Sunday 17 December 2017

Sidekicks ride shotgun on biggest stage of all

Recent GAA success stories have all had one thing in common -- an inspiring 'No 2', writes Damian Lawlor

ON a dark, bitterly cold night in Castlefin, just before the start of the 2011 National League, Rory Gallagher mapped out his first training session with the Donegal footballers.

As he placed cones and bollards around the pitch, the senior and under 21 players ran out of the dressing room, wondering what their new coach would be like.

Some of the more experienced guys, the likes of Colm McFadden, Christy Toye and Karl Lacey, remembered Gallagher from his prolific days with Fermanagh and his three seasons as the leading scorer in the Ulster championship, but many of the younger players didn't have a clue who he was.

It didn't take long for Gallagher to win them over. Quickly they were speaking highly of him, marvelling at how he knew each of their names, and full of admiration for the professionalism he brought to the set-up.

Gallagher was perceived as a quiet man with plenty of strong opinions on Gaelic football. The players quickly noted how he and McGuinness seemed to move in tandem. They both liked to sit down and take notes; they loved watching videos of games and liked to record and analyse how opponents moved, right down to what way rival players shaped their bodies while in possession.

Theirs was a meeting of pure accident. McGuinness had been on the look-out for a coach after Peter McGinley stepped aside due to work commitments and Gallagher's name kept coming at him. They arranged to meet for an hour in Killybegs one evening but four hours later they were still locked in conversation. Three days afterwards, Gallagher (below) was on the training paddock, doing what he does best. He played an instrumental role in Donegal winning this year's All-Ireland title but it's not the first time that a coach, or assistant manager, has played such a pivotal part.

In fact, the cult of the 'number two' is becoming more and more of a phenomenon in the GAA. Paul Grimley (Armagh, 2002), Paddy Tally (Tyrone, 2003), Eamon O'Shea (Tipperary hurlers, 2010), Mickey Whelan (Dublin, 2011) and Gallagher with the Donegal footballers this year, have all had crucial functions in successful championship campaigns. Much has been made of the clout of the manager, but top coaches now carry as much sway.

"A number two is very important in the modern game," says Derry's Paddy Bradley who is recovering from another cruciate ligament operation. "It's even more beneficial if you have a number two that isn't afraid to speak his mind, has his own thoughts and will challenge the manager's ideas. Not to the extent that it causes friction but if they can bounce ideas off each other so much the better.

"I don't think it's any good surrounding yourself with 'yes men' anymore. Having a good number two who knows his drills and football also means that the boss can let him get on with his training while he talks to players and man-manages, which I feel makes the difference between a good and a great manager.

"In any set-up there will be many different personalities and sure to be a few who might not get on with the manager and that's where the number two has a massive role, stepping into lead those players."

New Kerry coach and selector Cian O'Neill played a prominent part with the Mayo team in their chase of championship honours this year. He has developed from an out-and-out physical trainer into a coach with increased tactical responsibilities.

"An inter-county manager spends almost 40 hours a week on his day job and another 20-30 with his team," O'Neill says. "So from that point of view alone there is no way that one man can do it all. That's why assistants and coaches have come to prominence in recent times -- delegation is the key. But for it to work that system must tick three boxes: there has to be specific clarity of a role, complete trust and constant communication.

"If those are adhered to everything will work fine but if any of those elements are broken or ignored problems and tensions may arise and might eventually seep through.

"So everyone has to know their role from the outset -- that simply has to be clarified. If it's not spelt out to every member of the backroom team what their function is then it can lead to confusion. It's as simple as that."

O'Neill will replace the highly regarded coach Donie Buckley, who had a brief stint with the Kingdom this year but departed before the start of the championship. Buckley earned the respect and admiration of the entire panel who raved at the quality of his approach, loved his drills and their variety. Reports suggested that the Castleisland man possibly didn't get the airtime he wanted in the set-up and his loss was sorely felt by the players.

It underlines how important the connection between a manager and his coach needs to be. Buckley, for instance, spends a lot of time studying American field sports and southern hemisphere rugby to see if he can use any of their moves and rhythms in Gaelic football. That off-centre approach might not suit all managers but it appealed to at least seven inter-county bosses -- across various levels -- who were looking for his services once the 2012 season ended.

Limerick ultimately nabbed him as a director of underage football but Mayo manager James Horan pulled off a massive coup by bringing him in as coach to his senior footballers, replacing the equally highly-rated O'Neill. Buckley's move made headlines and rightly so -- his addition might yet prove to be the final piece in the Mayo jigsaw.

"It could be," says a coaching colleague of his. "It's his personality; his enthusiasm for the game that stands him out. He doesn't just 'do drills' -- he coaches, tells you what your body position should be like, where your hips and legs should be going into a tackle -- that sort of stuff.

"When he was Limerick coach, he took John Galvin aside before a Munster final, brought him into a basketball court and practised body movement. Donie just doesn't turn up and hold small training games, he focuses on technique and explains everything. He tells players why they are doing certain drills and where they going with them.

"There are lots of up-and-coming coaches out there who are starting to think like Donie and the signs are positive for the health of the game but a number two can really only thrive if the manager forsakes his own ego for the good of the team and gives his assistant or his coach oxygen to do their job."

Before the 2010 All-Ireland final many onlookers found it strange that Liam Sheedy addressed the Tipperary subs while his coach Eamon O'Shea instead spoke to the starting 15 who huddled around him. Supporters wondered should it not have been the other way around.

O'Shea's message was simple: 'Attack, attack, attack'. And Sheedy, a supreme man-manager, trusted his right-hand man to get the message across. The Portroe man was secure enough in his own ability to let O'Shea nurture the Tipp players in his own inimitable style while he got on with the business of managing.

Not every boss is astute enough or humble enough to do so, but it worked a treat. It makes for interesting times that O'Shea, now in the hot seat himself, appointed Mick Ryan as his 'assistant manager' a few weeks back. The pair have worked closely in the past and hold huge respect for each other.

Across the board, though, the dynamic between the general and his lieutenants is not always as strong. Some managers find themselves under pressure after losing a few league games and often feel undermined by their number two. In turn the coach sometimes feels that he would do a better job himself.

Former Clare football manager Micheál McDermott is not so sure about that. He brought in key personnel in the form Liam McHale and highly-rated trainer Michael Cahill to the Banner set-up and says they had equal say.

"There is no such thing as a number two as far as I'm concerned," McDermott reckons. "Everyone had a say with me. I looked to Liam because he had knowledge, integrity and a great background. The role of an inter-county manager is now such a huge one that unless you are willing to ask for help, it can spell trouble.

"Everyone in the camp should be hands-on anyway, the players react a lot better to that.

"You see players up to six times a week at some stages, so each panel needs to hear fresh ideas and voices My backroom and I challenged each other in the right way, there was never a row, no hitting a table with a fist or any of that stuff."

Donegal have once again reminded us what can be achieved within a streamlined, two-pronged organisation. You can bet the restwill follow suit.

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