Friday 24 November 2017

Managing to fill the void

Accidental manager Justin McNulty is making waves with the Laois footballers, writes Dermot Crowe

I N Justin McNulty's first league match in charge of Laois he came up against Meath, a county that has made a habit of winning the majority of these encounters. The most recent demonstration of that supremacy was a thorough beating in last year's Leinster championship, but when it came to winning in February, Laois showed the greater hunger and prevailed. Afterwards McNulty, clutching the Royals' scalp, was interviewed in a spare room under the main stand in Portlaoise.

Dealing with the media isn't his favourite part of the job but he handled the questions comfortably until one about Laois' defensive crowding seemed to needle him a bit towards the end. "Championship football is always built around defence," he explained, "and I will never change my opinion on that. You have to protect the back first and foremost and once your house is safe, you work offensively."

His job has been about demolishing some of the delusions that Laois have sheltered under for far too long and introduce a new constitution of stern but practical house rules. He won't indulge in the "pretty little lies" that Joni Mitchell sang about; the football and the approach may not always be pretty, but will -- if he can help it -- be honest and effective and get results. So far the followers of this notoriously fickle county have to be pleased. As for what their team is like to watch, one follower posited "Not great to tell you the truth."

Justin McNulty extends his hand and squeezes until your fingers start sending anxious signals back to the brain. He is a reluctant interviewee, but he remains steadfastly polite and affable. The current spotlight is of his own making to a great extent, due to the presence of Laois, so often a champion loser, in the Division 2 league final at Croke Park today. He is a newcomer to this level of management and while his start is promising, it's early to be sending him bouquets.

Laois under McNulty, characterised by size in the middle and half-forward line and an emphasis on closing the channels to opposing teams with retreating players on a spoiling commission, has managed to strike an agreeable level of consistency. They contest the same final that their manager's native Armagh played last year against Down, when he was a selector alongside Paddy O'Rourke. Several of the team he won the 2002 All-Ireland with have drifted into management. But he didn't see it as a natural or obvious course, at least not initially.

"I never planned to go into management. I almost fell into it. When I retired from football with Armagh it left a huge hole in my life. A guy called Noel O'Reilly, the chairman of Mullahoran in Cavan, approached me and convinced me to manage them. We achieved some success, had a few fortunate breaks along the way. It is like a drug, it's like playing, not as good as playing but the next big thing."

McNulty is 36 and retired from playing football at 30 when an ankle injury left him with no other option. His last match of a slightly nomadic club career was in Malahide with Na Fianna but his career started as a boy in Mullaghbawn where he was reared, a place he still holds dear. His father, Joe, is singled out as his most telling influence. Joe McNulty studied psychology in Queen's in the 1960s and played a short time for Armagh. Even now he eats books on mental preparation in sport and is constantly making recommendations to his son.

When the Laois job emerged he leaned again on his father for advice and was told to go for it. "It was a big decision to make. I spoke to Paddy O'Rourke in depth about it, before I ever went into discussion with the Laois executive and Paddy, like the great man he is, encouraged me to do it. I still had doubts: had I what it takes to be a county manager?"

His father continues to climb the local mountain near Mullaghbawn, Slieve Gullion, while his mother has just learned to drive in her mid-60s. It may explain why their son took retirement from playing so hard. The narcotic effects of the battle are irreplaceable. He first went up to the local field to train under mentor Charlie Grant at 12 and never looked back. All influences on his life are paid tribute. Dessie Ryan in Queen's. Val Kane in the Abbey in Newry. His father.

"The group of footballers I played with in Mullaghbawn, they were great, great players. I have very happy memories. I miss them. And I still miss (playing) football. It took me three years to get over not playing football; before I'd be able to go and watch a game."

Why? "There's just a void. A void that can never be filled. The void is the competitive edge, you can never get that competitive edge back. That do-or-die, you or your man, in the white heat of battle, you can never repeat that."

He attends a gym in Clonskeagh near where he lives to keep his body active. "I have an addiction for pain. I wreck the gym three or four times a week. I love working out. The adrenaline pumping through my veins. If I don't get to the gym I am not a happy chappy."

He finished playing for Armagh after 2005, the obvious highlight being the All-Ireland win three years earlier. Like many of his colleagues, he felt they should have won more. "I wasn't overly vocal in the group. I just did my bit and didn't do too much talking about it. I guess when we were playing we all looked up to Geezer (Kieran McGeeney) as a leader. I wouldn't say he was a natural leader but he became a leader, (an) incredible character, incredibly driven, disciplined. Every decision he made was for the good of the team."

As a manager now, he appreciates how easy the Armagh of that time were to run. The All-Ireland is not a distant or fading memory but something he is easily transported back to. "No it is still there. Lodged very deeply. Something that will never leave us, never, something very dear. We feel very, very lucky to have that one."

He can "vividly" recall the moment the final whistle went and they were home. Nothing in his life has surpassed the joy. At the end, with Kerry raiding, he stretched out an arm and deflected the ball into Kieran McGeeney's path. Once in the captain's possession the referee sounded the whistle; the last threat had been snuffed out.

A year before in the third round of the qualifiers at Croke Park, McNulty put in an outstanding match against Galway as they came back from six points down to level entering added time, all the momentum with the Ulster champions. Then he went to deliver a ball out of defence and Michael Donnellan intercepted, fed Paul Clancy and he scored the winner. It was a sporting lesson of unspeakable cruelty.

"It is still with me. When you are playing in the full-back line, you have to get every ball right, it is the most unforgiving position on the pitch. The hardest place to play. Because you have to get it right every time. Galway got a good block on me and the ball went to my current assistant, Paul Clancy, and he put it over the bar. To think if I had made a completion with that ball we could have won the match.

"There was a litany of factors. We were late coming to the ground, a Garda escort didn't arrive and we had 20 minutes to get togged. The first half was a non-show. We hadn't played. We had taken control of the game but the turn-over was crucial I suppose as it happened near the end of the game; it was highlighted more. I don't take sole responsibility for it (the loss).

"I replayed it many times in my mind. I think I learned a huge amount from that. (I promised myself) in the last few minutes of a game that will NEVER happen to me again. I will make sure I have a big finish. I will have prepared diligently for the last few minutes of a game. I visualised it over and over again so I knew that in the last few minutes, when it came to crunch time again, I was going to have a cool head."

When the moment arrived near the end of the 2002 All-Ireland final, he felt he was ready for it. His intercession was invaluable in securing Armagh their first title.

Ten years earlier, Armagh suffered a traumatic All-Ireland minor final defeat to Meath, beaten by a late goal against the run of play. They had looked poised to win a first minor since 1949. McNulty was part of that campaign along with his twin brother Paul but he hasn't good memories of it because he got no playing time throughout their run. So when the issue of the loss is raised, the broken-hearted dressing room, the entrance of a consoling Brian McEniff on his way to leading out Donegal to a senior title, the beautiful heartfelt empathy of his words -- none of this comes to mind. McNulty's recollections are coloured by his frustration in not getting a place.

This has to be drawn out of him, he isn't playing an easy victim, but the lessons were useful in driving him as a player and can be useful in his management role today. He felt he didn't have a fair crack. Not saying this to the management meant it was left simmer. There was no closure. "I felt very strongly that I should have been on that team. No doubt about it in my mind. The manager didn't give me a chance and I was very angry about that.

"I think it probably has helped me, in recognising some players who may not show in league matches or in training possibly, but when it comes to the melting pot those are the boys you want. I probably didn't have the confidence to say 'hey, why am I not playing?' I think that I would encourage any player to do that at any level, talk to the manager, tell him how you feel."

Cavan Gaels were the dominant force in Cavan when McNulty took over Mullahoran, having won three championships in a row. But he managed an instant overthrow; they defeated their rivals in the county final with 14 men for most of the match. He left after one year because of the travel involved from south Dublin and hooked up with St Brigids who reached a county final, defeated by St Vincent's who went on to win the All-Ireland. After a second year there, he took a break, and then linked up with Armagh as a selector.

Having left engineering, he works with his brother Enda in the firm, Motiv8, used by sporting and business interests to get an edge. There are natural linkages to his job in management. From his own playing days he regrets not having enjoyed a more liberated role. In a championship match against Donegal, he was moved from midfield, his favoured position and most common up through the ranks, to corner-back after John Duffy had scored two goals. The full-back line became his new home but he felt typecast and a little restricted. There was more in him. "That is something all players should be allowed do -- let them effin play," he says, waving his hand. "No matter what position you are in."

A league final and a run-out in Croke Park on Easter weekend -- he's not complaining. But there is a caveat. "We are happy but very, very clear that this is only ground zero. Drunk wine is soon forgotten. Championship is in four weeks' time. We play Longford who also got promoted. That's where it's at. We are in a final; it is bonus territory, big-time, both teams going to win. But it is a bonus only. Now the real stuff starts."

The real stuff. Lick your lips. It's a coming.

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