Saturday 24 March 2018

Youthful ambition driving Rathnure's organiser-in-chief

Willie Cleary will continue his steep learning curve as a GAA manager in today's Wexford hurling final, writes Marie Crowe

Being a senior club manager at 26 is a rare occurrence in the GAA but Rathnure boss Willie Cleary is just that -- and he's taking it in his stride. He's in the second year of his tenure at the historic Wexford club and today they take on defending champions Oulart-The Ballagh in the county hurling final.

He may be exceptionally young, but managing at this level isn't new to Cleary. At just 20, he took over the freshers hurling team in UCD, and the following year he took on the college's Fitzgibbon Cup team.

Cleary's passion, dedication and ability impressed the powers that be in the college and that same year Dave Billings put him forward for the senior hurling manager's job in St Vincent's. Cleary had a meeting with Vincent's chairman Brian Mullins and was offered the post. So at 21 he was the senior hurling manager at one of the biggest clubs in Dublin and, although he was a lot younger than some of the players, they took to him straight away.

"They just see you as the manager and I think age goes out the window after the first training session," says Cleary. "If you go in and do it and they like it and enjoy it, they buy into you straight away. It's sort of like a person running a business; it doesn't matter if he is 52 or 22, if he runs it right the age becomes irrelevant."

After two years with St Vincent's, Rathnure came calling. By this stage Cleary had finished college in Dublin and was anxious to move back home to Wexford. He had learned a lot in Dublin from working with the likes of Babs Keating in the Fitzgibbon set-up in UCD and training some of the best-known hurlers in the country like Dublin's Tomás Brady, Liam Rushe, Dotsy O'Callaghan and Joey Boland, Tipperary's Diarmuid Fitzgerald and All-Ireland winning footballer Diarmuid Connolly, who Cleary believes is one of the most naturally talented hurlers he has ever seen.

So at 24 he moved back home to Wexford and took the reins at one of the most successful hurling clubs in Leinster. And although he loves being a manager it's been a steep learning curve for the young Wexford man. "Confidence was the biggest challenge I had to overcome," says Cleary. "A lot of these players have been around a lot longer than me and they know a lot. There is no point me telling them everything.

"You have to learn and you have to talk to the players and plan with the players a lot more. They are around a long time and they know how to set up and plan for big days so there is no point in me going out there and listing instructions to them. They know it themselves so I think working with them and having the confidence to work with the players is a major thing that I learned."

Having professionalism and organisation in the set-up are key elements of management. In fact, Cleary believes that they are probably the most important factors for a man in his position and if players can see that you are interested and every training session is varied, organised and fast then they will put in the effort.

Cleary is also involved with the Wexford minors. Last year Martin Storey got in touch and asked him to come on board. He didn't think twice as working with the former Wexford captain Storey and All-Ireland-winning manager Liam Griffin was an honour -- and of course an opportunity to learn.

Cleary grew up in the glory days of the 1990s when hurling was at its best in the county. His memories of those days were of the likes of Storey and Griffin. His father is a Tipperary man who moved to Wexford so Cleary was brought to every Tipperary and Wexford game that was on. It wasn't management he dreamed of in those days -- like every other young hurler, Cleary dreamed of representing his county.

"I always wanted to play for Wexford but I never had that talent to get to that level and there is no point saying otherwise. I wanted to be there on the big days. When you are brought to every big game and you see the crowds and the colour and the life that comes with these games, who wouldn't want to be involved?"

Today some of his dreams may come true. His side will contest the final against current Wexford kingpins Oulart-The Ballagh, who have played in the last eight finals. The challenge will be tough but these are the days Cleary lives for.

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