Saturday 24 March 2018

The man who brought Gaelic football coaching into the modern age

Down's triple All-Ireland winner Joe Lennon was an innovator who was years ahead of his time

Joe Lennon returned to Croke Park in 2010, 50 years after he won the first of three All-Irelands
Joe Lennon returned to Croke Park in 2010, 50 years after he won the first of three All-Irelands

Dermot Crowe

"There is no happier man in Ireland this moment than one Joe Lennon, carrying the cup of triumph, the Sam Maguire."

The words of Michael O'Hehir on September 22, 1968 accompanied moving imagery of Down captain Joe Lennon making his way down the steps of the Hogan Stand before being swarmed by followers. This was the last of Lennon's three All-Ireland medals, coming, at almost 34, in the ­twilight of his career, and won with a team that had six players of brilliant promise from the minor team that reached the All-Ireland final two years before.

Captaining an All-Ireland-winning team in itself would have guaranteed him a kind of immortality, but he was also one of four players whose careers straddled the decade from the breakthrough side of 1960 - and the one that retained the title by defeating Offaly a year later - to the win over Kerry in '68. By the third September day, Lennon was coaching the team as well as playing, a field to which he dedicated much of his life's energy. By then he had released his first book on coaching, 'Coaching Football for Champions', and another would follow, 'Fitness for Gaelic Football', at the turn of the decade.

In the mid-60s he was one of the main architects and supporters of the first formal GAA coaching training courses in Gormanston College, where he started work as a teacher in '65. He qualified in England and went on to a first class honours diploma in PE at Loughborough College. A few years ago, in a piece marking the 50th anniversary of the first courses launched at Gormanston, Lennon jokingly recalled how the GAA president of the day, fellow Ulsterman Alf Murray, had labelled him the "high priest" of coaching at the time. Others like Jim McKeever of Derry, Lennon's brother John, also a former Down player, and Jim McDonnell of Cavan were also at the forefront of this pioneering movement.

Of its time it was revolutionary. The GAA had tended to look on specialised coaching with a certain degree of suspicion and even hostility, seeing its associations with professional sport. One of those impressed by Lennon's first book was Fr Solanus O'Leary, a Franciscan, Kerryman, and keen Gaelic football enthusiast based in Gormanston.

"He invited me to run a coaching course in Gaelic football in 1964 as one of the many summer courses held at the college every summer," recalled Lennon in 2014. "I was delighted with the invitation and set about designing a week-long course. I got permission from the GAA, and it provided a grant of £3 to all who attended the course. I advertised the course well and wrote to all county boards. The week-long course cost £10, and every county in the country, bar one, sent representatives, one of whom was Dr Michael Loftus, later president of the GAA. Another was Mick O'Dwyer from Kerry."

Lennon's brother John and McKeever were also Loughborough graduates, while McDonnell worked as a secondary teacher at St Patrick's College, Cavan. "There was a very high pass rate and all who passed were issued with a coaching certificate - the first ever coaching certificate for Gaelic football - indeed any Gaelic game as far as I could ascertain," stated Lennon. "The GAA booked the college for a hurling course for the following year. These courses were the start of all the courses that the GAA would go on to provide for players."

Pete McGrath still has a copy of Lennon's first coaching book in his home in Rostrevor and says he dips into it now and then and can still find useful information relevant to the modern age.

"Joe, I suppose, will be remembered for many different things," says McGrath, "like his role in bringing coaching into the modern age. I know it's a phrase we often hear, but he was a man ahead of his time. He was aware of what was going on in other parts of the world, particularly in America, in terms of coaching and the preparation of teams. He brought it as far as he was allowed to in Gaelic football.

"His first book was exclusively based on the technical aspects, the skills. His second book was more to do with fitness and physical preparation and it took the GAA world an awful long time to catch up. The books helped people play better and play longer and protect themselves against injuries."

McGrath was 15 when Lennon captained Down to win the '68 All-Ireland, then lining out at left half-back and playing his club football for Stamullen.

"The '68 team was a lot more alive to me than the ones in '60 and '61," recalls McGrath. "But Joe's place in the annals of Down football is certainly assured. He was quite radical in his thinking on how football should be played. If you ally that to his record on the field then he becomes almost a giant of a figure in terms of the whole profile of Gaelic football.

"I would still refer to his books because most things in life are circular, they tend to go back to basics. Honestly a lot of the stuff in the books, even in the modern game, yes you can relate to it, and find wee nuggets in there, that maybe spark something in your own mind. They would be great books of reference for anybody interested in coaching."

He heard a lot of people say that Lennon was serious about football - and he was - but McGrath never regarded him as dictatorial. "He had very strongly held beliefs. He was just a man who talked about football in a serious way, even though a great conversationalist. The fact that he got a doctorate writing a thesis on the rules (entitled 'Towards a Philosophy for Legislation in Gaelic Games') illustrates the kind of man he was." Other works included a comparative analysis of the rules of Gaelic football and hurling. For some years he was a regular panellist on The Sunday Game.

As a player, Lennon was at midfield on the first two All-Ireland-winning teams alongside Jarlath Carey, though he was not a big man by the standards of the position and the time.

"It was his reading of the game," says McGrath, "his ability to get on to breaking ball, and his use of the ball that enabled him manage. He certainly demanded high standards and didn't suffer fools gladly. Joe was a man who pushed himself very hard."

The '68 team did not follow through on its promise. Having won the National League and All-Ireland, they were beaten in the Ulster final the following year by Cavan and in the first round in 1970. By the time they regained Ulster in '71, the team had started to break up.

Lennon managed the Down team for two years in 1981 and '82, winning an Ulster title the first year and then going down in the opening round in Newry to Tyrone in '82, after which he announced his resignation. McGrath managed the Down minors the same day. Lennon was never directly involved with a Down team again.

"Maybe Joe was treated as a bit out an outsider," says McGrath, referring to his coaching innovations. "The GAA has a history of not embracing radical thinking and Joe fell victim to that. He didn't realise all his potential; I felt Joe could have given a lot more to the GAA."

In 'Fitness for Gaelic Football' - at the end of the '60s, which Down lit up - he wrote in the conclusion: "With the final acceptance of coaching as an important method of promoting and improving our games, I think the next decade will produce the best football we have ever seen. It is an exciting prospect."

In the true Down tradition he was a game-changer.

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