Over a long career managing teams, Meyler says there is no grey line because it’s always about the result
After Cork hurlers lost to Limerick in 2018, John Meyler stole away to Kilmoyley, an escape from all the morbid reflections on a game, and maybe an All-Ireland, that got away. As he recounts there are flashes of Anthony Daly bolting for a hideout in Galway where he avoided social contact after a hard championship defeat while Dublin manager. Meyler is another who found loss harrowing, never more acutely than that All-Ireland semi-final.
Two hours takes him from Rochestown to Kilmoyley where he first became involved with the hurling team 20 years ago, winning four county titles back to back at one stage, and also the last two triumphs. In the recently published Meyler: A Family Memoir, a collaboration with his son, David, assisted by Fintan O’Toole, there is palpable affection for this part of Kerry and its people.
He was 61 when he took over Cork from Kieran Kingston. In that first year they had navigated their way through the inaugural Munster round-robin, defeated Clare in the provincial final, and then waited for the All-Ireland semi-final. That defeat, in a match that looked to be under Cork’s sway, cut to the quick.
“Sure, I’ll never get over it,” he is willing to admit. “You don’t get over those. That’s there until you die. That goes with you. You know, six points up with eight minutes to go . . . why didn’t you do A, B, C, D? Why didn’t you put a sweeper in? Why didn’t you put Conor O’Sullivan in? Robbie (O’Flynn) was coming in (from) the sideline, loses his hurley, handpasses to Séamus (Harnedy). Up here (indicates height). Séamus grabs it. He tried to hit it and (Nickie) Quaid just makes the save.”
And it is made all the more difficult to move on and forget when their conquerors enjoyed a long-awaited breakthrough, with all the hullaballoo that went with it. Nor is it easy to move on when you’ll be seeing regular replays of that Quaid save, when Harnedy seemed sure to hit the net and put the result beyond doubt.
He stayed in Kilmoyley on the Monday and Tuesday after the match and came back home in a better state of mind. “I go down there and sit down and they leave me alone. I go for a swim on Banna beach. I got into that routine over the years. Shane Brick was training the team in ’18, I think, the Kerry championship was still on so I said, look, do you mind if I come down? I might sit in the dug-out. In a way it was a kind of therapy.
“They wouldn’t talk about it (Cork losing). They want to talk about Kilmoyley. They want to talk about farming. I’ve always felt that over the years it was the best place to go. I’ve a few good friends, a few good relationships. I’ve (son) David as well and my daughter (Sarah), both of them would ring me. And that’s when you need people.”
But that works to a point. You still have moments when you are alone and it’s just you and those thoughts of what might have been, just the two of you. He has his coping mechanisms. “If I’m feeling shit I’ll get up on the bike and go to Crosshaven and back, it takes two-and-a-half hours. So I’ve different ways . . . what can I do? Nothing I can do, it’s over.”
After Kilmoyley won the county final in September the group went to the Listowel Races, and Meyler joined them. “Daniel Collins (a club and county hurler) puts me up, and his mother is next door and you get the fry in the morning,” he explains, describing the full Irish, five-star hospitality treatment.
You felt restored after those days down there? “Yeah. But the pitch gives me energy, the community gives me energy. It freshens you up and away we go.”
John Meyler has come a long way. Now 65, his birth year, 1956, was a seminal one in the story of Wexford, his native county. The exploits of that team and that era created a childhood purple and gold fascination even though he has been living in Cork since 1974. He hurled and played football for a successful St Finbarr’s, and had a short run with Cork hurlers in the 1980s, part of the panel in ’86 and winning an All-Ireland medal as a non-playing substitute.
Having managed Kerry, he became involved with Cork at under 15 and 16 level in the late ’90s, then the minors that lost an All-Ireland final in 2000, before leapfrogging into the senior management team headed by Bertie Óg Murphy.
He wanted the under 21s, the more logical progression, but that was not available so Frank Murphy persuaded him to join the senior set-up. Player unrest was already beginning to percolate and came to a head in 2002, with protests and strike action. Murphy left as manager after they went out of the championship to Galway. Meyler stuck to his guns, believing he had done nothing wrong. But it was a pointless exercise. Relations between the players and management, as well as the county board, were broken beyond repair.
The book allowed him address some of that chapter, which he does, he says, for the first time. Meyler’s enduring line to Mark Landers to take a good look around Páirc Uí Chaoimh because he would not be seeing it again became symbolic of the gap in understanding between players and management. It depicted him as obstinate and out of touch. For all that, he was able to return as manager nearly 20 years later and perhaps alter the public perception of him.
“It was something which annoyed me. Because we got that chance in 2002 but the rumbling had started, during training, in pre-season training, then there were the GPA issues coming up and then the league final against Kilkenny, with the socks down. There was a meeting on the Saturday. All this was going on in the background. We knew this was going on. It wasn’t addressed properly.
“It was annoying because there were good players there at the time. Everyone put themselves into a pocket, the players, the management, the county board, and wouldn’t come out of it. Then the whole thing blew up.”
The comment to Landers painted him as a bogeyman. He talks of prevailing tension and the line being a bit of banter. But banter of what kind?
“It was light-hearted banter with a cut in it,” he says. “It’s competitive and at that level, you were fighting . . . For a place on the team. You are trying to get the best out of them. So I said it, have a good look around you, you won’t see it again. Frank (Murphy) gave out to me about it. Frank was away that night, he was in Galway I think, and then he came back and he says, ‘What did you say?’”
You were inflaming the situation? “Yeah, There was a lot of tension in the air and then I go and say something.”
Do you regret saying it?
“No, I don’t regret anything.”
You don’t regret saying it?
Digging in, refusing to step away, was that wise?
“Bertie Óg went straight away after the Galway game in Thurles. I remembered I stayed. And there were meetings going on and I said, ‘What have I done? I’m here giving my best and why should I resign, why should I step down?’ We were appointed for two years. And then (selectors) PJ Murphy and Pat McDonnell stepped aside. Frank (Murphy) was the Blackrock representative and I was left on my own. But I am a determined character and that’s why I’ve survived. I don’t give in.”
He says he hates to be branded “old school” because it is too glib and dismissive. There is, he argues, a wisdom that comes with age. He will still salute those players and he worked with one of them, Diarmuid O’Sullivan, in recent county management.
“It’s difficult when you’re trying to win something and you are under pressure, the players are under pressure, you are there to get results, if you don’t get results, you fail. In sport, where it’s really competitive, where you need to get results, there’s always going to be casualties. That’s a fact of life in every sport. David will tell you that. There are 11 fellas who play every Saturday who are happy. There are 11 fellas who don’t play who aren’t happy.
“What I’ve learned is to keep your mouth shut. My mother often told me I open my mouth too much, that’s the problem. ‘Why did you open your mouth, you should have said nothing?’”
But no regrets?
“No I don’t regret anything, I can’t regret anything.”
Well, you could regret some things, you could have some regrets?
“I do, 1983, I was in the (Cork senior hurling) panel and I didn’t perform. I probably could have helped Cork in ’83, I don’t know, I might have got an All-Ireland in ’84. I regret that, I made a mistake there. But you can’t be looking back and regretting, you need to look forward.”
But you can have regrets though?
“Nah, not really no.”
In the book he breaks managers into two distinct groupings, those who are fired and those that are waiting to be.
Since taking over a St Finbarr’s under 16 team in 1985 he has remained involved in a management or coaching role for either a club or county team ever since, including his own native Wexford, which ended acrimoniously in 2008 after two seasons.
“In management I’ve made huge mistakes in terms of players I’ve played, players I haven’t played,” he says. “You get some things right, you get some things wrong. The motto I go on is if you win you’re right, if you don’t you’re wrong. There is no grey line there, that’s the bottom line. That’s everything.”
Meyler says he doesn’t worry what people think of him. What he can say without equivocation is that he has always, without fail, given 100 per cent to every management job he’s been handed. His county days are done, finished when he left the Cork job after 2019, but he has too much energy to sit still. “I have no intention of packing it in,” he says. “I have no intention of sitting at home watching EastEnders.”
He treats each knock as a chance to get back in the saddle and go again. “Don’t be crying if it doesn’t work out,” he says. “You give it your all and if it’s not good enough it’s not good enough, and you have to accept that.”
David moved to Sunderland in 2008 to start a career in professional football. The relationship between father and son has been further cemented in the time since then, as he faithfully tracked and supported his journey and made regular excursions over to see him play.
“I always stressed to him then about his attitude and his character, to go in Monday morning even though you might be left out on Saturday, and train as hard as you can. That is critical. And don’t show any weakness. If you show weakness they will pick on you, they will pick on that weakness. That’s what I tried to get into him, that there is resilience in there.
“You have to be hard and tough in that business, it is a cut-throat business. That’s what it is.”
His time in Wexford ended the same year his son signed for Sunderland. A number of players conveyed through the county chairman a desire for a change of management, At a meeting with players in Gorey shortly before Meyler had jotted down a list of measures to improve preparations for the new season.
Then he got a call from the chairman to meet in Dungarvan where he was told that some players had moved against him. “Ah look, I didn’t get on with the chairman,” he says. “My problem at that time was Kilkenny. That was a juggernaut. It was crazy the team they had.”
In his first year he helped guide Wexford to an All-Ireland semi-final, defeating Tipperary in the previous round. There was also a league semi-final appearance and in the 2008 championship they lost narrowly to Waterford in the quarter-final. But hefty defeats by Kilkenny took their toll.
The day we meet he has lectures in the afternoon at Munster Technological University (a recent merger of Cork IT and IT Tralee), before heading to Kerry where Kilmoyley are playing a challenge against the county hurlers ahead of a match in the Munster intermediate club championship.
“She (wife, Stella) would kick me out of the house anyway,” he explains about the ongoing involvement. “I used to play golf, I’ve had my two hips done. This lad (pointing to one of his hips) now is about 18 years old, the other is about 14.”
When he agreed to take over Cork in late 2017 he realised it would mean he’d have to sacrifice going on a planned three-week holiday to South America with his wife, a keen traveller. Instead his daughter took his place.
“Yeah she gave out to me over that. I’ve been at weddings where I’ve had to say, Stella, I’m going away for two hours because I’ve training, or whatever.”
Over his long time involved he has seen enormous changes in team preparation, particularly at county level.
“It’s 24-7 now. And you’re not the boss, really, it’s the management team. It’s the inner sanctum of ten people. You are managing the management team, you are not managing the players, because you are getting the management team to manage the players.”
But some basic laws of nature don’t change.
“Go back to my day job, as a lecturer,” he says. “I run the MBA programme, I would have speakers in, CEOs of companies. Bob Savage, Dell; Anne O’Leary of Vodafone; Michael O’Leary, Ryanair; I’d have them in to talk to my classes. What do they talk about? People. Relationships with people. Good communication. Work today is about people so training teams is about people and getting the best out of the people.”
Wherever it takes you.