Dónal Óg bringing buzz back to Banner
Published 16/04/2016 | 02:30
Last summer, Dónal Óg Cusack had an idea for a reality TV show. It was clearly an impossible concept but that didn't deter - it never does - the possibilities forming in Cusack's mind.
After Cork and Clare met in the qualifiers in July, Cusack felt that Jimmy Barry-Murphy going to Clare for a year, and Davy Fitzgerald arriving in Cork, would be the ideal 'boss-swap'.
In Cusack's opinion, a drop down in intensity may have been what Clare required. The Cork players might have benefited from a little unpredictability in their lives.
In the end, without the medium of a TV show, Cusack created a whole new drama himself by becoming part of Fitzgerald's backroom team.
From the moment Cusack joined Clare, everyone was mad keen to watch how the dynamic between the pair would develop, to observe if they could reconcile each other's personality. The partnership was set to provide a fascinating subplot to the hurling season.
They both had history but despite all their previous battles and differences, Cusack and Fitzgerald shared an elemental desire to compete. And to win. In that, they are kindred spirits.
Bringing Cusack on board was an inspired move by Fitzgerald on a number of fronts.
The heat on him after Allianz League relegation in 2015, followed by another disappointing Championship, had evaporated before 2016 even arrived. So had the clamour for a review called for by Ger Loughnane and Brian Lohan after Clare lost to Cork last July.
In his fifth season in charge, Fitzgerald also needed an X-factor appointment to stimulate the players. Cusack wasn't long in his position when he had individually met most members of the squad. Immediately, the chemistry was just right.
Cusack has long been a fan of Clare's style of play but he had also publicly stated what he felt had been holding the Banner back.
"Personally I believe that Davy has the X-factor when it comes to training teams," Cusack wrote in his column last summer. "He needs good people around him though, and in particular somebody who knows how to apply the brakes every now and then."
Cusack wanted to be that somebody. Fitzgerald was also surely aware too that someone with as radical and deep-thinking a mind as Cusack's would challenge his methods for both his and the squad's benefit. "The most important thing is I do the best I can for Clare," said Fitzgerald in January. "It's not about Davy Fitzgerald. My job is to put the best team I can in place, and Dónal Óg can add to that."
In trying to assemble that structure, Fitzgerald didn't just stop with Cusack. He also pursued Paul Kinnerk, a key architect of the 2013 All-Ireland success and the brilliant Clare underage teams he coached between 2010 and 2014.
Kinnerk had left after 2014 and, while he said he would return at some stage, not everyone was convinced that he would.
Last year, he took over as coaching co-ordinator of the Limerick underage football academy. Senior hurling inter-county management teams had also pursued his services but Kinnerk has such a loyalty to the Clare players that he couldn't countenance coaching against them.
Bringing such a high-profile name as Cusack on board and recruiting Kinnerk also showed a new level of humility from Fitzgerald. He would have known that any success Clare might have would be attributed to Cusack and Kinnerk as much as him but Fitzgerald just wants success, full-stop.
That is reflected in the huge coaching and backroom apparatus Fitzgerald has built around the team.
Aonghus O'Brien, a highly-rated young coach from Broadford, who was with the Limerick minors in 2013 and 2014, was also added to the set-up. So was Jimmy Payne as a strength and conditioning coach.
The backroom team has now swollen to 31. That number has been even higher on occasion; three college students have been working as interns alongside Clare's other strength and conditioning coach, Kelvin Harold.
It's an impressive and multi-layered management structure on a scale never seen around an inter-county hurling team before.
Cusack has been completely taken by the professionalism of the operation because its detail and scale represents everything he had always aspired towards in Cork.
When Cusack last played in an All-Ireland final, in 2006, John Allen had constructed a backroom staff deemed ahead of its time for hurling. It included 15 members.
Fitzgerald is the public face of a backroom set-up operating at a new level but the burden is shared because that is the only way it could be carried in such a tiered structure.
Fitzgerald has taken a step back from his intensive on-field coaching role of recent years. He had to in order to pilot a backroom enterprise so big.
Cusack, Kinnerk and O'Brien have lifted some of the coaching load off Fitzgerald but that hasn't diluted the emphasis Fitzgerald has always placed on coaching and tactical detail and planning; the coaches arrive at 5pm to prepare for a 7pm start; every minute of the session is planned in minute detail.
Kinnerk is the key designer of their training sessions as a whole but everybody has a clearly defined role within the system.
Cusack and Michael Browne coach the defence. Kinnerk and O'Brien coach the forwards. Cusack and Kinnerk have responsibility for their post-match video analysis and reviews, which are conducted over a 40-minute period every Tuesday after a game.
Those sessions take place in a 40-seat theatre, with all the required technology, in Caherlohan, Clare's new training centre, situated between Ennis and Tulla.
Completed at the end of last year, it has four pitches - two floodlit - and state of the art training centre, with a gym and hall. There is a recreation room exclusively for the senior hurlers, with couches, a pool table, table tennis and satellite TV.
The walls of that room are decorated with a collage of imagery from the 2013 All-Ireland success.
Although the pitches are not yet fully mature, the training centre is built for high performance. Cusack always tells the players they are an 'elite' group, working in an 'elite' environment, but he hasn't forgotten about old-school principles either in attempting to marry professional practice with good practice.
Cusack always loved early morning training sessions so Clare's intensive winter schedule in morning darkness was right up his street. With his heavy focus on the technical side of hooking and blocking, Cusack has clearly adopted some of Donal O'Grady's methods to his coaching template.
Much of Cusack's defensive coaching involves walk-throughs, basic stuff envisaging potential scenarios and how to plan for any eventuality. The full-back line have been coached on the technical set up of dealing with high balls.
Cusack's mantra of 'no goals' has clearly got through. After only conceding two goals (both from frees) in six games, Clare have the best clean sheet record of all teams in Division 1A and 1B.
Kinnerk's technical grasp of the game also sets him apart as a coach. His training sessions continually throw up something different, always seeking to have the players thinking. His background as an inter-county footballer has honed his tackling proficiency but one of his key strengths is tailoring his training sessions to deal with the opposition, trying to attack where a weakness has been identified.
Fitzgerald possesses the same tactical thought-process. So does the rest of Fitzgerald's coaching staff but there were more pressing issues to deal with this year than just advancing Clare tactically and technically.
"People are too concerned with strategies and systems of play," said Ger Loughnane on Clare FM last December. "I don't worry about that. The main thing is the players must get the fire in the belly back. But with the strength of their backroom team, and two years of disappointment behind them, Clare must be in a great position to get the very best out of themselves in 2016."
Clare's set-up and coaching culture has always been ultra-professional under Fitzgerald. One of his main coaching principles has always heavily focused on mental toughness. The players are pushed to the extreme but fun also has to be an essential part of the process.
As Cusack said last summer, the brakes have to be applied every now and again.
The sport psychologist Jim Loehr once defined mental toughness as the capacity to appropriately manage energy. There were times when Clare's energy looked spent in recent years, which was a concern for such a young team, but the buzz and energy is back now. The players are mad for road.
"Donal Óg has brought that bit of character and pure Cork cockiness," said John Conlon after the Limerick game.
"Aonghus O'Brien has been a massive addition as well. Paul (Kinnerk) is just a positive influence to everyone and everyone really enjoys him. In fairness to the new set-up that Davy has brought in this year, it's second to none."
With the scale and quality of their set-up and backroom team, the players know that there are no more excuses, that they are in the best possible place to get the most out of themselves this season.
And that if they deliver, this show might yet be the biggest hit of the summer.