Tuesday 24 April 2018

Ger Gilroy: Peak years are prime time to plan for life after sport

Barry O’Mahony travelled an unusal path after his career with Munster was cut short by an horrific leg break. Photo: Dan Sheridan
Barry O’Mahony travelled an unusal path after his career with Munster was cut short by an horrific leg break. Photo: Dan Sheridan

Ger Gilroy

I'm generally sceptical about the sales pitch that lessons learned on the field or in the dressing room can be packaged up and sold and applied to real life. It always strikes me that in sport you get to shout expletives at people in the changing room, or punch others on the pitch, and the repercussions aren't quite the same as they would be if you loafed a rival or a colleague at the water cooler. There's no scoreboard.

I'm coming around though to the notion that sport can indeed be a useful precursor to a good career in the real world, though. My Damascene conversion happened at the Convention Centre in Dublin on Wednesday. The event was FutureScope, where we heard from a panel of three former rugby players with very different stories.

On my way there, I bonded with Gino Lawless over our shared dislike of a particular ad on the radio. The name plate in his taxi said Eugene but I knew straight away that this was the League of Ireland legend better known as Gino. Here, made flesh, was a constant presence in my youth, as Gabriel Egan's lonely staccato beat out the rhythm of Sunday afternoon radio in winter. The '80s were pretty bleak but the kitchen was warm and there was football on the radio and I thought Gino Lawless must be an Italian warrior with a name like that. Gino. Class. Lawless! Even Better! Gabriel Egan loved him too because he seemed to be everywhere on the pitch for about half a decade, and when you're young you can't really tell if this football matters any more or less than the stuff you'd occasionally see on telly.

I didn't bore him with the past tense, didn't-you-used-to-be-Gino question. Instead we listened to a piece of health scare masquerading as public interest radio on sepsis, and complained about the ads. "Ah but it's not meant for people our age, it's for the young ones," Gino said. He's 18 years older than I am. I Googled it. In fairness he'd probably still beat me in a race. Harsh all the same.

I did happily find myself down a YouTube wormhole later in the week as I went searching for some Gino Lawless information. I'd known vaguely that he was a Bohs legend but didn't realise he was also a Dundalk hero too, to the point where Alex Ferguson brought his full team to Oriel Park in 1994 for a testimonial. A report in The Argus says Dundalk tried to package tickets for that game with a friendly against Sheffield Wednesday, so only 7,000 fans showed up instead of a capacity 12,000. The English summariser on YouTube cheerily announces that "of course it's a sell-out and you can sell anything here" over footage of a match-day programme. Those crazy Paddies will buy any old shite if it's got a United logo on it. It's a world so far removed from pre-season tours to the Far East to make it seem like it's from a different planet. But that's definitely Ryan Giggs, Paul Ince, Peter Schmeichel and Ferguson in Oriel Park, and that's Eric Cantona having his penalty saved by Eddie van Boxtel.

It's the report from the UEFA Cup tie against Rangers in 1984, though, that's mind-blowing. A massive police presence can't prevent the Rangers fans from running riot, forcing their manager Jock Wallace to come on the field and plead with the fans to stop. It's 2-2 at half-time and then the magic happens. The second half resumes with our hero and captain, Italian Warrior Gino Lawless, picking the ball up on the left wing and pinging home the winner with a goal as good as has ever been scored by an Irishman in European football. Gino: not great at guessing ages, but genius on the big occasion.

Back in the real world on Wednesday at the Convention Centre Isaac Boss did a good job of explaining what Rugby Players Ireland, where he now works, do for their players to prepare them for the afterlife. Part of their mentoring process was described as a speed-dating round of business people and current players who chat about career options and see if they'd like to work together.

Conor O'Loughlin, a former Connacht scrum-half, explained his career path, which had involved a detour where he tried financial trading and realised it wasn't for him. He now has his own software as a service business, GloFox, helping gyms to use their data and time more efficiently; business is good and they're just opening their first Manhattan office. The constant performance analysis, team building and short-termism of professional sport helped him develop his managerial style.

The third panellist, Barry O'Mahony, had travelled a particularly unusual path. He was capped 10 times over a three-year period for Munster before an horrific leg break in training cut his career short. "Every week I was disappointed when I wasn't picked, and over three years that's a lot of disappointment. That made me hard and I didn't realise it until I faced adversity afterwards but it made me able to deal with it," he explained. An interest in mobile technology and app development saw him use his time off to teach himself coding and find a mentor in the sector. His mentor had work in Africa and a few months after quitting he found himself far from Thomond, flitting about the continent. While there he had a brainwave for a business that allows bank-less Kenyans to get micro-loans through their mobile phones. So he set it up. They've seen rapid growth and having proved their concept are about to raise serious money to fund their next stage. It requires clever software, forensic analysis of data points, excellent communication skills and a high tolerance for risk. I don't know if rugby taught that to Barry O'Mahony or if maybe rugby just benefited from him having that skill-set in the first place, but it certainly helped him hone them.

I get too how failure and learning to deal with it is a lesson that we don't all get in our day-to-day lives, where there's no actual scoreboard beyond our own neurosis.

What was clear from talking to the three lads was that there was someone in the background beavering away on the career progression of the rugby players. There's nothing wrong with acknowledging that the period of a sportsperson's life where they're in their peak are similarly the years where they decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Vital years. If sport in Ireland embraces that, then everyone benefits.

  • Ger Gilroy is a presenter on Newstalk's Off The Ball

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