Monday 24 June 2019

Champions' secret weapon

Global guru in fitness Fergus Connolly has been a huge influence on Dublin's success, writes John O'Brien

Fergus Connolly: ‘If you were in charge of a country and could pick one sport for kids to play, what better choice than Gaelic football?’ Photo: Tony Gavin
Fergus Connolly: ‘If you were in charge of a country and could pick one sport for kids to play, what better choice than Gaelic football?’ Photo: Tony Gavin

John O'Brien

THE text landed late on Thursday evening, three sleeps before Dublin and Mayo would contest the 2013 All-Ireland football final. A link to a preview piece that had appeared in one of that morning's newspapers. There, buried several paragraphs deep, a cursory reference to a vital but supremely well-hidden member of Dublin's back-room team. Finally, as Dublin's day of destiny approached, Fergus Connolly had been unmasked.

The man John McCloskey describes as "the best kept secret in Irish sport" sips a peppermint tea in the Gibson Hotel now, thinks about the conference call he has scheduled with an Australian Rules club at 6.30 the following morning and decides he will forego the evening's celebrations. Two days have passed since Dublin's one-point victory and the snappy, one-line message he had sent that evening. 'Told you we'd win it.'

McCloskey remembers their first introduction. It was the early 2000s. McCloskey, Armagh strength and conditioning coach at the time, was attending a seminar in Dublin given by the great American coach, Vern Gambetta, when Connolly approached and asked to talk. McCloskey agreed to meet the following week and an intended brief chat mushroomed into a sprawling two-hour conversation and a mad dash to make his flight home to Belfast.

The breadth of Connolly's knowledge astonished him. A kid in his early 20s from Monaghan with no sporting qualifications to speak of, no hands-on experience to boast about, and yet he already knew more than coaches who had spent lifetimes in sport and still felt he knew so little. In his thirst for learning and his yearning for improvement, McCloskey recognised a kindred spirit.

Connolly can't remember a time when he wasn't learning or imagine a time he'll ever stop. As a boy his parents instilled in him the value of hard work to achieve what you want in life. Growing up, his parish was Scotstown and Scotstown was the parish of Sean McCague, a man he could learn from and be inspired by. As a signpost of his future direction, he tells a story of his Monaghan football days.

A while back, when he had already become the most sought after sports consultant on the planet, Connolly bumped into Declan Loughman, a great Monaghan footballer he'd often encountered while playing for Scotstown. Loughman idly wondered how his life had taken the path it did and Connolly explained that Loughman himself had been partially responsible.

"I said 'you were one of the reasons'," Connolly explains. "'You were so strong on the field from doing all that weight-training, I realised I was going to have to get strong and learn how to do weights too'. And he just laughed. He said 'I never lifted a weight in my life'. So on that false premise, I'd gone off and learned all I could about proper weights-training."

Whatever the motivation, the impulse stayed the same: the desire to improve, the abject fear of standing still. Once, while studying woodwork teaching at the University of Limerick, he tore a muscle in his groin playing football. For most young players, a disaster. For Connolly, an opportunity. "It was a chance to understand the protocol for it not to happen again," he says. "To me there are no setbacks. Only opportunities to learn."

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So he immersed himself in the science behind injury and recovery. He took a three-year course in physical therapy and devoured whatever medical and academic tracts he could find. He knew he couldn't be an expert in everything, but that was no bind. His requirements had a broad remit. He sought out anything that enhanced performance or decreased the probability of losing and routinely absorbed it like a sponge.

The more he learned, the more people began to seek him out too. One of the Leicester Tigers coaches had spotted an article he'd written about recovery and thought it might be a good idea to invite Connolly to address the fitness staff there. That was the beginning. At the time Bolton Wanderers were implementing a new sports science model. Word spread from Leicester that there was a young guy from Ireland pretty handy at this kind of stuff.

"That's how it all happened really," Connolly says. "I'm not a pushy guy. I remember John [McCloskey] saying about the media, if you're doing a good, honest job and being the best in the world at what you're doing, you don't have to worry about anything else. That's always been my approach. Word of mouth. People talk."

He recalls the two years he spent at Bolton with affection, a friendship forged with Joey O'Brien so enduring the West Ham defender was his guest at the All-Ireland semi-final and final. During one off-season he devised a training programme to help O'Brien strengthen his damaged knee, leaving his house in Monaghan at five every morning to drive to Dublin to meet O'Brien near his family home in Clontarf.

"When he first came to Bolton, I liked listening to him," O'Brien says. "He had great ideas. I just needed somebody to help me with my training and Fergus got me back from pre-season in the best shape I'd ever been in. Then when I got a bad left knee injury, I've always said that only for Bill Knowles in Vermont, I wouldn't be playing today. It was Fergus who made that connection. That's how much I owe him."

Soon after he was approached by Bernard Dunne who wanted to reshape his entire approach to boxing. Dunne had lost his European title to Kiko Martinez in spectacular fashion and needed a radical overhaul to be a contender again. He had met Mike McGurn in a gym in Belfast and started working on his fitness. McGurn told him if he was really serious about becoming world champion, he should give Fergus Connolly a call.

When Dunne considers the myriad ways in which Connolly helped him, what strikes him fundamentally is the level of engagement he encouraged. Connolly didn't just teach him how to do things differently, he educated him on the need to do so. "He listened to you," Dunne says. "He tried to make you understand why you were doing things. If you have a coach and he doesn't explain things, you won't get a lot out of it. Fergus wasn't like that."

He thinks of the commitment Connolly put in: driving from Monaghan to Clondalkin three or four times a week to take sessions in the lead-up to fights. The new ideas he brought, the way he encouraged you to think outside the box. Dunne had trained in some of the best gyms in America and under some of the greatest trainers, but the attention to detail Connolly brought was like nothing he'd ever experienced.

"I remember one time he came down from Monaghan," Dunne says, "strapped all these heart monitors on me, did some readings and said that's it, you're not training today. But I'm ready to train, I said. No, he said, you're not training and he drove straight back to Monaghan. Later that day I started feeling a little lethargic and, sure enough, that night I'm down with a head cold. Little things like that. He was usually 100 per cent spot on."

Connolly would say he learned from Dunne too. Boxing offered a fresh challenge, yanked him out of his comfort zone. The same when he went to work for the Welsh Rugby Union as performance director and spent three happy years there. Since then the jobs have rolled in. Liverpool called him when Kenny Dalglish was still manager. Munster approached last year and the chance of working with the likes of Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell was too good to turn down.

These days, he spends as much time outside these islands as within. The Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and New York Knicks are regular clients. Robbie Deans and Tony McGahan have tried to lure him Down Under. A recent job involved a consultation with the commercial department at Chelsea while American special forces seek his services too. The fields of medicine and the military, in particular, fascinate him.

"When you think about it," he says, "the average age of a US marine is 19, but the average age of an operative is 34. They are very valuable people, like a quarter-back in football, there is so much training and so much investment. If a quarter-back does his cruciate, you might get him back. You lose a guy in the field, you've lost 100 per cent of your investment. So you need to protect your elite player. The same with our guys. You can't afford to lose them. They're too valuable."

And when he thinks of Dublin and the past year, one statistic stands out. Although last week's final exacted a toll, they had gone through the entire year – league and championship – shipping only two serious injuries, Tomas Brady's cruciate and Cormac Costello's shoulder. Alan Brogan's hamstring injury was one they inherited. Connolly refuses to ascribe this to luck or happenstance. It was a by-product, he thinks, of a training model designed for the players they had and the style they wanted to play.

He was having a meal with colleagues in Liverpool last year when Jim Gavin called and wondered whether he'd join him as part of the Dublin back-room team. Connolly had known Gavin for three years then. Sometimes he'd attend Dublin under 21 games as a friend. Other times he'd call Gavin if he was in town and they'd meet for coffee at the Gibson, talking tactics and sports science late into the evening.

For Gavin, having Connolly on board was a no-brainer. "I liked his holistic approach to things," Gavin says now. "And I wanted somebody who could be a sounding board for ideas. I mean, if you looked at his CV, Fergus had been successful with a lot of world-class teams in various sports and I thought that having a guy around with such a great knowledge of sports and a fantastic work ethic would be a big advantage for us."

Gavin didn't know it then, but the timing of his approach couldn't have been more perfect. It wasn't that Connolly minded the intense travelling that his growing reputation demanded, but a part of him hankered after a job closer to home too. At the time his mother wasn't in the best of health and the Dublin job, even if didn't entail a full-time commitment, offered a reason to spend more time at home.

"This whole journey started because of Monaghan football all those years ago," he says. "That's why when Jim spoke about Dublin, I was interested. And I would say of all the sports I've worked in, this is one of the finest. Like if you were in charge of a country and could pick one sport for kids to play, what better choice than Gaelic football? It has speed, stamina, strength, skill, mental toughness, all of these things. It's a beautiful balance of a sport."

Connolly is modest about what he brought to Dublin and more open about the satisfaction the experience gave him. He knew from the beginning the rewards weren't going to be financial. And that he'd have had more glamorous jobs. Working with Al Vermeil at the Chicago Bulls. Dealing with Grand Slam winners at Wales. Mixing with world-class stars at Liverpool and a dozen other clubs in a dozen different sports. But this was something beyond that. A return to first base, to the game that reared him. His sporting life come full circle.

"What struck me about Dublin was you'd be there at training and you'd have guys with All-Ireland medals just walking around in the background. Like David Hickey, three All-Irelands, two Leagues and three All Stars, and still so humble. For anybody to have any huge notions, David Hickey was a reminder of how good you were. To be able to learn from Dave and Jim Brogan was wonderful."

When Joe McQuillan's whistle sounded for the last time on Sunday evening, he remembers the deep sense of satisfaction that surged through him. He had expected victory, of course. Told people as early as July that Dublin would do it, a conviction borne of the work he'd seen and the diligence of the people involved. On the pitch he saw Gavin embrace Mick Deegan and then turn to embrace him. "Job done," Gavin whispered just loud enough to be heard over the din. No other words were needed.

He wandered onto the field and saw Stephen Cluxton walk towards him. Cluxton extended his hand and said thanks and the embarrassment welled up inside him. "I thought of an old saying I once heard. The postman doesn't expect to be thanked for delivering your letters. It's his job." He thought of the debt of gratitude he owed these people too, how much he'd learned from them. It worked both ways.

He thought of the future too. Just 34 and the myriad directions the course of his life might yet take, the unspoken ambitions that drive his dreams. He doesn't know about Dublin for next year yet, just that the taste of Gaelic football is sweet and that he will be back there again, if not next year, then sometime soon.

For now the present looks after itself. This week it's Germany, then it's on to Paris and Barcelona until the fall when Cleveland and Florida come calling again. If time allows, he'll cadge a week off for Christmas and probably head home, he thinks, because that's where the best kept secret in Irish sport goes when he wants to lie low.

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