'Go and kick a football over the extra gym or pool session' - Ross Munnelly backs traditional training
The year was 2003, but the conversation remains as fresh as if it was yesterday. "Do you think you are good enough to start on Sunday?" asked Mick O'Dwyer. "Ya, I think so," replied 20-year-old Ross Munnelly. "Right that's settled so, you'll start against Wexford," said O'Dwyer, and he walked off leaving Munnelly staring into his bowl of jelly and ice-cream, wondering what had just happened.
Laois went on to win the Leinster title, their first since 1946. Munnelly lit up the pitch on the big days, earned an All-Star nomination and was shortlisted for Young Player of the Year, while O'Dwyer was, unofficially, given the freedom of Laois. Fast-forward 15 seasons and the landscape has changed utterly. Munnelly is still plying his trade but he feels that maybe things aren't that much different on the field of play.
"I never liked people referring to Micko's training as old school," says Munnelly. "Sometimes we used to sprint a lap of the field, the equivalent of 400 metres. During the league he'd reduce it to two widths of the field, 200 metres. Throughout the championship we sprinted widths of the field.
"Players still run those distances but they are measured with a trundle wheel and each run is timed. As soon as you kicked for a score, Micko wanted you back in your kick-out position. That's no different to teams in the modern era spending 20 to 30 minutes practising kick-out strategies for closing down the opposition. I remember my first thought after scoring a goal in the 2003 Leinster final was to get to my position for the kick-out. His training methods were more modern than people realised."
Munnelly thinks now of O'Dwyer as a fantastic coach. Although there were no drills or any really in-depth tactical sessions, there was plenty of hands-on coaching. Every night at training they played a game for 50 to 60 minutes at full tilt. O'Dwyer used to referee the game from the centre of the field and he coached what he saw.
"If I didn't make the right pass or I took a shot when a team-mate was in a better position he'd always let me know. Just because you are not doing drills doesn't mean you aren't being coached. Micko's best advice was delivered during those training games. He'd point out where I was going wrong and I'd learn from him. Micko's teams played such brilliant, free-flowing football. It always kept me really sharp on the basics of the game."
Back then the focus was very much on the 70 minutes of play. Areas like nutrition hadn't been explored yet. Munnelly recalls some of the panel having a fry before the big games but doesn't feel like there was any harm done.
"Nutritionists wouldn't let that happen now but Micko had you so focused on football and playing that your match, (that) performance was more important than anything. Enhancements in strength and conditioning, sports psychology, nutrition and video analysis are key for preparation but the single most important element is the performance. I've coached players who are so focused on ticking every single box before the game that they lose their mental edge; it can be draining before the ball is thrown in.
"When I was in college in Maynooth we used go to Highfield for a few kicks. But now I hear players saying will we go to the gym or for a pool session. The advancements in sports science have brought the game on but my advice to young players is to go to the field for 50 or 100 kicks of a football more often than you do the extra gym or pool session."
That first championship summer Munnelly became a household name. There was no social media, and the internet wasn't as much a part of our everyday lives as it is now. But the spotlight was very much focused on the young Laois man. His family always kept him grounded and O'Dwyer was on hand to remind him about the importance of practice.
Munnelly now shares a dressing room with players who are up to 16 years younger than him. In DCU, where he works as head of the sports development service, he coached the freshers for six years and has now come across those young players on the inter-county scene.
Stephen Attride, who played for him when DCU won the freshers All-Ireland in 2013, is now Laois captain. And earlier this year when Laois played Meath the sticky corner-back he couldn't lose turned out to be another former DCU fresher, David Toner.
He recognises some of his younger self in these up-and-coming players but he sees the different world they exist in too. It's one where getting likes, retweets and new followers on social media is akin to someone leaving a message for you on the house phone. When things are good on and off the pitch the attention is enjoyable, but when there are bumps in the road that's when he can see the young players struggle with never switching off from their online lives.
"The real eye-opener for me is that players are on their phones before a game and after a game. I once overheard a young club player before championship asking the person tweeting match updates to give him a mention. I walked away thinking these are young players who are on the pathway to inter-county football and they have this whole other aspect of their lives that I didn't understand and maybe didn't appreciate. These young players live their lives on social media and I have to understand that."
Munnelly is aware of these societal changes and runs educational workshops for scholarship students in DCU covering a wide variety of topics including social media. The focus is on using the platforms in a positive way, and for employment opportunities.
Aidan O'Shea is a player who regularly feels the glare of the media spotlight. Munnelly got to know the Mayo player on international rules duty in 2013 and believes there is much more to him than most people get to see.
"I just think everybody wants a piece of him. He gets so many requests from people for get well, good luck and congratulations videos. He's part of a society that is huge on social media. He does so many good things for people that nobody hears about. There has to be a balance. During my time in the international rules he was 100 per cent committed to doing his best for Ireland. And I know that performing for Mayo and delivering for Mayo is his priority. His qualities as a player are up there with the best in the country and I believe he will get over the line with Mayo."
Munnelly has made 66 championship appearances for Laois in 15 seasons. He's played for Leinster in the Railway Cup and for Ireland in the international rules series on three occasions. He has never been drug-tested.
"Some of my team-mates have been tested but as of yet I haven't been selected. I wouldn't have a problem with more frequent testing. I think this would lead to better education and more awareness amongst players. With Laois the doctor delivers an information workshop at the start of every season. We are encouraged to download the app to check the medicines. Our golden rule is always check with the doctor. Just drop him a text and he will give you the go-ahead or not."
Munnelly has played in every one of Laois's 66 championship games since he made his debut in 2003, starting 60 of them. This season he has been coming off the bench. Of course he'd love to start but he understands that it's a team game.
"I think every player should coach at some point during their playing career . . . My time coaching the DCU freshers made me understand the importance of the 21-man panel, that every player in the group has a part to play. For 13 years I started every championship game and I always expected those who didn't start to be positive. Now I'm in that position and I still think the same way."
Dublin have dominated Leinster for most of Munnelly's career. He believes they are a golden generation of players but they won't be around forever. The other teams in the province will catch up, it's only a matter of time.
Although Munnelly only won that one Leinster title he enjoys playing today every bit as much as he did when he started 15 seasons ago. He rings Mick O'Dwyer every year before the championships starts and this year was no different.
"I've always remembered the people who put me on the right road and those who helped me stay there." Keep your phone on, Micko, because for now Munnelly is going nowhere.
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