Their number includes two inter-county managers in McGeeney and Justin McNulty, an assistant in Aidan O'Rourke, four senior club managers in Tierney, the two McEntees and Paul McGrane. Cathal O'Rourke is following in McCartan's footsteps by cutting his managerial teeth with Queen's with former Armagh full-back, Ger Reid, as his assistant.

Then there is Enda McNulty, arguably the country's most prominent sports psychologist and a quiet presence, it is believed, in McGeeney's Kildare set-up. John Toal is heavily involved with his home club Keady. Andrew McCann still plays for his adopted club in Slane, where he also coaches. Diarmuid Marsden is a full-time coach for the Ulster Council, a hugely respected figure across the breadth of the province.

McConville is modest about his own progress. He coaches Toome, a junior side in Monaghan, and is enjoying what is likely to be the last year of a storied playing career with Crossmaglen. He isn't surprised by the unfolding narrative. "Our lives were very much centred around football. We all gave a lot of time to it. I'd see lads leaving because of age but you'd know with these boys that they'd come back to it in some way or other. I think it was the people we played under as well. They'd give you a fierce hunger for it."

In truth, it was a two-way process. McCloskey is a self-confessed sporting wanderer who travelled around the world, observing great teams and their training methods, forever on the look-out for new ideas and details that he could take back home with him and adapt to the drills they used with footballers. With Armagh he found any number of willing guinea pigs.

"I think that's what made it work," he says. "We challenged each other all the time to improve. It made for a very constructive team environment. Players would be coming up to you all the time. Have you seen this? Have you read [Lance] Armstrong's book? I don't remember any real confrontation, but you had to up your game all the time. You had to keep ahead of the times.

"They were the first group of people I'd try things out on. And it was nice sometimes when you'd see players bringing things back to their clubs and trying them there. It spread down and I think that's good for the game. They were all very astute men. They were leaders. They wanted to know what you were doing and how it would improve them."

Naturally, it was McGeeney who led the way. Now others are following. It doesn't take an applied mathematics degree to work out that, with McNulty, Laois are following the Kildare recipe. Since injury hastened his retirement in 2005, McNulty has done sterling work with Mullahoran and St Brigid's and brings impressive credentials to the post. Kernan sees him as an inspired choice if Laois are willing to be as patient as Kildare were with McGeeney. "As long as they're not looking for a quick fix," he says.

It is the growing trend now. When McGeeney's name was first mentioned in relation to the Kildare job, the usual candidates had dominated the press clippings, Mick O'Dwyer and Larry Tompkins foremost among them. Kildare wanted something new, though, and McGeeney represented a brave, dynamic alternative. O'Dwyer's name was there again when the Laois position became free, as it is for most vacancies, but again they went for a younger, less experienced candidate.

When Ross Carr's term as Down manager finished last year, McCartan faced his strongest challenge from Pete McGrath, one of the county's greatest living legends. Again the road of youth was chosen. Tohill's appointment as international rules manager was the most revealing as that position has generally been reserved for managers with distinguished county careers behind them, men like McGrath, Seán Boylan, Brian McEniff and Kevin Heffernan.

Maybe it isn't a coincidence or a surprise that the impetus for these developments has come from the same place: Ulster. The province, after all, has long been a hotbed of innovation; from the Antrim team of the 1940s that pioneered the open handpass to Joe Lennon's groundbreaking coaching courses in Gormanston in the 1970s and the rapid evolution of the game over the last decade where work ethic and physical prowess became as essential as individual skill.

Not everyone would applaud those changes, of course, but that isn't the point. "Time moves on and you have to move with it," says Kernan. "I think we did move it on but the game's changing faster than ever now. I think it's good for football. New people coming in and freshening things up. You can't stand still or you'll get left behind."

For Armagh people, though, today's semi-final throws up a grim irony. They may have produced a generation of outstandingly bright footballers, but they are forced to watch the best of them try to guide another county to an All-Ireland title while, last year, they had to go outside their own borders to find a manager. "In fairness to Paddy [O'Rourke], he's done a decent job," says McConville, "but it's fair to say that it wouldn't have sat well with a lot of people."

McConville himself had called it. When McGeeney shocked them by announcing his retirement in 2007, McConville knew instantly that their former captain would be a wanted man.

"Armagh's loss will be somebody else's gain," he said at the time. It didn't take long for the truth of those words to come to pass.

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