Sunday 18 March 2018

'He's fiercely loyal but he can be ruthless' - Can Micheál Donoghue inspire the Tribesmen?

Donoghue will command respect as he begins tricky mission to reunite Tribe's warring hurling factions

Galway manager Micheál Donoghue. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
Galway manager Micheál Donoghue. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

And so another journey begins, a new link added to Galway's managerial chain. Where it's headed nobody knows for sure. Where it springs from is well documented. After the fractious and unseemly end to Anthony Cunningham's regime comes the turn of Micheál Donoghue, 41, a stylish hurler in his day whose career was cut short by injury. It would be a beautiful tale were the son of Miko Donoghue the one to lead them out of the darkness, Miko's coaches having transported the great teams of the 1980s triumphantly home across the Shannon.

His son arrives at a time when the county is torn, Saipan-stye, over the lessons of Cunningham's demise. One constituency sees a relationship broken beyond reconciliation, a regrettable but necessary divorce; another is just as adamant that the players capitulated, went weak at the knees and light in the head when Kilkenny ratcheted up the intensity last September; and that Cunningham was not to blame.

The merits of both positions matter less now. The only relevance is how it impacts on the new man and affects his prospects of bringing about a more steady line of consistency, the elusive mark for so many Galway teams. The backdrop allows Donoghue some protection, for a while a least, as it is not of his making and people can see that. The players carry that moral pressure into the National League against Cork at Salthill this afternoon.

Some see Donoghue as the ideal choice, a players' man who can still make tough decisions and calls without fear or prejudice. For a reference point go to the first half of the 2011 All-Ireland club final when he took off Stephen Forde, rather than wait until half-time; the player who replaced him scored two points, vindicating the decision, but Donoghue was bold enough to make it.

Darragh Coen has known him all his life, having played with Donoghue when Galway won the 1992 All-Ireland minor title with five Clarinbridge players on the team. "I think he will do well to be honest with you; anything he puts his mind to he does well. If Micheál wants something he gets it, it is as simple as that. It may take a couple of years but I would expect the lads to respond to him."

Donoghue grew up in a hothouse of young hurling talent, many of them melded into successful Galway minor teams of the early 1990s. "There were a group of lads coming up then and there wasn't much you could coach them," recalls the county minor manager in '92, Mattie Murphy. "They had got a fair grounding, they had tactical awareness as well as their skill level, which would have been very high."

In the middle of the decade Donoghue had a few years with the senior county team, and played against Wexford in the All-Ireland semi-final defeat of 1996 when Murphy was in charge. Back trouble curtailed his career but he went on to captain the club to their first county senior hurling title in 2001, under John McIntyre. Already he was showing natural signs of leadership without being overbearing.

"He treats every one equally," says Coen. "He would have hurled with a lot of guys when he took over (Clarinbridge), a lot of the talk was that it was a bit early for Micheál to go in there. They didn't have such a good first year, a very good second year. Every one of those guys respected him. There were a couple of tough decisions to be made and he was able to do that with lads he grew up with, lads you are going to see down the pub every weekend, and coming out of Mass.

"They would have felt they had good players but needed a bit of structure. He was like that when he was playing centre-back for us, a leader, a man who organised everything. He was the one, if someone needed a bollocking at training, who spoke. Often you would have team meetings after, where lads are talking for the sake of talking. Micheál would say what he had to say in two minutes and you walked out the door and you knew where you stood."

His dream season managing Clarinbridge started unpromisingly. With just three points garnered in the group stages they managed to scrape into the quarter-final and it took off from there. There were spectacular wins in the All-Ireland semi-final over De La Salle, an epic match, and then a barnstorming performance to overwhelm O'Loughlin Gaels in the final. Ultimately, Clarinbridge produced some incredible, career-best performances, which won the day.

From there he has spent two seasons with Turloughmore, from where his current coach Francis Forde hails, the highlight of which was a quarter-final win over Portumna. The second season, with players not available to him as readily, was less successful. His current task has repeatedly failed managers back to the time of Cyril Farrell and was accelerated by a two-year stint in Tipperary with Eamon O'Shea.

While over Clarinbridge, Donoghue used O'Shea for some coaching sessions, happy to outsource when he felt necessary. Liam Sheedy also made appearances and the former rugby international Eric Elwood. In Tipperary, his role wasn't entirely clear-cut but the experience will have been invaluable, exposing him to the working environment of a major inter-county contender.

"The general vibe with the players was they would like to have seen more of him because a couple of drills he did with ourselves, high intensity drills, were very good," says one player who was part of the set-up in the first year, and wished to remain anonymous. "The common thing you'd hear was, it was a pity he is not doing a bit more of the coaching. In 2014, he had the ear-piece, so he used to sit up in the stand, beside Paudie O'Neill, and they would feed back the information to the sideline.

"Last year Tipp brought in a guy from Corofin, David Morris, and showed them how to perfect the tackle. The Tipp players found it very good. I think he came down on a recommendation from Micheál. Micheál Donoghue knew how to use quality people. What I find with the good coaches is they surround themselves with top-quality people. They embrace them.

"Micheál probably always had this vision of being the Galway manager. The Clarinbridge team were kind of an ageing team, especially up front, with the two Kerins at centre and full-forward. But Micheál knew when he wanted to get people in to make a session. He would be an eye in the sky for Eamon but really Micheál learnt a lot when with Tipp in the last two years. He might have liked to be more to the front, but at the end of the day he picked up a lot. Lads liked him around. I think he was more or less there for Eamon, the tactical side of it. He was learning and he was giving."

Shane McGrath agrees with that summation. "The first year he got involved later on in the year, he did a few ball drills. A lot of lads have a lot of respect for him. He didn't say much but anything he had to say made sense. He was very easy to approach, a sound guy and I had good time for Micheál - I really hope he does well with Galway. Maybe in the back of his mind he wanted to do this with Galway in the long run. I know he was successful with Clarinbridge but there's a big difference between club and county. His heart is in Galway; I really hope they take to him.

"I enjoyed having chats with him about upcoming games. I would always value his reading of big games, he had the potential to see how a team might play. Take for example the Munster final against Waterford last year. We knew the style they were going to play was going to be hard to break down. It was a very tough game to be involved in, very crowded around the middle third, you had up to 20 players at times between the two 45s. Even at half-time he had a quick word in my ear. I found him very good. Small things; like he could see one of their players moving in one direction and maybe telling you to let him off, play your own game, that he might not have been getting a lot of ball.

"You know what it is about him, he is such a likeable guy. When he came in he did not try to overpower, or take on the dressing room or anything; he knew he was there to give a hand to Eamon and he played that role and lads had more time for him as a result. He came in and did everything right. And as a result he got massive respect back from the group. Galway are a relatively young panel and Micheál is a young manager. He is in tune with the way the game is after changing. You need all those things. He is not old school, like he's going to say, 'Just go out and hurl'."

Early indications are that the new management team is bedding in well and getting a good response from the players but results will test the mettle and trust of any relationship.

Noel Larkin, who coached Portumna for a spell, is another well-respected member of the backroom team, while Damien Joyce has been drafted in to provide assistance with match analysis.

The new manager's reading of the game has come from good intuition and years playing at centre-back for his club and in those environs for his county where he had an excellent view of what was unfolding. In spite of his natural empathy with players, he won't hold back from making tough calls in Darragh Coen's view. "Micheál is fiercely loyal but he can be ruthless. You would have lads saying, 'Has he the bottle for it?' He has plenty bottle and plenty neck."

John McIntyre remembers a centre-back who made up for a lack of height with skill and intelligence. "Athenry were going for four in a row when Clarinbridge beat them in the county final in 2001. It was huge. Winning a first county championship is always a massively emotional day but I think what made it more authentic was the fact they had downed a great team."

He is a different personality to his twin, Liam, who played in goal for Galway in the 2005 All-Ireland final and is now helping the Mayo hurlers. "You would hear Liam a mile away," says McIntyre, "and Micheal could be ten yards away and you could be looking for him."

Clarinbridge didn't follow through like they hoped after winning the county title in 2001 but the All-Ireland 11 years later showed what they were capable of achieving when they put their minds to it. Sound familiar?

"I remember in 2001, my uncle and brother came down to Ballinasloe from Tipp for the county final and they would never have seen Clarinbridge playing before," says McIntyre. "They were really worried watching the pre-match parade because they thought it was the smallest team they ever saw and Athenry were not lacking in physique. They had some beautiful hurlers, lovely touch and great stickmen. Micheál was a terrific stickman in my book. As a manager, I expect him to be quite methodical. He won't leave much to chance. He has a quiet persona which will help in the context of quietening down things."

Mattie Murphy speaks of him being measured. "He wouldn't be overly excitable, he's one of those who took stock. He is not excitable."

Galway have been helped by a kind Leinster Championship draw but there is a lot of hurling to be done before then. The players need to perform today for their own sake. Not for Micheál Donoghue.

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