Martin Breheny: 'Moaning gets you nowhere, hard work is what counts - O'Brien'
One of Wicklow's greatest players is now driving the minor scene and insists that self-help is the only real way to progress
An unseasonably warm Tuesday evening in St Conleth's Park, Newbridge and the next generation of Wicklow and Kildare footballers are launching their championship campaign.
It's the first round of the Leinster MFC, the day when both camps get an indication of where they stand. Having reached five of the last six Leinster finals, winning three, Kildare's expectations are understandably high.
It's 45 years since Wicklow won their only Leinster title and they haven't been in the final since 1997. Those cold, hard facts aren't exactly encouraging, but something happened last year that provided huge encouragement.
Wicklow beat Westmeath, Dublin and Meath and drew with Kildare in the Leinster semi-final, before losing the replay by two points. The team was managed by Kevin O'Brien, the only Wicklow man to win an All-Star award and generally regarded as one of the best footballers the county has ever produced.
He is again at the helm, with Gareth Doyle, Mickey Daly and John Brian Carthy, son of RTÉ commentator Brian Carthy, as selectors while Jimmy Whittle, Jim Molloy, David Brady and sponsor Anthony Darcy provide important back-up in various areas.
Spending a few hours with O'Brien, as I did a few days before the Wicklow-Kildare game, brings home the depth of his obsession for football, which has endured from his playing days with Baltinglass, Wicklow, Leinster and Ireland (International Rules).
The man who turned down approaches to play in Dublin and Kildare, because nothing could tempt him away from Baltinglass and Wicklow, has an insatiable passion for football. He also believes he has a responsibility to work with new generations.
"There are plenty of lads sitting on high stools telling everyone what's wrong. Moaning all the time and then ordering another pint," said O'Brien.
"They would be better off jumping down off the stools and getting out on the grass with young lads. Complaining gets you nowhere."
His philosophy for lower-ranked counties is based essentially on a self-help model, although he also believes more can be done to support them.
Having worked with Wicklow's U-15s, he took on the minor job last year and found, like those who went before him, that it's not simply a matter of calling in all the best players in the county.
"It's a hard sell in Wicklow because there's no tradition of winning. You don't automatically get all the top players to come on board, so you have to work on it. And you have to get buy-in from parents. Without it, you're going nowhere. We got that with last year's group and again this year, which is great.
"No young lad is going to turn down a chance to join a minor panel in the top counties but it's different in Wicklow. Soccer and rugby are huge, so talented youngsters are dreaming of the big-time.
"One sentence can keep a lad going. If he hears that someone scouting for an English club or a League of Ireland club is taking a look at him, he'll stick with soccer and see where it takes him.
"And if there's a sniff of getting in with Leinster rugby, a lad will do whatever it takes to give him the best chance. It's not the same with Wicklow football, but instead of saying, 'that's the way it is', we need to be saying, 'let's change it.'
Part one of the challenge centres on working on players from an early age to get their skill levels up. He also stresses the need to make them feel part of something important.
O'Brien recalls managing Baltinglass U-12s some years ago, an experience he found incredibly rewarding. They won the Wicklow title, but he regards the bonding and camaraderie among the squad as a bigger achievement.
"They didn't want to leave the dressing-room after training sessions because we were having such fun. But we were doing the work too.
"I always say, 'the team you're with is the team you're with.' Whether it's U-12s or seniors, make sure you leave them better than you found them."
O'Brien was a Wicklow selector in the Mick O'Dwyer era, the high point of which was reached a decade ago when they beat Fermanagh, Cavan and Down to reach Round 4 of the qualifiers, where they lost to Kildare.
The three wins in Aughrim on successive weekends electrified the whole of Wicklow, but the upswing didn't last.
"We should have made more of it. There was no bounce after Micko left. He was massive in the county. He got everyone moving, players and followers alike. He was the ultimate players' man and that's how it has to be," said O'Brien.
While he is adamant that the first priority for counties like Wicklow is to help themselves, he believes that greater support should be coming from elsewhere too, both in the form of increased resources from central funds and a fairer competition structure.
He supports the Tier 2 championship concept but only if it's properly organised and promoted. He enjoyed success in secondary championship competitions as a selector when Wicklow won the Tommy Murphy Cup in 2007 and as a player when he captained them to the All-Ireland 'B' title in 1992, a day which left the GAA deeply embarrassed.
Having been presented with the cup after the win over Antrim in Navan on a cold December day, he hoisted it over his head, only for one of the handles to snap off.
"I was left holding it with one handle while the other one was in my hand. You wouldn't see that happening with the Sam Maguire Cup," he said.
The latest proposals for a Tier 2 championship have higher promotional ambitions, including playing it in summer, with the final as a curtain-raiser to a big All-Ireland game in Croke Park.
O'Brien welcomes the initiative, but cannot understand why it has taken so long.
"I was on a committee some years ago examining what should be done for third and fourth-division counties and remember talking to Leighton Glynn and Paul Barden.
"It was like talking to the one person. Two great players who had given so much to Wicklow and Longford, but they were totally frustrated.
"A second competition wouldn't solve everything, but it would give teams a chance to play championship at their own level and build up a bit of momentum.
"A few years ago, a GPA survey showed that Division 3 and 4 players didn't want a second championship. I couldn't understand that and it certainly wasn't in line with what I was hearing from lads who had been around a long time.
"They are the ones who know what it's like, not someone who maybe has just come on to a panel."
Like some other truly great players (former Dublin captain John O'Leary caused quite a stir more than 20 years ago when naming O'Brien ahead of Pat Spillane on the best team of that generation), he has interesting views on the modern game.
"Would I like Philly McMahon marking me and three other defenders in front of me? I don't know but I'd like to give it a go.
"I might be in a minority, but I find a lot of the defensive tactics intriguing. It's a bit like chess. I find it interesting to watch how teams are set up to counteract each other. I liked the 'mark' during the league - it's a pity it won't get a run in the championship."
A very long career with club and county took its toll on his knees, in particular, having forced him to have 13 operations. A knee replacement will be required eventually but he's putting it off for as long as possible, helped by extensive cycling sessions with a group in Baltinglass, who often cover as much as 100km on a Sunday morning.
"It's great for keeping fit and keeping the head clear," he said.
KILDARE beat Wicklow by 1-16 to 0-12 last Tuesday, a scoreline that doesn't accurately reflect the overall game as it was only in the final minutes that the Lilywhites pulled away.
"We missed a lot of chances, including for a few goals, but were right there until the last few minutes. We were super-competitive and will learn a lot from it. I watched the video at seven o'clock the following morning to start work for the next game," said O'Brien.
Wicklow play Kilkenny, managed by DJ Carey, on May 7 and Louth on May 15, with two from the four-strong group advancing to the next phase of the Leinster championship.