Cliona Foley: Tony Griffin on how he helped restore Dublin hurlers’ self-belief
Tony Griffin reveals he had to get 'in the trenches' with Dublin's players to restore their fragile self-belief, writes Cliona Foley
IF TONY Griffin was to be of any use to the Dublin hurlers, he reckoned he had to get down and dirty with them in the trenches.
He had already resisted Anthony Daly's suggestion, a year earlier, to join them as a player.
But when his Clare buddy and former inter-county manager came at him from a different angle last autumn, it piqued the interest of an inspirational man who thinks deeply about hurling and life and has unusually noble aspirations for both.
Griffin is part of the Dublin hurlers' back-room now, with a role nobody really has a name for.
But for the coldest and wettest three months of their pre-season, he trained alongside the players in O'Toole Park, covered in muck and sweat, straining every sinew with them.
"I said to Anthony 'if I'm going to play this role with these guys, be somebody they can trust, who they can call in their darkest hour, then I'm going to have to get in the trenches with them'," he recalls.
Anyone who has ever met Griffin or read his book 'Screaming at the Sky' will not be surprised, for he has never done things by halves, either as a hurler or as a man. Back in 2007, he cycled 7,000km across Canada in memory of his late father to raise €1.1m for cancer research.
He managed to enlist the help of now-disgraced superstar Lance Armstrong en route and donated $225,000 of his fundraising to the cyclist's own 'Livestrong' charity.
Since then, Griffin has thrown himself, full-time, into the SOAR Foundation, an Irish not-for-profit organisation which he jointly founded with Karl Swan in 2011.
Inspired by the late Jim Stynes' 'Reach' project in Australia, it helps teenagers to maximise their potential by providing 'positive life-skills' through work-shops which are designed to boost their confidence and aspirations.
SOAR's expanding work has already made inroads into Irish schools and won a prize worth €200,000 at the 2011 Social Entrepeneurs Ireland awards.
A beacon of positivity, whose motto is 'no man is a moment', Griffin's reaction to Armstrong's fall from grace this year was typically non-judgmental or condemnatory.
"Lance is like the rest of us," he wrote. "Imperfect. Flawed. Human. The time I spent with him left me respecting the man but also realising that someone this driven and determined would make a wonderful friend but a ruthless enemy."
Armstrong, he noted, had "the selfishness of an elite athlete and the caring of a cancer survivor: an unlikely mixture."
Closer to home, Griffin feels that Daly's ability to make him believe in himself as a Clare hurler played a huge role in helping him to win an All Star in 2008. He came on board in the hope that he could imbue Dublin's hurlers with similar self-belief.
He was not the only change to their back-room team this year. Former Tipp and Toomevara star Tommy Dunne has run a few sessions, a new strength and conditioning coach (Ross Dunphy) was enlisted and Shane Martin, who only retired as a Dublin player in 2010, is a new selector and specialises in video analysis.
But Griffin's inclusion was definitely the most left-field.
"Loads of fellas put labels on him, 'life coach' or 'spiritual advisor'," Daly chuckles. "I knew he was living in Dalkey and doing a bit of training with Cuala. I asked him last year would he give it a go (as a player), and he said he couldn't see himself giving the commitment with his own work."
The Dublin boss returned this season to ask Griffin to become a selector.
"He said 'a selector needs to be there every night, I won't be able to do that'," Daly reveals.
"So I asked him what role he could see himself fulfilling, and he said 'I could see myself helping with a few things, maybe with their confidence and a few different things'.
"I'd say he did maybe three group sessions. They might have been 10 minutes with him down in Portmarnock. He'd jog down the end of the beach and they would all sit down on the sand. I don't think he says too much, I think he just gets them to talk."
Griffin has clearly also done a lot of one-on-ones, especially with players whose confidence was particularly brittle after last summer's slump.
Daly likens Griffin's input to the sort of pastoral role that Fr Harry Bohan used to play with the Banner's hurlers.
Enlisting a sounding board to help players with the mental side of their game is now de rigueur for elite GAA teams.
Caroline Currid did it with Dublin's All-Ireland winning footballers in 2011 and former world champion boxer Bernard Dunne fills a similar role for Jim Gavin's footballers right now but, as hurling captain Johnny McCaffrey points out, Griffin has a unique perspective.
"Tony brings a lot of things, he's a great talker and a great guy to get into people's heads," McCaffrey says.
"Sometimes it can be hard to relate to guys but, with Tony, you know he's been at the top of the game for a long time, he knows exactly what's needed."
Irish Independent Sport Star Awards
Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.