O'Grady is Limerick's unique leader
Donal O’Grady has mastered the secret of man-management with strict code of discipline, careful attention to detail and innate ability to get the best from players, writes ChristyO’Connor
At different stages in the first half of April's Division 2 league final, Donal O'Grady inflamed from his seat in the stand, like a ball of fire scorching the earth beneath him. On at least three occasions, he threw his arms into the air to protest at decisions of referee James McGrath.
After one of those decisions, O'Grady left his seat and hared down the steps to the sideline with smoke billowing from his ears.
O'Grady roared at McGrath, seeking to make his feelings known through the din of a large crowd and an unsympathetic home Clare following.
Throughout the second half, O'Grady oscillated between liaising with his selectors in the stand and patrolling the sideline with an iron persona. Those who encountered him at pitch-side, from Clare mentors to players to stewards, all had the same impression: he was a vocal, aggressive, combative and ruthless individual.
As a former school principal, O'Grady always had that natural authority. He never tolerated slackness or indiscipline and was never shy in unleashing his ire to players, or anyone else, if he felt it necessary.
Before the 2004 All-Ireland final, one Croke Park steward walked into one of his rockets. It may have been deemed excessive, but that could be O'Grady's manner if he believed something wasn't right.
The Cork players never lost their fear of those rockets and the Limerick players say the same now. Yet critical to his relationship with both groups has always been the common knowledge that he was, and is, aligned with the players.
O'Grady has been heavily connected to the GPA over the last number of years and he always placed a strong accent on his man-management skills.
In that context, the image of O'Grady from within the Limerick panel is at odds with his public persona on match days. He commands respect from everybody at every level but one experienced player says that O'Grady's greatest attribute is that he is "absolutely selfless". He is nearly always the last to eat after training or matches because O'Grady ensures everybody else's needs are catered for first.
"He's the kind of guy who would not have a bad word said about any of his players but he would never ever give off that impression," says that experienced Limerick player. "He enjoys the Limerick lads but he never lets on that he enjoys us. He's not outwardly warm and you'll never be his best friend. But by Jesus, he'd go to war for any man around him."
In terms of O'Grady's perceived "ruthlessness", he never discarded his capacity to wither players with criticism, even after a good performance. Conversely, after a poor individual display, O'Grady will pick out three positive aspects that nobody else will have seen.
"There are days when you'd come home after training and you'd hate him because he'd have eaten you alive," says another Limerick player. "But you still can't help but like the guy because he is genuine and personable. And he's a total winner."
O'Grady's only coaching involvement after he left Cork in 2004 was an unsuccessful stint with Cloyne in '08 but that was an ageing side.
When O'Grady first met with the three-man independent appointments committee in Limerick City on September 13, the committee had already undertaken a two-month search for a new manager. They had met on over 30 occasions and had interviewed numerous credible candidates but the committee were still seeking a big name.
When O'Grady expressed an interest in the job, he was immediately offered a three-year term. His instant reply was "forget it". O'Grady has never tied himself to long-term projects -- he committed to just two years in charge of Cork and departed after they won an All-Ireland. The agreement was that he would take the job for one year, establishing the structure and template which would then facilitate an internal takeover afterwards.
In the circumstances, O'Grady was an excellent appointment. When he took over Cork in the winter of '02, they had just emerged from the first players' strike but he immediately built structures and fostered a culture the like of which had never before framed the preparation of a Cork hurling team.
It was scientific, demanding and challenging, and he has now created similar conditions in Limerick.
Attention to detail was always his calling card. Before the '04 All-Ireland final, he told the players that it would be arranged if any of them wanted their own pillows brought up for their beds in the team hotel.
With Cork, O'Grady also analysed individual performances and stored the outcome on his laptop for one-on-one tutorials long before it became the norm. He has continued, and advanced, that process in Limerick.
In many ways, O'Grady is a unique modern manager. His set-up is supremely professional and organised yet O'Grady is so fundamentally basic that he is a throwback.
Many modern managers do very little coaching but O'Grady has adopted the same hands-on coaching role that he had in Cork. Training is always heavily planned and written down on the back of a cereal box. It was Special K in Cork, but it's largely been penned on the back of a Rice Crispies box in Limerick. O'Grady's thinking on that has always been very basic; he doesn't want the rain to destroy his notes.
Initially, O'Grady made his name as a defensive coach, and the basics of defending, which have now extended to every position in the modern game, have always formed the core theme of his coaching philosophy. As he did in Cork, O'Grady coaches the key tenets of hooking and blocking in almost every session.
From the outset of the year, O'Grady broke the skills down in minute detail and he is extremely particular in the exact execution of the skills as he wants it. The purpose of every drill is explained and outlined but nothing is ever force-fed to the players.
O'Grady also focuses heavily on other fundamentals such as the pick-up and protecting yourself in possession, but his technical expertise extends to every level, a skill few coaches possess. He coaches awareness of movement, regularly walking players through a pattern of play or showing forwards how they should turn. Given that level of detail, O'Grady's sessions have often lasted two and a half hours.
The Limerick players have never felt in better physical shape, much of which is down to the work of fitness coach Jerry Wallace, who O'Grady first recruited for Cork in 2003. Wallace has a more outwardly friendly personality but O'Grady was always known for having an unbelievable capacity to retain what 25 or so players are doing during a session. His communication skills are also described as "first-class".
O'Grady's appointment was universally welcomed by the hurling public both inside and outside Limerick but the day after his appointment, Ger Loughnane focused on the fact that he had only taken the job for one season.
"After years of instability, this is not the message Limerick people want to hear," said Loughnane. "Is O'Grady just covering his own back and giving himself an opt-out clause? Can he really say if things go wrong, 'I wasn't really there as manager at all?'"
There is no guarantee that O'Grady will only stay for one year but his track record in Cork proved his expertise in establishing the ingenious structures and framework of the system which served John Allen and the Rebels so well after O'Grady left. There could be jockeying for position among the three selectors whenever O'Grady does leave Limerick but one of those selectors privately said last September that all three now had "a great opportunity to learn" from O'Grady. That will improve any potential internal appointment in time, like it did in Cork.
The feeling on the ground is that Wallace wouldn't be putting in the groundwork he is without having the opportunity of a second year to build on further, but this year's experience is sure to influence O'Grady's decision to stay or go.
The Limerick players say that O'Grady has never referenced anything he won as a player or manager, instead sometimes referring to mistakes he made from his own playing career, which seem to have influenced him more than anything he achieved.
Despite the outward impression of his ego, that grounded mentality completely defines O'Grady's approach. He doesn't do guest speakers and he's not a huge orator. The 'lost year' of 2010 and the fallout have never once been mentioned among the two panels O'Grady seamlessly fused together. Mentally, the team won't prepare any differently for Sunday than they would for a Division 2 league game.
For O'Grady, it's all about ensuring that all the technical, tactical and coaching angles have been absolutely covered, which will give his team the optimum chance of success.
That image may be a pencil drawing without colour but it's essentially the mindset and philosophy of hurling's most unique modern manager.