Tom Cribbin's honesty after soulless display built the platform to deliver a county's dream
Tom Cribbin's policy of honest endeavour is working for Westmeath
'There's a few big players just not performing for us and I don't know why or what's wrong. You need your big players to perform if you're going to deliver. When you're seeing the likes of young Killian Daly as probably one of your best players, you're expecting poor young Shane Dempsey to come on and win matches when you have senior players, that's fucking not on. Excuse my language, but these big players are not standing up. I don't know why or what's going on with them. You saw the other lads and they just laid everything on the line, lads that are general average players. But the few big lads who should be standing out, leading, fucking lay down. And that's the real trouble with this team.' - Tom Cribbin, April 5, 2015
Tom Cribbin was raw. He was hurting. And he wasn't off the field a minute when a microphone was thrust in front of him.
He had seen his team lose to Roscommon but they died with their boots nowhere to be seen. It was a soulless display, one that had no place in a Tom Cribbin playbook and when he stopped to talk to reporters he was locked and loaded.
There is no filter with Cribbin and there never has been. He couldn't tell a lie to save himself. He was pissed and he let fly. It was a brutal blast, aimed squarely at his top players. There were no other casualties.
The county board worried about the ramifications. They had brought Cribbin in and the last thing Westmeath football needed, after a barren run that had once gone 598 days without a win, was a striking or split dressing room.
When the dust settled, one prevailing theme shone through: the feeling that Cribbin had thrown his players under a bus.
Three months later, with that storm behind him, he is sitting in Naas with three championship wins under his belt, the latest deemed one of the most unlikely GAA comebacks of all time.
"The whole thing was done and dusted four days after that Roscommon game," he recalls. "That's the truth."
The following Thursday he brought the team to a pre-planned training weekend in Castlebar. When they had all arrived, he summoned them to a meeting to clear the sulphur from the air, held his hands up and said he was wrong to say what he said. He meant every word of the outburst, mind, but he shouldn't have gone public with it.
"I said sorry to the lads but they know me well and they knew I wasn't trying to hang them out, or trying to be a prima donna manager leaving them to rot," Cribbin expands. "They know I'm a bit fiery and I speak my mind. So, I apologised, said I had to look at myself first and regretted speaking out. When I did that, I found I was to blame and not them.
"But not one word was said back to me by the players during all of this because those lads knew I was speaking out of pure frustration, out of genuine honesty. I knew what talent I had on my books and yet I couldn't get it out of them. I should have looked in the mirror but I let them have it instead. That's about the size of it."
For the three days in Castlebar the manager laid everything on for his men. Top-notch training drills, sports psychologists, the finest meals, excellent recovery facilities, protein shakes, tactical meetings. It was all precision stuff.
"We moved on from it," the boss says. "This is the first time since I have looked back."
Indeed, they have been too busy winning, reaching only the fourth Leinster final in the county's history and being the only Division 2 team to reach a provincial final. Their current form is reflective of early-season promise when they won two out of their first three games, only to lose narrowly to Laois and Kildare and by just a point to Galway.
After the opening two games Cribbin was left to look on as the bottom completely fell out of their season. So what exactly has changed?
"As I said, I copped that I was doing things wrong," Cribbin reveals. "I wasn't getting the best out of them and it wasn't until we got that league out of the way and played a few challenge matches that I started to experiment with certain players and I saw the error of what I was doing." Go on.
"Well, I had made the mistake many managers do - I looked at my best 15 players and tried to fit them into the team - in any position. I wasn't fair to lads like John Heslin. I thought I had to play Heslin at midfield simply because he is such a good fielder so I gave him that role and asked him to get the younger lads going for me. But it wasn't until we played the challenge matches that I saw what a top-class finisher he is and was much more at home at full-forward. He is so composed there and all I was doing was frustrating him by playing him in the middle.
"I stopped being so rigid. I had two or three great players who play their best football in the same position and how do you facilitate that? You can't. So you have to make hard choices and that's why lads were dropped. I now have impact subs and please God we have the balance right.
"I went from thinking, 'I have to fit these lads in somewhere' to getting a better blend and making a stronger bench. That meant shifting some lads, promoting a few more youngsters and dropping other guys whose response has been absolutely phenomenal - to the extent where I will have to start them again soon."
His backroom team helped lift the siege too. Cribbin put together a support staff that any team would take a second look at. Gerry Duffy, a one-time overweight smoker who ran 32 marathons on 32 consecutive days, and completed 10 ironman triathlons on 10 consecutive days, has been on board all season.
Cribbin, 51, himself a three-time ironman, says something had to be done to prevent unwanted records from being set, like going almost 600 days without a win from 2013 to beating DCU in the O'Byrne Cup this season. He saw Duffy as a perfect foil for rebuilding broken confidence.
"Gerry was living in Mullingar and I met him and got him on board. He works on advice, goal-setting, organisation, communication. He checks in on about six players a week and he is invaluable."
Former British Olympic nutritionist Barry Murray is also rated highly by Cribbin and in addition to him, the manager brought on board Westmeath's former All Star goalkeeper and current number 16 Gary Connaughton. Adrian Harrison is a fine coup as well, having trained the Cavan under 21 squads that won four Ulster titles in a row.
"They are all really top-notch people," Cribbin adds.
"I started training for endurance myself at 49 and did an Iron Man for my 50th birthday. After I completed it I really thought anything was possible. Like, how can you be on your feet competing for nine hours? But Gerry did 10 of them, one after another. It seemed to be impossible but he disproved that and demonstrated how it can be done. What it requires is massive commitment, dedication and planning for two years. The same with those 32 marathons. He had to plan that for two years. How could our lads not feed off that energy?
"Adrian Harrison has been huge too, he was with the University of Ulster, Jordanstown, and they sent him as part of a project to Pearse Óg in Armagh to see if his involvement with them could help them stop Crossmaglen's domination. Within six months they had won the county title. He is only with us since the end of March, but I was blessed to get him. He would make an ideal full-time coach with Westmeath GAA, in my opinion."
In Cribbin's mind he had the players and the backroom. But on the field he couldn't get it out of them. Hence the outburst.
* * * * *
'Gerry, I promise my target is to deliver your dream and it's our main goal to beat Louth, Wexford and then Meath in Croke Park. You probably think I'm mad but if I don't achieve this, I feel I will have underachieved and I don't stay where I'm not making progress and delivering on my full potential. I know how passionate you are and how much it hurts you when we under-perform. Tom.'
- Text sent from Tom Cribbin
to Westmeath historian Gerry
Buckley on April 1, 2015
He didn't even want the job. Didn't want any job for that matter. "I'm lucky in life," the owner of Cribbin Family Butchers, probably better known under The Butchers Block franchise, says. "Business wise, I've done well enough to be able to retire if I wanted and still be financially OK. Really, all I wanted to do was train full time for Triathlons and Iron Man competitions - that was my goal."
Last November those action man plans were put on ice.
The Westmeath County Board caught him cold. Literally.
He had only crossed the line in the New York marathon 10 minutes and he was trying to get his body temperature right and gather his composure when his phone buzzed. It was Westmeath. Did he want the job?
At that moment, had Bray Wanderers offered him a gig he would have taken it he was so scattered.
"I just told the Westmeath lads that I'd do anything not to have to run another fuckin' marathon," Cribbin laughs.
That seemed to be enough for those at the other end of the line. They had done their homework in fairness, ringing their Laois and Offaly counterparts who had both appointed Cribbin at different junctures.
"A few hours later I was having a couple of pints, unwinding, when I started getting calls and texts from back home asking if I was taking the Westmeath job. Sure there was no going back then," Cribbin jokes. "But I was caught on the hop - like that radio interview after the Roscommon game.
"Initially, I didn't want to get back into it, but I did my homework too and saw how young the Westmeath lads were. I think Denis (Glennon) was the oldest at 30, but he is just animal fit - he could play 'til 36 if he wanted to. That depends on him, of course, as he has a child and a career to look at now and could start a new stage of life, go for promotion within the Gardaí and that. He can only do that when he packs in the football, I think, because he loves this team and loves the sport and his commitment to us is at a different level.
"Denis knows what I want from him now and he's put me in a quandary because he's come on in three games and nearly won them all. John Connellan, too. Both of them lads have been phenomenal in our three games. I didn't pick them the last day because I wanted them for impact. I now tend to start with the young lads and take a chance - I think the two boys might have been a bit thick with me because they deserved to start, but it goes back to my mistakes in the league. Do you start the best 15 players or pick the best team?
"I just knew the role they would play against Meath and I know, too, that the confidence levels of the others surge when these guys - and two or three others - are there to come on and improve the team with their quality and experience. That's a fair comfort to the young lads already out on the field, trying to get over the line."
He's learned on the hoof to mould the team to its optimum level, but against Meath he brought that to a whole new level.
For the games against Louth and Wexford, he set his team up to outscore their opponents. For Meath, they composed what they thought was a pretty good game plan, only to be out-thought and outfought by Mick O'Dowd and his players.
Looking back, Cribbin feels they placed too much emphasis on containing Meath when they sat down to draw up their battle plan; a mistake they could easily repeat today when they take on Goliath in his own backyard.
"Meath had a far better game plan and counteracted everything we tried to do - before we even attempted to do it," he admits.
Cribbin had invested a lot of time into the role of his captain Ger Egan, but Meath put Bryan Menton on Egan and snuffed him out of the game. Meanwhile, Donal Keogan, who normally plays centre-back for the Royals, dropped even deeper to block out the threat of John Heslin - who also had a man marker to cope with. That move took both Egan and Heslin out of the game.
O'Dowd also brought back Kevin Reilly as a sweeper and the extra space up front left room for Graham Reilly to shoot four points, even though he was a dangerman who Westmeath had trained for and planned to counteract.
"We were sucked in everywhere, they had their game plan really spot on and it was not that we were totally flat it was just that he (O'Dowd) out-thought us completely. It was very hard for us to see a way back," the Westmeath boss says.
They went in 10 points down, their tail firmly between their legs, 35 minutes away from a good thrashing.
The expectation was that Cribbin would lose the plot with his players, maybe fire a few tables in the air and leave the team to sort the mess out themselves. But that couldn't be less accurate.
Instead, he left his backroom team to deal with the players while he retreated to draw up a new plan. Despite the shambolic nature of their display and formation, Cribbin says he could see things clearly amid the fog of despair.
"Inside there was calm," he recalls. "We had 15 minutes to get things right and we had six or seven things that were going wrong. My captain was not in the game, our top players were being man-marked, they had one man in front of Heslin and one man marking him and we were firefighting.
"So we had to counteract all that and take them all out of their comfortable positions. Bar three players, we changed entire layout."
He reverted to an aggressive half-back line, changed his midfield pairing and brought more mobility there in the process. He rewrote the new 15 on a white board, his backroom issued each player with three basic instructions: 'Attack, attack, attack' were the last words he said to his players as they left the dressing room and headed back out for combat.
"Everyone thinks I was all blood and guts in there, all emotional, but I got my feedback from the captain - as we always encourage the players to speak up at half-time.
"We gave them brief instructions, tried to calm them and refocus them and we were back out before you knew it.
The lads took responsibility from there. You have to give them credit for that."
Did you really believe, though, that they could come back?
"Yeah, one hundred per cent. I knew we were losing because the game plan was wrong and I could see where it was going wrong - it wasn't their fault or that they weren't trying."
With the bell sounding, they came back out, hauled themselves off the ropes and threw a flurry of punches at Meath. They tore at their neighbours. Connellan pointed soon after the restart and it set the tone; they clipped over a series of points and then landed a goal.
All of a sudden it was back to five points. After finishing the game so strongly in the previous two games they knew their fitness would stand to them.
"Maybe if Mick (O'Dowd) had a few minutes to settle his team down like I did at the break it might have been different, but we got a couple of scores early and the belief surged," Cribbin recalls.
"With the game almost up I saw two Meath lads running at John and thought there was a goal on. Heslin is one of the best finishers in the game, very composed. They were wondering will he pass or will he put it over the bar but I knew John was able to think on his feet and he is calculated."
The stadium erupted. Cribbin celebrated with his camp and immediately set to work on toning things down for today's game with Dublin. It's a slight on modern day GAA that the romantic victories are no longer celebrated with the relish they once were. Next game, next up is the mantra now.
Cribbin knew he had to get their heads right again but he wanted them to soak up the atmosphere too.
"I said to Kieran Martin after that we had beaten Meath and it was a great achievement, but Kieran replied that he had been on the senior panel since 2007 and never before won a match in Croke Park.
"We're not here too often," he told his manager. "This is only our fourth time to reach a Leinster final. We have to make it count."
No-one gives them a hope in hell today but there are certain principles Cribbin is aching for, no matter what happens. Honesty, hard work and trust in each other. He could nearly accept whatever else comes as long as those virtues remain intact.
"Dublin are 500/1 on and for a two-horse race we are 25/1," he smiles. "I don't think we have ever seen odds like that. Maybe if Kilkenny played London in the hurling championship or something you would get similar odds. All I can say is we believe in the set-up and the team and our confidence is high."
A little story to end. Before he became a successful businessman, when he trained initially as a butcher, Cribbin worked with his own family to learn the ropes. Then Superquinn to deal with people. He spent time in slaughterhouses to get the finer points of the trade and worked abroad to get a different perspective and identify every possible angle on the business he wanted to pursue.
He gained enough knowledge to open his first shop in Roscrea in 1989 and before long he had eye-catching displays on view to attract customers. Presentations that would make a fashion designer green with envy.
"I would lay out the meat as if it were a work of art," he laughs, remembering back.
"Lovely exotic fruits, the lay-out impeccable, veg scattered everywhere. I was almost offended when a customer came in and bought out of the display. I would stay there from 6.0am to 7.0pm and looking back I was nothing only a busy fool. A wise friend of mine got me to cop on, told me to treat the meat as a commodity and that the bottom line was profit and nothing else.
"I started negotiating prices for myself, hired people to come in and work for me, started doing niche marketing instead of all those fancy displays. I told suppliers I wouldn't pay five pence per pound above what I was offering and soon I began to save an extra two or three grand a week in doing that. I had to be ruthless and look at doing things differently."
Cribbin has never been afraid to graft, never afraid to learn on the hoof and hold his hands up when he gets things wrong. Those traits have stood to him in business and in sport.
Westmeath might not beat Dublin today, but if they bring the no-frills, sleeves-up attitude that their manager espouses they might just lay the platform for greater days ahead.
Sunday Indo Sport