Friday 15 December 2017

The quiet man of the GAA ready for the 49ers

From Scotstown to San Francisco, Fergus Connolly has been making a name for himself in sports science – even if he won't shout about it

After helping Dublin on their way to last year's All-Ireland success, Fergus Connolly, one of the world's leading authorities on human performance, recovery and lengthening careers, is teaming up with the San Francisco 49ers. Photo: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
After helping Dublin on their way to last year's All-Ireland success, Fergus Connolly, one of the world's leading authorities on human performance, recovery and lengthening careers, is teaming up with the San Francisco 49ers. Photo: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

You don't know him. And that suits him just fine. He's an Irishman who has worked with many of the biggest teams in global sport as well as the US Army's Special Forces. He's also the man Ronan O'Gara credits with helping him operate at the highest level for so long, but Fergus Connolly chooses to remain largely anonymous.

A few weeks ago, the San Francisco 49ers announced, with much fanfare, that they had signed quarter-back Colin Kaepernick on a deal to remain with the team worth a staggering $126m (92m euro). Two days earlier, they quietly acquired the services of the Monaghan man.

In putting him on a deal that makes him one of the top-paid players in the league, the 49ers had effectively entrusted Kaepernick with guiding them to the Superbowl title. And by securing Connolly, one of the world's leading authorities on human performance, recovery and lengthening careers, they underpinned their investment.

He could have ended up anywhere, but one of the NFL's best-known franchises won the race for his services by creating a new position for the former Scotstown footballer when they named him as their director of elite performance.

If his name rings a bell it's probably because he granted a rare interview the week after he helped Dublin win last year's All-Ireland.

Other than that, word of mouth has been his currency. Jim Gavin had been able to acquire Connolly's services through unfortunate circumstances. His mother had been ill and he needed to be close to home.

While he was here, he helped introduce a tactical and training programme as Dublin won their All-Ireland in style and, crucially, avoiding soft tissue injuries right up to the final. With Connolly's mother happily recovered, the race for his services was back on and eventually concluded with this month's move to California.

His story, that takes him from a north Monaghan parish steeped in Gaelic football to working with some of the world's best athletes, is as unconventional as it is remarkable.

He's just 37, but it's not long since Connolly was on track for the more mundane existence as a woodwork teacher. He kept learning, though, starting at the bottom with a diploma in Manual Therapy and working his way up to a PhD, along with a host of other courses in between.

He knocked down a few doors, but word quickly spread. Through his contacts, he has built up one of the most impressive CVs in his field.

He first popped up here in 2008 when John McCloskey recommended him to the Derry footballers. At that stage, Connolly was already making waves cross channel, working with Bolton Wanderers, but he threw in his lot with the Ulster men. Derry would win their first league title since 2000 that spring. He'd also work with Bernard Dunne on his way to the world title. Dunne namechecked him regularly, but still Connolly kept his head down and profile low.

However, in the world of sports science, he was already big news. Before the 49ers, he had worked at the top level in all of the major field sports in the world. His client list read like a who's who of world sport and included the Welsh Rugby Union, Liverpool, Manchester United, Jacksonville Jaguars and the New York Knicks to name but a few. He also worked in the NHL.

In Australia, there were whisperings he would join AFL side Collingwood, while he was also linked with a switch to the Wallabies with Robbie Deans ahead of the Lions tour last year.

Dubbed 'the unconventional fixer' for his unique all-encompassing approach to maximising performance, the AFL seconded Connolly to run the rule over their newly established expansion franchise, Greater Western Sydney Giants. The Giants had unexpectedly lost their high performance director and having effectively sent an entire team of first-round draft picks to the new club to help get them off the ground, the AFL needed to protect their investment and sent Connolly in.

Closer to home, he helped Munster and Bryce Cavanagh set up their 'Maldini Project', which helped extend the careers of the team that had helped establish the province as a major force in European rugby.

O'Gara is still in touch with Connolly and believes he helped him avoid the "slow death" that befalls so many other stars raging against the dying embers of their careers.

"I met Fergus through Bryce and he struck me straight away as someone who was interesting or who was different. When you're playing, all you want to know is how things can work for you and that's when I got introduced to the Maldini Project," O'Gara recalls. "It was all diet, stretching and massage. But he did it in a way that simplified it and made it easier to understand.


"There was no bulls**t with him and with a lot of these guys there can be. For the first time, here was someone putting a value on experience. And in my position, that is important because it's a decision-making position.

"In Ireland, when you get past 30, sometimes people think you are over the hill, even though the evidence might show otherwise. So, it definitely gave me something. It allowed me to go as hard as I did for as long as I did and play as effectively as I did. It wasn't a slow death and that was important. The general public can be pretty brutal sometimes. They might remember your last three games and think that was your contribution."

Outside of sport, he worked with elite units of the US Armed Forces where experience is a key component and longevity an asset. But since the 49ers have come in, his work with Dublin – and everyone else – has ceased. Winning back the Super Bowl takes all his focus now.

They've gone close of late, losing their NFC championship game last season to eventual Super Bowl winners, Seattle Seahawks. That there was just three points in that game underlines the small percentages that can decide elite sport. The 49ers will hope Connolly 'The Unconventional Fixer' can give their players that edge.

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