Friday 15 December 2017

Tom Cribben: The 'Ironman' men who faces the toughest of endurance tests

Endurance events had become Cribbin’s obsession until Westmeath came calling

Westmeath’s Tom Cribbin celebrates with supporters after their victory over Meath
Westmeath’s Tom Cribbin celebrates with supporters after their victory over Meath
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

There can't be a more unique location to accept an inter-county management job than a short distance from the finishing line of the world's most iconic marathon that you have just crossed.

The pain of pounding the streets of New York's boroughs for 26 miles last November was shooting through Tom Cribbin's body when he took the call from Sean Sheridan, Westmeath's chairman, to confirm acceptance of the offer of a third management job in the midlands.

He had used the solitude of that run to weigh things up and, by the end, his mind was made up.

"I wasn't long across the finishing line when Sean rang. I was in some pain. I swore I wouldn't do another one!" he recalls.

Time hasn't allowed him to. Westmeath's summer odyssey that has taken them to only a fourth Leinster football final after a first championship win over Meath had sent the county into a spin and compromised his own schedules.

Cribbin has been drawn to triathlon ironman participation in recent years, three times completing the sequence of a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and then running a marathon.

By his own admission, he is an obsessive type and triathlon was becoming that latest obsession until Sheridan, in something of a bind after a previous nomination was rejected, came calling.

But the desire for extreme training still burns in the Clane man. One evening recently he had the cycling gear on ready to undertake the 45 miles from his home in Kildare to Mullingar for training when a phone call forced a change of plan.

Last weekend he had pencilled in the Ring of Kerry with his regular training partner and fellow former Clane chairman John Keating but a challenge arranged with Mayo diverted him west instead.

It is, he admits, the biggest drawback to plunging back into the deep end of county football management.

"I miss it," he admits. "'Ironman' is different. It's all about endurance, getting through an event.

"A marathon, you race it. At my age you would never be able to race an 'ironman' hard. It's about trying to stay on your feet and keep going for 12 hours."

Essentially it's the challenge of 'hanging in' that appeals, something the Westmeath players can identify with readily now.

When you are managed by a 52-year-old who only began taking on the gruelling tri-part discipline competitively two years earlier and have an extraordinary man who has done 10 such triathlons in successive days in the backroom team, Mullingar native and renowned motivational speaker Gerry Duffy, impossibility just isn't countenanced.


Cribbin told the Westmeath players that reaching a Leinster final had to be their goal and that they would achieve it.

He told them as the days without a competitive win counted up to 600 earlier this year.

You ask him about the pressure of a county never having beaten Meath before and he says it wasn't an issue. But going 15 games without a competitive win? The weight of that burdened them.

"Early in the year everyone was talking about 600 days and that actually related to our team. So that was a very heavy weighting."

The night in Kinnegad that they beat DCU in their second O'Byrne Cup game to liberate themselves from a suffocating sequence was, in Cribbin's view, "the most passionate I've seen any team play".

"That performance told me mountains about them and that's why I had so much confidence in them. What they gave that night just to break that, just to get over that, the relief. We didn't have that pressure coming into the Meath game, didn't feel like it anyway."

They had perspective too, drawn from Meath squad member Simon Carty losing his mother in the Tunisian terrorist attack on the Friday beforehand.

"We felt for them because of the tragedy. The players are very much aware of that and we talked about it, that no matter what this is a game of football, there's a young lad's parents who went out for his dad to recover from heart surgery and they are coming home without the mother.

"'This is a game of football, please God we can win it. If we don't no one is going to die'. We approached it like that.

"Even when I went in at half-time, just after discussing with the selectors how we'd play the second half, they were very calm, they were talking about how they can improve, what they need to do. We always encourage that because they know the faults quicker and if they are waiting for you to point it out to them they mightn't take ownership of it."

He had a strong sense leaving Navan on the night of their league defeat in March that they could have their number later in the summer if they crossed paths in the championship but blames himself for a defeat that ultimately condemned them to Division 3.

"I know I got it wrong big time that day at half-time, I told them that, I said it after the game. I was frustrated with the amount of chances we had, we owned the ball in the middle of the field."

Honesty has got him in trouble but has also endeared him to the players. Gradually they have grown to understand each other.

When he launched his blistering local radio attack in the aftermath of defeat to Roscommon on the last day of the league, accusing senior players of lying down, he quickly apologised, not so much for the content but for the forum used.

He never planned it for a reaction even though it was a reaction he got.

"I just speak my mind the whole time, off the cuff. That's the way I am. I'm very passionate, the lads know that. I should have said it to the players first. Hands up. They know that. I went in and apologised to them."

They had already gone to the post-match meal when he realised what he had done so he took the first opportunity to clear the air at a training camp in Mayo four days later.

"I knew there and then, but sure when you've said it and you can't go and take it back straight away. Lads were gone over for the grub and I met them over there and there was too many around. It was a private meeting we needed to have.

"So we had our private meeting and they said … you know, hands up."

"I promised them I'd try and never let it happen again, but I couldn't guarantee them! Because if I get frustrated or if I feel we've underperformed....

"Unless someone gets me before and cools me down I'm liable to blow a gasket again. That's just the way I am - I hate underperforming, as we all do.

"But, you know, at the same time, I wasn't afraid to admit that I was wrong and hold my hand up and say, 'Yes, I should have dealt with it in-house and dealt with it better'."


In business Cribbin has learned the benefits of delegation to build up the "Butcher's Block" franchise that reaches into six counties. And in football management those principles apply too.

He has surrounded himself with positive people. Duffy regularly addresses them while sports psychologist Adrian Harrison also taps into the players in a different way.

"He gets my messages across in a better explained way, how we want to play," Cribbin candidly admits.

Nutritionist Barry Murray is also an endurance runner and between them negativity just isn't countenanced. Thus they embrace Sunday's final in the belief that they thrive.

"There's no place else we would rather be than going to Croke Park on Leinster final day and playing the Dubs.

"If you could win that, that goes down in history as something special achieved and that's what we'd love to do.

"And if we're not good enough, we're not good enough. But that doesn't mean I'd rather be playing them somewhere else, or I'd rather be playing some weaker team.

"Our goal was to get to the Leinster final and see how much we've improved, see how much we can do and if we can try to cause an upset.

"Yes, everyone will think I'm mad but I believe on a given day we can do it. I genuinely believe that."

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