Wednesday 17 October 2018

Bond's green, white and Goldfinger

Vincent Hogan talks to Michael Bond HE CAME to them on footsteps quieter than the mist, and no-one heard him enter. Joe Dooley remembers. Tullamore on July 10, three days after Babs' resignation. The dressing-room door open. Offaly's new manager inside. His face meant nothing to Joe, to any of the players. ``Presumed he was just a fella who had strayed into the wrong ground,'' recalls Dooley.The new man was aware of eyes on his back as he togged off. He had entered before any county officials could offer an introduction. Who was this guy? ``No-one knew me from Adam,'' he smiles now.

To break the ice, he turned to Joe.

``I'll be looking after ye from now on Joe,'' he said to Dooley.

``In what capacity?'' responded Joe.

``Every capacity,'' said Michael Bond.

The first hours and days had an ache of hesitancy. Offaly were sore. Minds and bodies instinctively bridled against the outside world. Bond needed to work more on the mechanics of trust than hurling.

Seven days after meeting them, he took the team to Nowlan Park for a challenge game. Kilkenny-Offaly. A downbeat repeat of their lamented provincial final. This time, Kilkenny devoured them.

Cowardice is an imposter in Bond's world but, that evening, he saw the colour of its eyes. He walked into the winners' dressing-room and, with a pinched smile, thanked them for ``ruining my first night proper as Offaly manager.''

INJURIES had untangled Offaly. Now depression looked set to finish the job.

``That evening, I was hoping I'd get a phone-call,'' he remembers. ``They had opened us up. Absolutely destroyed us. There was a lot of dejection. I was almost making the phone-call myself. It would have been cowardice on my part, but I was tempted.

``Just to say, `Sorry, this is a bad mistake!'''

The principal of St Brigid's Vocational School in Loughrea sits at his desk now unspooling the strangest hurling story of the summer. On a wall to his right, is a photocopied sheet bearing the motto that underpins his life.

It reads: ``A quitter never wins and a winner never quits!'' On July 17, Michael Bond knew he had no choice.

He is 50 and relentlessly driven. Bond had been on holiday in America the evening Offaly imploded in Croke Park. Came home on Monday, heard Babs resign on Tuesday, got a phone-call inviting him to watch Offaly train on Wednesday. He won't tell you who made the call.

His appointment ignited incredulity across the hurling landscape. Michael who? It was RTE's good fortune that Pete Finnerty was a panellist on Sideline View the evening white smoke lifted into the Tullamore sky.

Finnerty had been a member of the All-Ireland-winning Galway U21 team in 1983 that was trained by Michael Bond. He had also been on county vocational school teams prepared by the Ardrahan native. That evening, Pete stitched a face onto the name of Offaly's new manager. Yet, even he was wide-eyed.

``To put it mildly, I was very surprised,'' recalls Finnerty, ``because Michael hadn't been involved with any teams in recent years.

``If I had heard he had been made captain of Loughrea Golf Club or manager of the Irish youths golf team, I wouldn't have been a bit surprised. `Cos he's a serious golfer. But the Offaly job came totally out of the blue.''
BOND, himself, admits the process was ``a whirlwind.'' Since becoming principal of St Brigid's in `86, hurling has lived on the periphery of his senses. Truth is, it never ruled him. A member of the Galway senior panel between `68 and `75, Bond travelled to America every summer. He was centre-forward on the team that beat Tipp in the `66 Munster semi-final.

It proved an isolated burst of sunlight.

He talks openly of regrets. ``From the time I was young, I was always training teams. Even at college in Cork. It was just something inside me. I remember I actually asked Tom Nolan if there was anyone training the Galway under-21s in `82. And if there wasn't, did they want me to do it? That's how I got the job.

``The under-21s of `83 was the best team I ever trained. And I always regretted that, three or four years later, I didn't go back to them.

``At the end of `83, the Galway seniors wanted me to take over. I said no. Then I got sorry and took over the junior team in `84.''

Bond also trained Galway minors in 1988 on the request of team-manager, John Fahy. ``He's very intense, a good leader,'' explains Fahy. ``You just have to look at the manner in which his school is run, to understand the quality of Michael Bond.

``I have always believed it doesn't matter a damn how badly a team wants to win, if it doesn't hurt the manager to lose. Michael wants to be first. Always has done.''

So here he sits atop the hurling world. Seventy minutes short of spinning a summer miracle. Bond's manner reflects his vocation. He is neither diffident nor coy. There is clarity in every syllable. ``A rottweiler without teeth.'' he chuckles.

The classroom tone might needle if it wasn't cushioned by a streetcat savvy. Bond is compassionate and loyal to those who heed him. And, as he acknowledges himself, ``I'm used to people doing what I tell them.''

He sees simplicity in hurling. A simplicity of stroke and will. His training-ground drills are the same today as those he used three decades ago. Speed and first-touch are the threads. ``I always say never turn the page,'' he stresses. ``Always stay on page one!''

So what gifts has he dispensed? The team he inherited looked as healthy as the rouble. It was implied the dressing-room was a junction of chaos. A place no manager could get safe foothold.

Bond explains: ``I would have been hugely affected by what Offaly did in `94. Coming back from the dead to win that All-Ireland. I was in the stands that day. Most teams would have sat back and died. But they didn't. Character and courage are things I admire in people.

``I virtually promised Offaly's officials the All-Ireland when I met them. I felt that strong about it. If I don't deliver, the whole thing will have been futile, useless.

``It was said they showed no emotion after losing this year's Leinster final. You don't have to. You often hear it being said of someone who has lost a loved one that they don't seem to be grieving. But you don't know what's happening inside.

``I'd be a sociable, talkative person. But some of these fellas are so quiet in themselves. Fellas like our captain, Hubert Rigney. Like Martin Hanamy and Kevin Kinahan. They don't have much to say but, when they talk ... you listen.

``They're deep. And they're men. I like them a lot.''

The manliness is pivotal. In their hey-dey, Ardrahan had a name for uncompromising, but clean hurling. Bond sees so much of the same in Offaly. A strong-boned decency.

HE recalls the trilogy with Clare in sanguine matter-of-factness.

``I knew we would beat Clare,'' he argues. ``People thought I was mad, but I just knew we'd beat them. Antrim were my big fear. I was afraid of my life we might get a repeat of `89. People said afterwards ``useless game''. I didn't give a damn.

``All I wanted was time and I knew the team would come right.

``But the players got cocky during the first game against Clare and ditched our plan. We were lucky to get a draw in the end. Suddenly people were telling them they were good. This is where the fear came in.

``What happened in the first-half of the second day didn't surprise me one bit. They went back to their old habits. They were opened up, destroyed. We had strong words in the dressing-room at half-time.''

The rest is whimsical history. As Offaly surged, Jimmy Cooney blew a premature w histle. ``Two in ten chance we might have caught them,'' recalls Bond. Cooney's error rendered the game a rumour.

A near-neighbour of the referee, Bond has since made a point of speaking to Cooney.

``Jimmy was devastated,'' he recalls. ``But he's very well thought of around here. If we want a referee in mid-winter for any kind of Championship match, we get Jimmy. Because you know he's good and there's going to be no belting.

``What I admire about him is that he admitted his mistake immediately. If he hadn't, he'd have been nailed. We all can make a mistake. In the third game against Clare, I inadvertently knocked off my own stop-watch. And I didn't have anything like the kind of pressure Jimmy had.

``It's a pity what happened. But he has good friends around him. He's well thought of. I think he'll come out the better and hopefully, he'll get games again. The hardest thing to do is referee a match.''

GAME three and Bond travelled to Thurles armed with certainty.

Offaly would, effectively, play with four forwards. The aim was to virtually ensnare Jamesie O'Connor in a thicket of Offaly jerseys. It worked to perfection. Bond never doubted it would.

In the three games, they had accumulated identical totals: 1-13, 2-10, 0-16. ``Footballers score more than that,'' admits the Offaly manager. He knows defence has been their mainstay.

Now he frets and worries a little about the wave of hype breaking across the people. Training sessions have become festivals. He has thought of closing the gates, but his instinct is against it.

Already, Bond says he feels an intense loyalty to the Offaly players.

His forehead still bears the ugly imprint of a malicious stroke that ended his own hurling career. It was delivered during the 1979 All-Ireland Club quarter-final against St Gabriel's of London in Athlone. He spent eight nights in hospital after it and never played again.

``That's why I'd never be cruel to players,'' he says. ``They're the ones shedding the sweat and the blood. I always accentuate the positive. It's like school. You'd never call anyone a dunce. That's not how you motivate.

``I felt a tremendous affection for these Offaly players straight away. It shouldn't hurt me what people write about them. But it does. It's like my first years here in the school. I mightn't know them, but dare anyone touch them ... ''

Michael Bond came on silent footsteps. It's unlikely he will leave that way.

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