Wednesday 21 February 2018

How the shrewdest GAA manager of them all used Eddie O'Sullivan to bring success to Galway

Will Slattery

Will Slattery

A number of weeks ago Joe Brolly and Irish Independent journalist Vincent Hogan engaged in an interesting discussion on Off The Ball about Kieran McGeeney's management career.

After lengthy analysis, the duo reached the conclusion that a key reason why the Armagh legend hasn't won a major trophy as a coach is down to the success he had as a player. They surmised that the relentless drive within McGeeney that marked him as such a transcendent talent makes him unable to accept and understand when his players fail to reach the same heights, that being such a great player means he struggles to relate to those who can't match the levels he demanded of himself.

That is one of many examples of legendary players who were unable to replicate their on-field achievements on the touchline. While there are plenty of icons who succeeded in management - Johan Cruyff, Kevin Heffernan, Mick O'Dwyer - there are far more who floundered when required to organise and motivate a team rather than merely focus on their own preparation.

Two-time All-Ireland-winning manager John O'Mahony knows where he stands on the discussion. After a mediocre inter-county playing career with Mayo, O'Mahony found himself as a manager, first with Mayo, then Leitrim, then Galway and then Mayo one more time.

He tells that all the success he enjoyed as a coach - eight Connacht titles, four All-Ireland final appearances and two All-Ireland titles - were possible precisely because he didn't enjoy a top class playing career.

"I never made it as an established senior player, I was generally a fringe player," he says.

"I’ve always thought that my failure to make it as an established senior player gave me a big insight as a manager. It is easy to motivate the captain or the best player on the team. The real challenge is how you motivate someone on the team who might be struggling. I think I was better able to do that because of my playing experience."

mayo team.jpg
John O'Mahony guided Mayo to the All-Ireland final in 1989.

O'Mahony looked to improve his team through a series of forward thinking measures after getting the Mayo senior job in 1987 following an impressive stint as U21 manager. Because he didn't have impeccable playing credentials, he relied on video analysis, shrewd tactics, strength and conditioning programs and diet plans to increase performance levels, rather than merely standing in front of his players lecturing them on how he did things on the field.

The Mayo native explains exactly how he was able to achieve so much success early on in his management career.

"When I was a player it was far less sophisticated and I felt there were a lot of things that could be done better," he says.

"Back then there was more of a possibility of you gaining an advantage by your preparation because the game was so amateur.

"I went on training courses in Gormanstown and tried to take things from other sports, just learning the secrets of it all. I bought my own video equipment and used that to analyse the opposition. If you are a manager now you have a staff of 20 who can do all these things but back then it was mainly just yourself. I tried to be an expert in all areas. I went on first aid courses and physio courses so I could do the strapping. I think I was the first manager to bring a sports psychologist in too."

O'Mahony arrived in inter-county management soon after the cult of the manager was established. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when GAA fans and players began to treat their coaches like deities but Kevin Heffernan winning Texaco Footballer of the Year in 1974 despite being a manager certainly seems like a good starting point.

Since O'Mahony's early success with Mayo was achieved in part due to these innovative methods, he admits that he was marked as a rising star in management. However, even O'Mahony's new ideas couldn't end Mayo's All-Ireland drought.

Despite winning Connacht titles in his first two years in charge (1988 and 1989), Mayo were defeated in the semi-final by Meath before falling agonisingly short in the decider against Cork the following year.

O'Mahony left his home county in 1991 - 'They had no need for me' - and after a brief sabbatical from inter-county football he returned to take charge of Leitirm.

Leitrim hadn't won a Connacht title in 67 years when O'Mahony lead them to provincial glory in 1994.

On the face of it, it seemed like a bold move. Gaelic football is full of examples of managers enjoying great success in one county only to see their methods go nowhere with another team.

Despite taking on what seemed to be an arduous task, O'Mahony backed himself to achieve something memorable with Leitrim.

"That is always a fear and a risk but I was a risk taker," O'Mahony says when asked if he feared ruining his reputation with a disastrous stint in Leitrim.

"I wasn’t needed in Mayo anymore and I was privileged to get the chance to prove myself again in Leitrim. They wanted someone who had won Connacht titles before and I felt I knew what was needed after my time in Mayo."

His first year (1993) showed promise but fell short of the ultimate prize after the big scalp of Galway was followed by a two-point loss in the Connacht semi-final to Roscommon.

O'Mahony fine-tuned his game plan in the following close season, and ended up orchestrating one of Gaelic football's most memorable feats - ending Leitirm's 67 year wait for a second Connacht championship.

"In my first year we were narrowly beaten by Galway, so we had to come back the following year and do it better," O'Mahony says.

"The thing was that we had to do it better with the same players. It wasn’t like in other counties where you could bring in a lot of new faces, Leitrim has a small pool to pick from.

"We won that Connacht title in the most difficult year possible. We beat Roscommon, who were the bane of Leitrim’s life, then we beat Galway after a replay in Tuam and then Mayo in the final. I don’t think anyone has ever had a tougher route to the Connacht final and nobody could begrudge the team that win."

O'Mahony stayed two more years in Leitrim before departing, and although he wasn't to know it then, he was about to surpass his achievement with the minnows by awakening one of Ireland's sleeping giants.

When the Galway job became available in 1997, it was a bit like the Mayo position opening up last autumn. There was a group of hungry veterans who hadn't been able to get over the line mixed with a smattering of top class talent coming through.

O'Mahony won an All-Ireland title with Galway at the first attempt in 1998.

O'Mahony was very bullish on his chances of achieving success with the likes of Ja Fallon, Padraig Joyce and Michael Donnellan and jumped at the chance to manage the Tribesmen.

"That was one of the things that tempted me to take the job," O'Mahony says in reference to the talent coming through.

"They had a lot of the same players who had been close for a few years plus the young guns. I thought that if I could do what I did with Leitrim, I wonder how much I could do with Galway. I thought they could win an All-Ireland. I didn’t tell anyone but I believed it."

O'Mahony worked his magic with Galway in year one, bringing the Sam Maguire back west in 1998 for the first time in 32 years. As luck would have it, a documentary was being made by sub-goalie Pat Comer that season, which ultimately became the magnificent 'A Year 'Til Sunday', which chronicled the Galway team every step of their All-Ireland-winning journey.

Even though he wasn't pleased with every aspect of the film - 'Me having a cut off the players after the Connacht final isn't the best example of good management' - O'Mahony is delighted with how it ends.


Having achieved the ultimate prize with Galway at the first attempt, while falling agonisingly short with Mayo, O'Mahony is in a position to make an interesting comparison of the two counties.

"With Galway I was pleasantly surprised," he says.

"Even though they hadn’t won an All-Ireland [since 1966] there was a culture of success – the hurlers had been winning All-Irelands. Galway used to find it difficult to get out of Connacht but when they did, they had a history of seeing their graph rise in Croke Park. Mayo found it easier to get out of Connacht but didn’t do as well in Croke Park. Getting out of Connacht can either cause a fear or an inspiration and with that Galway team it was definitely an inspiration.

"That Galway team had a tendency to blow teams out of the water. They could hit a purple patch and destroy everything that was in its path. They did it against Kildare in the second half of the All-Ireland final, against Derry [1998] and against Meath in the All-Ireland final."

O'Mahony views the mentality within Mayo differently.

"Now obviously you can’t put a whole county’s history on top of one team on a given day but I felt that there was a mental weakness there [in his Mayo teams] because they hadn’t done it before," he says.

"It still exists to this day to an extent. Even though the Mayo people are really passionate about the team, they still haven’t been able to get over the line."

O'Mahony reached another All-Ireland final in 2000, losing to Kerry, before winning his second championship after upsetting heavily fancied Meath the following year. One of his secret weapons during his time in Galway was former Ireland rugby coach Eddie O'Sullivan, who put together detailed strength and conditioning programs for his players.

"I always tried to learn from other sports and Eddie was living in Galway at the time," O'Mahony says of the 1998 season.

"He is a great guy and he used to do all the weight programs and fitness programs for the team. He actually got the job with the American team during the season so he would fax them back to Galway because this was before email."

After leaving Galway in 2004, O'Mahony returned to Mayo in 2007 seemingly ready to end their wait for an All-Ireland title. After reaching the final in 2004 and 2006, expectations were high that O'Mahony could use what he learned from his success with Galway to deliver Mayo the Sam Maguire that they so craved, but he departed in 2010 having brought them no closer to their holy grail.

O'Mahony left Mayo for the second time in 2010 after being unable to end their All-Ireland title drought.

O'Mahony points to the number of the current team who were given their debut under him, but thinks that some within the squad may have felt that glory would be achieved by the mere fact that he had returned.

"Some people thought me coming back in would be enough, that I would just wave a magic wand," he said.

"Maybe that’s why it didn’t work, because people thought just me coming back would do it.

"It was a team in transition and I was the bridge between the teams that had made the two finals and the next generation. I take great pride in the fact that a lot of players I gave debuts to are playing so well today."

O'Mahony hasn't returned to inter-count management since leaving Mayo for a second time in 2010. He was a Fine Gael TD for eight years before losing his seat at the last General Election and he looks back on his time in management with serious contentment.

When asked whether he would swap his two All-Irelands with Galway for just one with Mayo, O'Mahony emphatically says no, preferring to accept history the way it was written.

"I would never swap anything I’ve won with anything else," O'Mahony says.

"That would be disingenuous to the people I won it with. I would have loved to have won an All-Ireland with Mayo but I have to accept history and the cards that I was dealt. Winning it with Galway doesn’t lessen the pride I had in winning an All-Ireland championship.

"I have been very privileged in my management career. I got to manage my own county, I was able to make the breakthrough with one of the weaker county’s and then make the breakthrough with a sleeping giant."

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