Saturday 18 November 2017

Comment: Why age doesn't matter for the modern GAA manager

John Brennan during his time as Slaughtneil manager
John Brennan during his time as Slaughtneil manager

Declan Bogue

WHO is the most successful manager in Ulster football?

You're thinking Mickey Harte, with his five Ulster titles and three All-Irelands.

But consider for a second, one John Brennan.

On Sunday, the former Derry manager won his tenth county Championship title. That was his fourth with Erin's Own, Cargin.

He has also had success with Slaughtneil, Carrickmore, his own Lavey club and the Loup.

At the time of his last birthday, John Brennan blew out 74 candles. While most of his contemporaries have settled for a life of minding grandchildren and following soap operas, he is standing out on the training field in all weathers.

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte

It's not difficult to see where his drive comes from. His wife died suddenly at 44 and he left a senior position in British Telecom to care for his children. In 2011, he said: "Now I spend 99 per cent of my time alone and heading out and coaching football with young people: it is great."

Sometimes it feels like we are too quick to label any manager over 50 in some way 'old-school' and therefore offering little.

But Ulster is teeming with rebukes to that theory. Mickey Harte is back on top in Ulster. Mickey Moran claimed three consecutive Derry titles on Sunday. Pete McGrath continues to work the oracle and all three are comfortably into their 60s as retired schoolteachers.

Age is all relative anyway.

In an interesting interview in Saturday's Belfast Telegraph, the People Before Profit politician and erstwhile journalist Eamonn McCann was asked about being 73.

His answer was perfect. "As for being 73, I am not aware of it at all. I don't know what it is to be 73 except what it is like for me to live right now."

That's how Brennan must feel when he is managing winning teams. And to win so much, you cannot be a choir boy.

After Cargin's victory on Sunday, Brennan came out of the stands to join the celebrations - he was serving a touchline ban after an indiscretion earlier in the summer in Ballymena.

One of his specialities has been to send a runner on with some instruction, while at the same time ambling down to the opposition dugout to create a distraction. By the time the opposing manager noticed the switch, they could be a point or two down.

Nor is Brennan infallible as a coach. The story goes that while he was manager of the Loup in 2009, a delegation of senior players spoke to him about the training methods. Before long, Martin McElkennon was conducting the sessions.

It's quite possible that he might seem bemused by modern-day training practise.

At the heart of Gaelic games have always been the skills. Some are better at transferring this than others. The Loughgiel hurlers credit to late Jim Nelson for sharpening their skills sufficiently to win the All-Ireland club title in 2012, but would he have been able to manage the team and considerable backroom the way PJ O'Mullan was?

Last Friday, Brennan emphasised to this writer; "All this theory and so-called training advantages, there is so much talk going on. But you have to go with the times, and I reckon I go with the times for modern-day training. You have to, with these young people, the young modern, 20-year-old, 25-year-olds.

"I never think anything other than this. As I said earlier, you have to have your team ready physically and more importantly, in a mental state. Then it's up to them to perform."

And that is the crux of Brennan's success. He recognises where his field of expertise lies, and that is man-management. Getting people into the right headspace. Muttering dark curses sort-of-but-not-quite under his breath in training sessions, urging his players to 'Bone the b******s'.

"Unadulterated war," as one of his Lavey players once said he taught them in their transformation from makeweights in Derry to All-Ireland club champions in 1991.

The temptation might be to see all the success that more seasoned managers are achieving and try to implement that in your own club or county.

Caution should be exercised. Experience is nothing without adaptability and that every situation is fluid and subject to change.

In the era of Peter Donnelly and Gavin Devlin, Mickey Harte does not take Tyrone training sessions. Same as John Brennan, who has Dualta Johnston to train the Cargin footballers.

They have their own strengths. The secret to that, is recognising them.


High time for a club player's body

IMAGINE you are, to use as an example, Dermot Carlin this Friday.

The former Tyrone player is a Killyclogher clubman. He is not long into a new job, which is based in Belfast and as a result, faces a long daily commute.

Killyclogher are in the Tyrone county final replay this Friday night. It throws in at 7.30pm. The Killyclogher players will need to have eaten something around 5pm ahead of a final meeting, and then their warm-up.

Or say you are another former Tyrone player, Johnny Curran of Coalisland.

A barber by trade, his busiest and most lucrative time of the week are Friday evenings. He will have to set down his scissors from lunchtime at the latest.

Both men are pursuing their hobby of Gaelic football. An amateur sport. There will be an expected crowd of anything up to 10,000 there to watch them play and they will not get a penny of the gate receipts.

In fact, it is going to cost them to partake in the showpiece day of Tyrone club football.

They are being fed the constant baffling untruth from the very highest ranks of GAA officialdom, that the club is the bedrock of the Association. And their county board re-arrange a final for a Friday night.

Not only is it not good enough, but it is a grave insult to both panels that they will be forced to take a day off work to play on a Friday night.

Which is why the announcement that the formation of a club player's association, headed up by former Monaghan selector Declan Brennan, has not come a moment too soon.

"I think what most players - and remember inter-county players are club players too - want is a proper closed season where they can get the proper rest and plan their lives better," he said.

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