Monday 11 December 2017

Behind enemy lines

Former Down boss Paddy O'Rourke is winning hearts and minds in Armagh

colm keys

Paddy O'Rourke is a thick-skinned man. He has to be. Last week he stepped between the ropes to raise funds for the St Mary's Youth Club, Burren, of which he is chairman, wearing an Armagh football shirt!

Burren, Co Down, is his home club, his three-round bout was against the Mourne corner-back Daniel McCartan -- the brother of James -- who was sent off in the recent Division 2 league final, and the odds, despite his edge in size, seemed against him. For good measure, the orange shirt was sure to get local passions stirring.

Naturally there were jeers, all friendly, of course, given the status he enjoys in the famed club.

But defying convention -- it's the only way to describe the act of a Down man wearing an Armagh shirt at a fundraising venture in Burren, however lighthearted it is -- is something O'Rourke has grown to live with. He won the bout and, for his good nature, the crowd too.


He's been winning them over in Armagh too, slowly but surely. Eight months ago he stepped through the ropes to a much more volatile reception, the first time Armagh had gone 'outside' for someone to guide their flagship team.

Managers have come and gone to and from 'enemy territory' in the GAA for many years now, but Armagh/ Down is not one of the great trading routes.

So rarely has an appointment in Gaelic games triggered such a reaction. Billy Morgan to Kerry or Babs Keating to Cork it may not have been, but Armagh/Down remains one of the acutest rivalries in the game and ushering such a figure as O'Rourke in was never going to be seamless. Publicly, they collectively bit their lips in Armagh; privately, the scepticism abounded.

It wasn't the appointment of O'Rourke in particular but the fundamental of the county needing to cast it net outside.

After so much success and the evolution of so many strong personalities, was it really necessary to land hook and line to Down of all places? O'Rourke's appointment was held up as the final damning evidence of a county that had blown their own boom.

The odds as to how long he could last in such a furnace were short. But from the moment he called on Armagh players to "earn and die" for the jersey, his graph has been rising steadily.

Armagh football looks at peace with itself once more. What more can O'Rourke have done than to orchestrate the downfall of his own native county in last month's league final?

Nothing reflects the success of his short tenure more than the impressive rejuvenation of Steven McDonnell.

For the best part of the decade, McDonnell has been Armagh's gilt-edged forward, the man who dug them out of holes with his unerring accuracy and ball-winning prowess. But in more recent times, Stevie had lost his lustre. The old swagger from his game, the confidence he oozed, had left him.

When he got his marching orders against Monaghan in Clones last July the thought crossed his mind in the following weeks that it may be time to pack it in.

This week, McDonnell intimated that it was the buzz he felt at a U2 concert he attended later that month that convinced him to drop thoughts of retirement. Looking around Croke Park, he was sure he wanted to return.

As much as that was the case, however, the arrival of O'Rourke across the county boundary could be responsible just as much for the regeneration of one of the most clinical forwards of the last decade.

It is said that McDonnell was one of the catalysts for Armagh taking up the trail of the former Down manager and captain in the first place.

There were others involved too in encouraging the controversial appointment, but within the dressing-room it was McDonnell who had the conviction that it could happen. Against that background, he has felt the need to deliver and reciprocate the dynamic between them.

Essentially, O'Rourke is considered to be a players' man. He was a popular captain of the Down team that won the All-Ireland title after a 23-year gap in 1991, having foraged unsuccessfully with the county for 13 years.

He's had success with his own Burren in Down and Castleblayney in Monaghan while, off the field, he's a director of a highly profitable building company, Garrivan and O'Rourke Ltd, with extensive interests in London, where he spends time.

He spent four years as Down manager and, in so many respects, he ended his term there largely unfulfilled. An appeal for one more year was turned down by Down delegates at the end of the 2006 season, paving the way for Ross Carr and DJ Kane to take over.

That summer he had substituted Liam Doyle in the closing stages of an Ulster championship match against Donegal in Ballybofey. Doyle had been a doubt beforehand but he was the team's left-footed free-taker.

As it transpired, Down won a free that suited a left-footed kicker in the closing stages to draw the game, but it was the right-footed Danny Hughes who had to accept responsibility and he missed. It caused a furore, but O'Rourke accepted full responsibility and, ultimately, that was the beginning of the end for him as they subsequently lost a qualifier to Sligo.

"He certainly didn't get out of it what he put into it," reflected the Down chairman that year, Gerry Quinn. "Probably to this day Paddy would feel that. It's why he sought just one more year. He'd be considered everywhere he goes to be a great man-manager."

That view is echoed by the current Armagh team trainer Mike McGurn, who delivered a glowing overview on what he contributes. McGurn, who is Eddie O'Sullivan's former fitness trainer with Ireland and is well regarded across the whole sporting spectrum, hasn't come across a better man-manager in sport.

"Paddy has got to be one of the best man-managers I've ever experienced, and that includes professional sport. I think the IRFU could take a leaf out of his book and learn about man-management. I was really surprised by him," admitted McGurn. "I used to get a great kick out of going to watch GAA teams and watching the sideline, seeing a manager gesticulating to the referee and playing to the crowd. I'd think to myself, 'This is so embarrassing, get back in your dug-out'.

"Paddy is brilliant; he is very calm, relaxed, he emphasises enjoyment. We enjoy what we do because of Paddy. Maybe it's because he is a business man. He has this man-management skill that I haven't see before in any professional sport."

Those skills would surely have manifested in one of the first conversations he had on his appointment in Armagh last autumn. The selection process left plenty with bloodied noses, but the flow had not been stemmed from Donal Murtagh when the call came from O'Rourke offering the position as No 2.

Murtagh had bristled publicly about the way the process had been undertaken, claiming he got three conflicting phone calls abut the job but no interview.

Similarly Justin McNulty has admitted to being sceptical about the appointment of a man from outside the county when potentially so many candidates lay within.

But he too was taken by O'Rourke's drive and commitment to success and accepted the offer to become the third selector. It's said that a man cannot be a prophet in his own land. But Paddy O'Rourke has them sitting up and listening not too far away.

Irish Independent

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