Friday 19 January 2018

Never afraid to make the hard calls

Cribbin has always been prepared to put his head on the block in business and football

Westmeath manager Tom Cribbin
Westmeath manager Tom Cribbin
Westmeath manager Tom Cribbin leaves his players to their pre-match huddle before the Leinster opener against Louth

Christy O'Connor

The day after the regular football league concluded in April, a popular website posted an audio clip under the heading, 'This is as brutally honest an interview as you'll ever hear with a GAA manager'.

The interview and manager in question was Tom Cribbin speaking to Midlands 103 Radio after Westmeath's seven-point defeat to Roscommon, which relegated them to Division 3. The emotion and disappointment still audible in his voice, Cribbin let fly.

"There's a few big players just not performing for us, I don't know why or what's wrong. These big players are not standing up. You saw the other lads that work like, they put everything on the line the smaller lads there, lads that are general average players.

"They gave it everything but the few big lads who should be standing out and leading, f***in' lay down and that's the trouble with this team. It's lads who should be leading, chest out and showing these young lads where to go, they're the ones killin' this team.

"There are hard questions to be answered and asked in the next week or two. We might have to go on without a clatter of these players and just start working on these young lads for the future."


What? In the harmless, anodyne world of modern post-match interviews, where the golden rule is to reveal absolutely nothing publicly, Cribbin's words were like fireworks at a tea party. Did he really say that?

The following weekend, Westmeath went on a training camp to Breaffy House in Castlebar. Nothing was said. The group trained hard. During a players-management meeting towards the end of the camp, the issue of the interview was finally raised by one player.

Cribbin apologised to the group for his comments but he said they were borne purely out of frustration. He knew there was more in the squad, especially the senior players. Cribbin wanted a reaction. He got one.

"There's no messing with Tom," says reserve goalkeeper and selector Gary Connaughton. "He's very honest, very passionate. He is a strong character, a strong personality. He knew the team could do better and that's why he came out with those comments.

"He is never afraid to tell people what he thinks but he is a total players' man. He looks after players in any possible way he can. If they have any problems off the pitch, regarding education, work, he'll delve into it and try and help them out. Tom would do anything for fellas."

The comments were a gamble but Cribbin has never been afraid to take risks. His business life is a perfect study in self-made career progression. He began working as a butcher after school before building an empire of shops and businesses throughout Ireland. Constructing his company consumed a lot of his time during a hectic life but Cribbin has always made space for football.

Since he guided Clane to the 1997 Kildare county title, Cribbin has been managing football teams. His first senior inter-county managerial appointment was with Laois in 1999 when he only 36. That career path could have been dramatically altered if Laois had beaten Dublin in the drawn 1999 Leinster semi-final. Ahead by four points with less than a minute remaining, they conceded 1-1 in injury-time and Dublin narrowly won the replay.

After Laois crashed out to Westmeath in the following year's championship, the heat came on. At a county board meeting two weeks later, some club delegates stated that Cribbin should step down or be dismissed. He still had a year to run in his term but Cribbin walked away.

He took Edenderry to the 2001 Offaly county title, while he managed the Kildare minors in 2001 and 2002. Although he was chairman of his home club in Clane for a number of years, Cribbin's antenna was always picking up discreet vibes about potential inter-county senior appointments.

The call just never came but Cribbin was still never shy in his attempts to get back into inter-county management. Before he was appointed Offaly manager in 2009, on the previous four occasions the Offaly job came up, Cribbin phoned the county board and asked for an interview.

Having called before Richie Connor was appointed at the end of 2008, when Connor stepped down after a couple of turbulent months into 2009, Cribbin rang again to declare his interest. When Offaly finally offered him the position that February, it could almost have been labelled the job nobody else wanted. Offaly were in turmoil. If Cribbin was looking for a challenge, he got it.

His stated goal was to win a Leinster title within three years but Offaly failed to win a game in Leinster during those three seasons. They ran Down to two points in 2010 and sacked Monaghan a year later but that was the zenith of their achievements under Cribbin.

In his last season in 2011, he was nicked by some bullets that Michael Duignan unloaded towards the footballers. "There are discipline issues with the footballers in this county," said Duignan. "They don't want to train, they have no pride in their jersey, they're going on the beer and all that sort of thing."


Cribbin reacted angrily to the claims. Duignan later publicly apologised but Cribbin was gone at the end of that summer. "Tom was the nicest guy you'd ever meet," says one Offaly player. "He was supremely organised, very efficient. Most of the players had great time for him. His outlook was always positive but it was nearly too positive at times.

"On occasions he was too trustful of some players and it came back to bite him because a few players got away with too much. I'm sure he learned a lot too from his time here in Offaly. I'd say he's a lot firmer now in his dealings with players."

After Offaly, he worked alongside Kieran McGeeney with the Kildare U-21s before taking over the U-21s last year. When he arrived in Westmeath, they hadn't won a competitive match for 20 months. Progress has been slow but steady. "Tom has done everything possible to help Westmeath," says Connaughton of the manager who has always recruited top people like current trainer John Doran who's well-regarded in Kildare.

"He has left no stone unturned. He doesn't have the same success behind him but he reminds me a bit of Páidí O Sé. He is very passionate and is great in the dressing room. He has a huge determination and will to win. He is very competitive."

That competitiveness has now extended beyond business and football. A late convert, Cribbin finished his first Ironman triathlon in the UK when he turned 50, in 2013. He has completed two more Ironmans since, including one in Austria last summer. Last October, he ran the New York marathon in 4:14. He's training to do another Ironman at the end of this year.

When Westmeath went on their training camp in early April, the squad climbed Croagh Patrick. Cribbin tore up the mountain, leaving a load of the younger players in his wake.

The climb to the top has never been easy but it's never stopped Cribbin trying to get there.

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