Lessons of the past are not forgotten in O'Grady's repeat exam
Limerick midfielder Donal O'Grady has regained his grá for hurling after the lows of last year's player strike, writes Dermot Crowe
AS an option for their repertoire, the chant of 'there's only one Donal O'Grady' is no longer viable for the Limerick faithful. Not since the county midfielder was joined in the frame by his namesake from Cork last autumn. O'Grady has been hurling senior championship for Limerick since 2004. But a player's longevity provided no security of tenure in a new regime. You had to earn your keep. Everyone had.
At their formal introduction, each O'Grady knew a certain amount about the other; now they know a good deal more. At first, the player found it hard to believe they were getting the services of the highly respected manager and coach. Limerick had become such a chronically dysfunctional case that you couldn't be sure of anything. He waited until he saw him in the flesh, under the one roof, outlining his plans, for proof.
O'Grady, a retired school principal, took his old training instructor Jerry Wallace with him and Limerick donated the services of a trinity of former hurlers and dyed-in-the-wool Treatyites. Ciarán Carey, TJ Ryan and Pat Heffernan have all had hands-on roles on the training field but one man is clearly running the show, seated in the director's chair, constantly schooling, doling out grinds based on simple, commonsense principles.
It has been a breath of fresh air, an enjoyable adventure hurling in that environment, topped off with positive results. The instant leap out of Division 2 reinforced their belief in the new charter, a run bookended by wins over rivals Clare in Ennis. Young players have been sprung and while the Leaving Cert today claims one of them, Declan Hannon, the refreshment of youth, and the sense of innovation and invention have been encouraging features of a distinctly new regime.
Donal O'Grady, the greyhound hurler whose lung-bursting runs have become a familiar part of the Limerick engine room, will turn 31 in July. He is a remnant of the under-21 successes that started off the last decade with such swell hopes and later became a millstone around their necks, creating a morality tale of wasted talent and scant achievement. Yet through that O'Grady has endured and retained a bright and cheery nature. He has been through five managers and several midfield partners and still he holds his patch. But when the new manager came in he couldn't be certain how he'd be valued.
"He told me the weaknesses in my game -- 'here's what you have to work on' -- things like that, the week he came in. If you did something wrong, he'd say, 'Donal, a major weakness in your game, I told it to you already, why did you do it there?' Like bringing the ball down with one hand (on the hurl). He's shown me videos where fellas have lost All-Irelands doing these things. Putting one hand up. Two hands up, it will always come down in front of you; you will always bring the ball in. One up and you can top it.
"Maybe a month after in a training match a ball came to me and I went up with my two hands and brought it down and passed it off to somebody. Straight away he said, 'well done Donal, two hands'. I knew when the ball was coming that he was watching me."
And this is how it has been: observing, teaching, weeding out flaws and bad habits. "He's not a great believer in you putting up the hand to catch the ball, especially in the full-back line. He'd prefer you to knock it out to the wing. Things like that. He'd often stop a match and say to one of the forwards, 'why did you beat him twice, like, why did you come back out?'"
He tells these stories entertainingly, employing a passable version of the manager's laconic Cork accent. Before O'Grady arrived on a one-year arrangement, the players knew of his reputation and watched him as a pundit on television. In his Cork days there were stories of him sending players home who turned up late for training. "Oh time is important yeah, very important," says O'Grady, the hurler. "He actually hasn't sent anyone home because actually, I think, as Pat Tobin says, 'I've never been afraid of anyone in my life but I'm afraid of Donal O'Grady'."
The course of O'Grady's Limerick hurling career has been undulating, as you'd expect. Asked to rate it out of ten, he offers five in "the group sense" regarding what they have achieved. As a player he feels he is pitching in around six or seven. If he were to write his book now it would be more negative than positive in terms of the experiences; there have been so many disappointments. He recently found himself recalling the amount of championship games they've lost by a point; he thinks it is around six or seven. "So that is a mental thing, that is not a coincidence; there is a glitch there somewhere. We have been in two Munster finals since 2001, there are five teams in Munster and we have only been in two."
Getting someone of O'Grady's calibre has been a fortunate break for Limerick at this time, given his credentials. "I don't think anyone else could have done what he has done to be honest. Coming from outside and no agenda, no one has had preferential treatment. Everyone started from zero. Never mentioned what went on. Just past tense, maybe a one-liner, saying what's gone is gone. He definitely brought stability."
And the backdrop is well known and documented, last year's calamities, zombie selections and dispiriting results. Today's match against Waterford will be O'Grady's first for Limerick in the championship since they were crucified by Tipperary in Croke Park in 2009. Losing a year at this stage of his career was the product of a complete breakdown in the relationship between players, management and county board.
"It was very tough to be honest. Your family are trying to support you whether they feel you are right or wrong. Everyone was asking are you going to be back. As it dragged on the parties just dug more into the ground and it was diabolical for a finish. Everyone said they could help but nobody could sit down the three parties. In hindsight, it could have been sorted out earlier."
He decided not to attend any of Limerick's games because he didn't want to attract attention. In Tralee with his partner and young son, he switched on the car radio to get an update on Limerick's relegation decider against Dublin last year. It suited the striking players' stance to see Limerick struggle in their absence but it ran against all his instincts to feel joy at their misfortune.
"I didn't leave it on too long. They were going bad. I am not saying had we all been there we would have beaten Dublin but you'd ask yourself, were we responsible for what's happening here? Even now, personally, I think we owe an awful lot to Limerick hurling people."
Being disconnected from the team and preparations created a void, a place unfamiliar to players used to the comfort blanket of inter-county activity. On the day they faced Cork in the Munster championship, O'Grady went to the Algarve for a week's break. It seemed a good time to leave. He tried watching the game on television in a bar over there but couldn't handle it.
The only viewers aside from him were some Meath GAA followers. Nobody recognised him. "I didn't stay for long, watched about 15 minutes. I just felt uncomfortable watching it; in one way I was hoping they'd come on and win the game, and in another way, if they did win it would be the end of my hurling career." He can laugh at the madness of it now but the episode was unpleasant and divisive.
"I got letters. I got letters from people," he says at one point. Many? "Four." Anonymous? "A few anonymous and one or two signed them. They were out of the country. Manchester, I think. Some guy said, 'look, you have let your county down, come back'. I was lucky, Mark Foley could have got a lot more. I don't know why he was getting them because he was officially not on the panel."
How did he feel reading them? "It was enough to make you feel really bad."
Guilt? "A certain amount, yeah. I don't know why. No matter how bad I could have played on the pitch I'd rather be there than outside. Being outside when I knew I was fit and good enough . . . if we were to go down by 30 points I'd like to have been there to go down with them."
Having missed all of last year is hardly textbook preparation heading into a first championship match of the season. Are they ready? Will they find the bar is too high? But to be asking those questions at all is a delight. He is hungry for championship hurling. "Once you get the feel of it at all it's an addiction really. Very hard for the likes of Mark Foley and Ollie Moran and these fellas who were there for so long -- they'd love to be there. Ollie rang me today actually, he was asking about things and I knew by him," he says grinning, "that if Donal O'Grady rang him, to do a Graham Geraghty, he'd be back."
He goes through the weekly schedule: gym session with the group on Monday, regular training on Tuesday and Thursday, gym again on Friday and a match or a group session at the weekend. The management has made the work interesting and illuminating. "The training is fairly scientific. It's tough but there is a scientific approach. Our body fat is constantly updated, our strength and conditioning, we all have certain targets we have to be hitting at certain stages and if we're not -- there were stages during the league where players weren't considered because targets weren't being hit.
"We would have done fat and hydration and urine tests before, but the types of weights we are using, it isn't if you can bench 100 kgs anymore; everything is for a reason. At Christmas time we'd be doing 20m in about 3.8 or 3.9 seconds, now we are down under 3. Stuff like that. It's more interesting; you can say, here I am -- I am getting stronger, I am getting fitter.
"Jerry would start with the warm-up and then from there Donal might take the backs and spend 20-25 minutes with them while Jerry is with the rest. Then we'd switch and after that we'd all work in one group. We'd work on team play. Tactics. A lot of it is coaching. I am 30 years of age and he (O'Grady) is showing me how to hook and block down, like. It's amazing, when I am following a fella, the hurley has to be down, not up. Or bringing the toe of the hurley in so the ball doesn't fly away from you. I meet ex-players he's coached and there is always that line, 'well how's Zorro?'"
This is a reference to his hooking drills where players are encouraged to hook using a spearing action close to the opponent's hip, drawing comparisons to the fictional character Zorro. "You tend to follow the (opponent's) hurley, that's the habit you see; he's not interested in the hurley at all -- it's into the hip, right by the hip. And if it's a ground stroke, in by the ankle. It's back to the basics with Donal. When you don't have the ball you have to get it back. And we do a lot of tackling in twos in small little grids. For 20 seconds and a break and 20 seconds more. Your ankles are cut, you're getting elbows.
"It is about having greater options. It's a whole new angle really. I wouldn't say we're playing a running game; if there is a ball to be hit 90 yards, hit it 90 yards, provided you give your player a 60-40 chance of winning it."
He gives another example. "We do a lot of video analysis, examples of good and poor defensive play. (Cork accent) 'Hey Donal, about ten minutes into the Wexford match, remember, you were down in the corner?'
'You didn't do Zorro.'
'Keep an eye on that for the next day.'"
There are times when a player might think O'Grady hasn't spotted him lapsing into an old habit but he will bring it up at some later stage. He misses nothing.
"He's not trying to be complicated. He'd often say to you, watching a video, 'why'd you hit the ball straight to Kevin Downes there?'
'I was trying to get it up to the forwards fast'.
'Niall Moran was standing over there. He was scoring from 60 yards, 70 yards. Why didn't you give it to him?'
"But it is all constructive."
Their last championship match, the obliteration by Tipperary, would not have been a good note on which to sign off a career. "I think as a team things are going well, but we are going up from Division 2 and going in against the Munster champions which a lot of people don't realise; that Waterford are the Munster champions."
After the Tipperary match in 2009 their train home was delayed because one of the players had to wait back for a drug test. This meant they had to walk the platform the length of a train stuffed with supporters. It wasn't a cherished experience.
If they win today that will be forgotten. They haven't won a championship match since defeating Dublin two years ago in Thurles. If they do it, he knows his namesake is the kind of personality who will not be doing high-fives.
"He wouldn't be the fella you'd be running to at the final whistle to jump up on his shoulders whereas Richie Bennis would be waiting for you; you know that kind of way."
But his kind of way suits them just fine.
Sunday Indo Sport