Saturday 21 October 2017

'I'm a father first and a coach second' - Mike Ford

Ex-Ireland assistant Mike Ford juggles personal and professional pride while watching his son, writes David Kelly

Mike Ford has helped his son George develop into an England international out-half during their work together at Bath
Mike Ford has helped his son George develop into an England international out-half during their work together at Bath
David Kelly

David Kelly

WHEN George Ford takes to the Aviva Stadium pitch this Sunday afternoon, his family will watch with a confection of emotions coursing through their veins.

Mum Sallyanne, proudly but with the omnipresent maternal, protective instinct. Brothers and fellow pros Jacob and Joe, intimately aware of the professional pressure yet deeply alert to their personal bond.

And then there is Dad Mike, who first started passing the oval ball to four-year-old George on rain-swept Lancashire fields when the rest of the family were eating dinner, who now coaches him at Bath, intensely scrutinising every minute action of the technique for signs of stress or stimulation.

A family at once conflicted yet inextricably bound by a wash of sweeping emotions that will change, minute by minute.

But whatever Ford does on the field - and much, probably too much, is expected of the 21-year-old - will not solely reflect on his parents. Instead, what will mostly be revealed is his inherited respectful nature, his resilience, his courage.

Dad Mike, current head coach of high-flyers Bath and former Triple Crown-winning Irish assistant coach, may have mixed emotions but one will always prevail.

"I was always a father first and foremost," he says of his dual role as parent and coach.

It is the same but somehow different for Sallyanne; it was written upon her wincing face last November when George's international debut was celebrated with an almighty buffeting from an onrushing Samoan.

Danger

"Your parental instincts come to the fore, don't they?" says Mike. "When you think your child might be in danger or being roughed up. As a father you don't quite understand the maternal instinct, she's a bit more protective.

"Me and Sallyanne spoke about it this week. At Bath, she wants us to do well and she wants him to do well, so the concern levels are doubled.

"I've never really looked at it from her point of view. I'm in the zone, I'm not looking at a son or a wife. But she's looking at her husband, the son, the player, everything. Even more so now.

"I'm just looking at the process. She doesn't understand that. She just wants to know if he's playing well. It's a difficult one."

All three boys are immersed in the game - youngest Jacob is in the Wasps Academy, eldest Joe at Sale; George, however, was always the special one.

"He naturally asked questions because he was, and still is, obsessed with the sport," says Mike, who, when the boys were young, was taking his own nascent coaching steps, in Rugby League with Oldham.

"I would coach the lads all the time. He got into good habits at a young age. They all wanted to be rugby players and I used my knowledge to speed up the process really.

"George started lifting weights when he was 14 which stood him in good stead in terms of acceleration and power. But we would have spent the years before that working on technique.

"And the kicking they did naturally, constantly down at the local field competing against each other. I spent countless hours behind the sticks. It was just helping him achieve what he wanted to achieve. I gave him good advice. I had that experience myself which helped.

"Joseph has always been brilliant with George, the way he had handled his success. Joseph wants to be the best he can be. At an early age, though, he acknowledged that George was better than him. He supports him to the hilt.

"They were hugely competitive as youngsters but they never fought which is pretty special in its own right."

When George made the decision to pursue first-team opportunities - as his father had once done when making the switch from all-conquering Wigan in the 1990s - he linked up with Mike at Bath.

His father recalls some anxiety that personal and professional loyalties might clash.

"There was something put in place to happen if I was picking him if he wasn't playing well," he recalls. "But the point is I can't remember what the process is because it hasn't been needed. He's played so well for us and it has made my job so easy. There's respect all over.

"When I was coaching England, I'd spend a lot of time with him as Dad, having coffee, catching up. Now I see him every day talking rugby but when we go home, I can get to be a Dad with him straightaway. We have that relationship."

Bath travel to Exeter so Dad will miss the boy take another giant stride in Dublin, along with his other exciting back-line club colleagues Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson.

"The thing that gave me greatest pleasure was the boys going to the Millennium with all that pressure on them in their first game and playing with that freedom," says Ford, whose exciting Bath side face Leinster in April's Champions Cup quarter-final.

"They didn't worry about the consequences if something went wrong. They were thinking of what might happen if they beat a man.

"I hope Stuart Lancaster keeps that relaxed environment with England going into this massive game and we don't freeze, we don't choke.

"If it's on in their own half for example, they'll run it. And if it isn't for 80 minutes, if the Irish defence is up, we might have to kick the ball. It's having the freedom to make the right decisions."

In Jonathan Sexton, Ford will come up against his sternest test yet as there will undoubtedly be an intense focus on the individual battle between one of the game's rising stars and Ireland's supreme talent.

"Jonathan is one of the best in the world, certainly the best in Europe," agrees Mike. "He's got a great understanding, a great execution of his game management.

"Joe Schmidt is a very smart coach and he executes his plays perfectly. Sexton has a presence about him. He's 28, George is 21. So he has that experience that George doesn't have. It's a great challenge for him."

And one which, like so many before, he expects him to pass with flying colours.

"It's a three-point game either way," he assesses. "Ireland are the favourites. They're more experienced, at home and they're on a great run. But I'm going to back England."

The faith of the father.

Irish Independent

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