The making of a manager: How a 30-year-old 'ordinary club hurler' ended Galway's All-Ireland famine
At 4.15pm every Tuesday and Thursday, Cyril Farrell would begin his commute from Dublin.
The secondary school teacher would embark on his twice-weekly journey from St Joseph’s in Fairview back to his home county, where he managed the Galway hurlers.
Such a journey would be onerous in 2016 – in 1980, it was borderline torturous.
You couldn’t bypass every small town and village then. Kilbeggan and Athlone were driven through en route – a while after that he would cross the border into hurling country.
The 30-year-old was one of the youngest inter-county manager’s in history, and it was on those trips, while he was passing through Ballinasloe, Loughrea and Athenry, imagining what it would be like to deliver those people a first All-Ireland hurling title in 57 years, that he decided how he’d do it.
“The roads weren't as good then,” Farrell tells Independent.ie.
“Early on there were a few lads on the panel in Dublin but after a while they were back in Galway and I would have to travel on my own. It was a long journey in those times. You'd be using the time to put game plans and teams together.
“The travelling was tough - up and down, up and down, up and down. It was only when you stopped doing it that you realise you were half mad. It never dawned on me to change training to a Friday because I would have been coming down anyway.”
All told, the return trip, coupled with the training session with the Galway team, would amount to over 10 hours, returning him to Dublin after 2am before work the following morning.
Cyril Farrell became the Galway manager for the first time in 1980.
Farrell was just 30 then, which seems an absurd age for someone who is in charge of a big county.
However, two simple pieces of information – which dovetail nicely – go a long way to explaining how Farrell was able to assume the role even though three of his starting team were older than he was:
Galway hadn’t enjoyed any great success. Cyril Farrell had.
He reached his first All-Ireland final as manager with the Galway minors at 23. He won his first All-Ireland final as a manager with the Galway U21 team at 28. And he coached in his first senior All-Ireland final as an assistant to Babs Keating in 1979, at 29.
In 1980, when Babs left, the Galway job was his.
“Playing-wise, I would have been a very ordinary club hurler,” he says.
“Making the club team would have been it. When I took over the team, I would have hurled with or against a lot of them but I didn't think about how young I was.
“It wasn't hard to convince the older players because they had never won anything so therefore, we were all in the same place. But you had to convince them that they had as good a right to win as anyone else.”
In 1980, for the Galway hurlers, see the current Mayo football team. 57 years had passed since their last All-Ireland final triumph. Nine losing deciders had been endured in the meantime – almost identical suffering to their modern-day equivalent.
“You look at Mayo now and they remind me of us before we won the All-Ireland,” he says.
“I would always believe that when people in Connacht are good at something they would almost be apologising for it. It is our right to win as much as anyone. If you work hard at something you can be successful. I know that sounds simple but it works. The Connacht rugby team is a prime example.”
Farrell’s coaching was initially honed at his club, Tommy Larkin’s, and at UCG, where he hurled on a victorious Fitzgibbon Cup team. Farrell was given the chance to captain various college teams, a position that often required him to organise most of the training sessions.
This gave him an early perspective on how to build a team, and on how to implement tactics, which meant that although his Galway side had a lot of experience, Farrell still had concrete ideas as to how he could get them over the winning line.
Farrell talks to Nicky English after the 1991 All-Ireland semi-final.
“In hurling, there would be a lot of 'just get it and hit it' but I always tried to play possession hurling, get the ball and lay it off to a fella rather than just belt it away,” he says.
“Play the percentages. You tried to get everyone moving together, which would have been unusual at the time because everyone would just play their positions.”
Players like John Connolly, PJ Molloy and Frank Burke had played almost their entire careers without tasting the ultimate success. There were Galway people who had lived the majority of their lives without seeing it either.
“You could see how much it would mean to people,” Farrell says.
“A lot of the lads had been around a good while without ever getting a big reward. There were a lot of people who didn't think that it would happen in their lifetime, to see Galway win one. Hurling people.”
Those hurling people could die happy – after seeing off Offaly in the semi-final, Galway edged Limerick in a tight decider, with John Connolly playing a starring role followed by his brother Joe delivering an all-time great acceptance speech as captain.
After telling the people of Galway that he loved them, the sentiment was reciprocated when the team returned home.
Farrell followed the route back to Galway that he always did on those long Tuesdays and Thursdays. The same towns and villages that served as triggers for him to start thinking about the session ahead were now basking in the by-product of those journeys.
“Eyre Square was on all night and all morning,” Farrell says.
“Nobody had ever seen anything like it because it had never happened in our time. There was happiness and a lot of tears shed, not by older players but by some older people.
Joe Connolly lifts the Liam MacCarthy cup after Galway's win over Limerick in 1980
“Ballinasloe, Loughrea and Oranmore were all jammed, it took ages to get through them. It was a kind of happiness. A lot of hurling people felt they wouldn't be alive to see it, so that was a big one.”
At 30, Farrell had reached the managerial pinnacle but exhibited a restlessness for life away from inter-county hurling.
He left the senior job in 1982 but returned two years later – this time free from the burden of having to plan his season in a car.
“There was nobody for the job the second time,” Farrell says.
“They were hammered in '84. I was back home having been transferred to St Raymond's College in Loughrea and they asked me back. There was no queue for the job. I said if anyone else wants to take it they can have it because it will take three years to build a team. There was no other competition for the role.”
Farrell hadn’t been idle in his time away from the senior set-up. In 1983 he made history again, leading Galway to their first minor All-Ireland title, with the U21 side winning the championship in the same year.
“I had a great bunch of players who had won everything at underage and wanted to win,” he says.
“I was blending a lot of the young lads in with the older lads. I was the same coach but I suppose you would know what you wanted to do. You were confident in what you wanted to do. It's not like you knew you were going to win but you would have been confident.”
Cyril Farrell is congratulated by Tipperary selector Donie Nealon after winning the All-Ireland in 1988.
The confidence was well earned. Galway reached the All-Ireland final in 1985 and 1986 before following that with back-to-back triumphs, the first time in the county’s history that they had retained the title.
Farrell walked away for a second time in 1991 but returned again in 1996 having had a one-season stint with Wexford while adding a second U21 All-Ireland with Galway to his CV.
His final go at inter-county management was the least successful, with Galway failing to advance to an All-Ireland final for the first time in his career.
“The first time around there was nobody telling you how to win All-Irelands because nobody had won it,” he says.
“Now you had 30,000 or 40,000 who knew it all and when you took over the team [in 1996] they think you are going to win it again. The expectations would have been very high.”
It has been almost 20 years since he was last involved with Galway, and Farrell is content that he left everything out there - on the pitch at Croke Park, on the training field in Galway, and on those long car journeys where he created the blueprint for success.
“I was there a long time,” he says.
“You get a few years at the top and then you pass it on to someone else.”