Nally getting Royals tuned up to challenge his native county
Colm Nally, a key part of Andy McEntee's Meath management team, says good coaching is secret behind Dublin's recent run of success, writes Gerard Cromwell
Colm Nally's appointment as coach of the Meath senior football team raised more than a few eyebrows on the inter-county scene when it was announced last September.
While anyone in the know recognised Nally as one of the most progressive and creative coaches in the country, those closer to home saw him as something worse - a Dub helping Meath.
Born and bred in Balbriggan, Nally followed his older brothers, Paul and Ronan, up the road to O'Dwyer's GAA club when he was nine and, like his big brothers, grew up a staunch Dubs supporter. Although O'Dwyer's had Dublin goalkeeping legend John O'Leary in their ranks at the time, Nally made his senior debut between the posts with the Balbriggan side in a Dublin championship game against Whitehall Colmcilles when he was just 16.
"O'Dwyer's were a middle-of-the-road club at the time and, with John O'Leary playing for them, they were always mad to get someone in goals so that John could play in midfield," recalls Nally.
"Anyone that had any resemblance to a goalkeeper played in goals for O'Dwyer's. There was no way I was ready for that first game, and I let in three goals, but it did me no harm and I played in goals with them for the next 10 years or so. I used to say that if John O'Leary was the most famous goalkeeper in Ireland at the time, I was the most famous unknown goalkeeper. Everyone knew John didn't play in goals for his club but nobody knew who did."
On the periphery of minor and U-21 panels for a few years, Nally got called into the Dublin senior set-up for a few games as reserve goalkeeper but never got a proper run at it. His last game for the Dubs saw him score a point against All-Ireland champions Donegal at a pitch-opening in 1993 after he was asked by then-manager Pat O'Neill to go on as a forward when they ran out of subs.
"I said to myself at the time, 'I'll get another go', but I never got another go," he sighs. "There were lots of good 'keepers around at the time: Davey Byrne, Mick Pender and others but John was so good and so established that nobody else really got a look-in during that period."
Marriage to Shirley in 1996 took Nally to Drogheda and after another year with O'Dwyer's, where the commute meant that "every game felt like an away game", he transferred to Shirley's local club, Newtown Blues.
Taste "I just wanted to go and enjoy football, settle into the community and get a foothold in Drogheda. I never thought anything would come of it, but before the year was out I was on the Louth panel and spent five years with them. I got a great taste of what county football was like with Louth and made some great friends."
Back then, Nally's interest in learning as much as he could about his chosen game saw him spend the long hours working as an usher in the Dáil jotting down ideas for drills, warm-ups and training sessions when nobody was looking.
"It started very early in my playing career," he says of his interest in coaching. "I was always vocal and always looking for ways to improve. As captain with O'Dwyer's, I took the warm-ups and I was always bugging the coaches to do this or that. I was made captain of Louth for a couple of years for probably the same reasons. When I finished then, I was player-manager for the Blues for a couple of years and was involved in the underage set-up there."
Possibly his biggest achievement with the Drogheda club was leading a bunch of eight-year-olds, including his son Ross - who now plays for Louth seniors - all to way up to three consecutive minor championships, two of which they won. Ross and others from that squad also went on to win two senior championships.
"That was the best fun I ever had in coaching and the biggest learning curve," he admits. "Coaching is such a long process of repetition, repetition - I had my biggest success with them because I had them longer than any other team I've had. I had them for 10 years so, if you break that down into hours, it's no coincidence that they're all really nice footballers now; bi-lateral, left foot, right foot.
"Most people would tell you that playing is better than coaching but I don't think so. Maybe that's because I wasn't a great player, but I'd rather coach any day."
During a 13-year coaching involvement in Louth, from underage to senior level, Nally went on to become one of the first GAA tutors in the country, before leading Meath club Colmcilles to an All-Ireland intermediate final in 2017 and taking over Dublin club Castleknock last year.
Always seeking progression and improvement though, when Meath manager Andy McEntee called him last September there was only ever likely to be one answer.
"When Andy called, we met up and had a chat. He just said that he was looking to move it on on the pitch, that his time could be utilised better in other areas if he could trust someone else to coach. I said I'd give it a go and we've got on great ever since. I've an awful lot of time for him because he's a very passionate Meath man but there's no ego involved in him getting Meath back in the big time.
"It just has to be done. The whole management team have an input and it's a group effort. With me coaching, Andy gets a chance to stand back and observe, but he still has his boots on and can coach lads one-to-one. It's my job to try and get what's in his head out onto the pitch."
Since Nally came on board, the Royals have been promoted to Division 1 of the league for the first time in 12 years and are now facing a first Leinster final outing in five years against Dublin tomorrow.
"Andy aims high," says Nally of their first meeting. "He wanted to get into Division 1, hoped for a Leinster final and would love to make the 'Super 8s'. If you make the Super 8s, it means you've gone from having possibly five games to eight top-class Championship matches. The more Championship matches you get the better. You can answer a lot of questions by seeing guys playing Championship."
Having spent numerous summers standing on Hill 16 with his brothers and former clubmates to cheer the Dubs on in fierce battles against the Royals in the '80s and '90s, Nally admits he got a bit of stick from his own family when they heard he was crossing to the other side of the fence.
"Will they be conflicted on Sunday? Not at all!" he laughs. "I'd say if they could reach, they'd have no bother throwing a few oranges or something at me. My father is from Meath though, so he's delighted and at least I'll have someone on my side. The rest of them will be shouting for the Dubs. I don't think they see me as a threat though, because they just can't see anybody stopping Dublin at the moment."
And so begs the question. How do you stop Dublin?
"I joke with the lads that Dublin are like a 'Fast and Furious' movie," Nally smiles. "Every 'Fast and Furious' movie starts with someone challenging Dom to a race. But Dom always has an extra cylinder or an extra turbo boost under the bonnet. The Dubs always have that extra cylinder or turbo boost and you don't know what they have under the bonnet until they hit that button and off they go.
"Dublin's system is to subjugate you; back you into submission - dominate you. I'm not sure if it's a military term, but that's their game-plan."
"They look to take control early on. There'll be 14 battles going on and they'll want to win most of them. It's very hard to stop, so you have to come up with a way of playing that disrupts their system - that's the quandary that all of us coaches find ourselves in."
Having Croke Park as a neutral venue, having huge numbers to pick from and cannons full of money fired at them from all angles have all been bandied about as performance-enhancing factors by various pundits, but Nally sees another one closer to home that he says most counties leave out.
"I don't really know what happened in Meath since they last won an All-Ireland because I wasn't privy to it, but Dublin put in a pathway, a structure for coaching and you cannot deny that this Dublin team is wonderfully coached. "You can dress it up all you like - hide behind the fact that they're 'playing in Croke Park all the time' or whatever, but they're wonderfully coached. You can't get past that. That takes an awful lot of time, an awful lot of resilience, an awful lot of planning. They put that in place around 2009 and stole a march.
Enemies "I love watching Dublin. They play the game the right way and you can only learn from them. But even back in the '80s and '90s when they were Dublin's sworn enemies, I always begrudgingly respected Meath. I'm a fan of the game. I'd sit down and watch any match. I watched Roscommon and Galway at the weekend. I didn't care who won but seeing that foot pass from Enda Smyth into Conor Cox on Sunday - that's brilliant. As a fan, I don't care who played that pass, whether he's from Dublin, Meath, Roscommon, or anywhere else. I get a kick out of seeing football played well.
"Meath are trying to create a pathway to help guys incrementally get better. Dublin have been doing that for years, getting them mentally stronger, tactically aware, technically better, bigger, stronger, faster, but following a system. That all takes money, obviously, but we're trying to do it. We're a couple of years behind but the more people we can get into that loop the more players we will get out.
"We've got good underage success and we've got people wanting to play for Meath again. It did go off a bit there - where it didn't really mean a lot to play for Meath. Now it does. I think people are enjoying that, watching us and saying, 'Well, these lads are having a go at it, trying to play the right way'".
The resurgence in the number of Meath fans going to games this year seems to back up Nally's statement and he reckons their influence has been huge on the team this season.
"I don't think the players or fans care who's coaching the team, once the content is good. I don't think it comes into it. Once they know you care and you're there for the right reasons, you're trying to make them better and be part of something.
"To be honest, they've been brilliant to me but the biggest success is that they're all enjoying it; the players come to training smiling, the music is on in the dressing room and it's a cool place to be at the minute. If they go back to the clubs with that vibe, more players will want to be part of it, more fans will get behind us and that's what you're hoping for. That's all down to Andy McEntee in fairness. He's in charge of this. He's facilitating it."
Dublin's dominance in recent years, however, means even the most optimistic of Meath fans will be drinking from half-empty glasses in the pubs around Croker.
"It's going to be tough and we know it's going to be tough," admits Nally. "They know they're up against it but if they walk off that pitch having given their best performance of the year, we'll be delighted with that, regardless of the score."