‘There were riot police everywhere. There must have been 2,000 of them. You realised then, this isn’t Galway-Mayo’
By Kieran Shannon
It’s been quite a year in the life of Barry Solan, one which has brought him all around the world and occasionally the top of it too.
He was in the ExCel Arena when his friend and client Katie Taylor won her Olympic gold. He was there along the touchline, supervising a few substitutes of the Polish national soccer team warm-up, when Kuba Blaszczykowski equalised for the Euro 2012 hosts against their dear friends Russia which seemed to make the National Stadium in Warsaw quake.
He was out there on Croke Park the sunny day Laois rattled Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final in front of 70,000 and a sea of boys in blue, him being the maor foirne for Justin McNulty’s team. In a sense, he’s been sport’s own Forrest Gump, with his peripheral but significant role in helping shape a national institution and moment, having his own unforgettable encounter against the Russians, and being there to run, Barry, run when the Laois management wanted an instruction or some water into one of their players.
Yet just like the character Tom Hanks made his own, Solan, for his all his travels and adventures, is essentially a homebird.
Ballaghaderreen is his sweet home Alabama, his Jenny even, and for them to be playing in tomorrow’s Connacht senior football club final in Castlebar’s McHale Park as Mayo county champions, and for him to be there, still involved with the lads, is bliss.
Ballagh is where it all started for him: his passion for sport and his career in it. The family had a pub in the middle of the town which they still live in today and growing up that’s where all the club’s teams would meet up. The Solans would be able to see the bus pull up from their kitchen. During the week it was as if the whole team would have their lunch in there when they weren’t kicking football before heading back to school in St Nathy’s.
There they’d kick some more ball. John O’Mahony was one of the teachers and coaches and even a few years after he’d done his Leaving, Solan would give his old master and mentor a hand out with school teams, appreciating who was really helping who then. They were both there that day in 2000, in his future stomping ground of Portlaoise as it happened, when Andy Moran, the best friend of his kid brother Michael, had a penalty in the All Ireland colleges final and missed it. Sure how could they forget it when later in that game, Nathy’s had another penalty and Moran stood up to take it too. This time he buried it. If ever you wanted to know how Nathy’s won that All Ireland and Moran went on to become an All Star who keeps coming back from injuries, Solan points you in the direction of that day and that moment when Moran put up the hand again.
Shortly after that Solan went to England. He wanted to make some kind of career in sport science and a course in St Mary’s in Strawberry Hill offered him a pathway to that. It opened so much more with it: his eyes, a different world. He’d often wander down to see touring rugby teams train — the Aussies, the All Blacks, the Boks — with all their support staff, and it struck him, these guys were doing this for a living. These guys were doing this during the day whereas back home everyone else only trained after working at something else.
Even during those years though home was where the heart was. He played for London and a club over there, wishing that club was Ballagh, but then in 2006 after playing against Mayo in the Connacht championship and finishing his postgrad, he came back home to help the club get to a county final.
That was the start of this drive they’re still on. Johnno had helped out with the coaching that year and then when he took on the Mayo job, Solan helped fill some of the void by drawing up training programmes for the whole group. Andy Moran reckons the platform Solan established back then is why they are so powerful within Mayo football now, but Solan himself feels he’s the one that should be most grateful — back then the fledgling fitness coach needed some guinea pigs.
In 2008 he was operating with another calibre of athlete. That spring he went to Arizona for an internship with the highly-regarded Athletes’ Performance consultancy. He first heard of them from reading about Jurgen Klinnsmann. The German had come across their work while he was based in the States and felt their methods, under founder Mark Verstegen, could translate to international football.
There he worked with the pros, as in pros on multi-million dollar contracts. NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, Solan got to work with them all, from eight in the morning up to seven in the evening, for a series of 11-week off-season camps.
“The guys we had in there all looked at it as an investment,” says Solan. “What they realise in the States that they maybe haven’t copped yet in soccer is if they add a further three or four years to their career, that’s 10 or 12 million more into your bank balance. That’s the way it’s sold to them in America: longevity. Come and train here and we’ll keep you healthy, your stock will rise and you’ll play for longer.
“In GAA you find now there’s players more conscious of extending their careers and they look after themselves really well. That said, if you were to open Athletes’ Performance in Ireland, it wouldn’t work. In the States it’s all set up with long off-seasons. In Ireland there’d be no athletes for you to work with because there are no off-seasons.”
What Ireland did have in its favour though was Ballagh. After six months in Arizona, learning from and working with some of the best and most generous strength and conditioning coaches in the world who were in turn impressed with his voracious appetite to learn, he returned home for the closing stages of the county championship. And didn’t they win it, their first since 1972, with Solan at centre-forward.
He’s been based in Ireland pretty much ever since, as much as his work will sometimes take him elsewhere. Upon his return he teamed up with Bernard Jackman and Clontarf RFC and then the Laois footballers and Justin McNulty, two gigs he remains in to this day. Then last Stephen’s Day he was up in Andy Moran’s house, talking about ways to improve their fascinating www.totalgaacoach.com website when he got a text message from an Athletes’ Performance colleague. The Polish national soccer team were looking for someone from their stable to be the team’s physical trainer and they had recommended him. Solan duly met the relevant stakeholders and so one Wednesday in February, he found himself in the dugout for the opening match at the new national stadium, a friendly against Portugal.
“Ronaldo was playing and Nani and all these dudes [in a 0-0 draw]. The following Saturday night it was back to Portlaoise for a league [defeat] to Dublin. That brought you back to earth pretty quickly! I played a challenge game for Ballaghaderreen on the Sunday morning too, so there was quite a contrast that week.”
Looking back, the entire Poland gig would be a crazy, unforgettable experience. The players were generally terrific. He would have travelled around to meet all the players based in the western part of Europe; Szczesny at Arsenal; the half-dozen lads in France; the other half-dozen playing with Dortmund or someone else in the Bundesliga; checking in with them and their club fitness coaches. At times as a group the language barrier meant humour wasn’t the easiest to create, but he got over that by pulling down a few more shorts or throwing a few more water bottles at boys than would be normal.
The players needed such light relief. The scrutiny on them as a host nation during the tournament was at times overwhelming.
And then the games... The night against Russia was just unbelievable. I was sitting near the top of the bus as we were coming into the stadium and next thing you could see riot police just everywhere. There must have been 2,000 of them. It was one of the most frightening things I’ve seen. You realised then, this isn’t Galway-Mayo.
“Then when the Russian national anthem was played, their supporters unfurled a big banner from the back row of the top deck that came halfway down the bottom deck and it said next to a big Russian flag, ‘This is Russia.’ As if to say, ‘We still own this place.’ The Polish national anthem was sung after that and oh my God, I thought the roof was going to lift off the place. I remember thinking there on the sideline, ‘The last time you probably heard the national anthem was in Rocky IV for the introduction of Ivan Drago! Now here it is for real!’ That night was just incredible. When Kuba got the equalising goal the place just went bananas. But it was devastation when we lost to the Czechs in the last game and didn’t go through. ”
His involvement with Poland finished with the Euros but players still keep in touch with him, appreciative that in many cases he knows more than some of the fitness coaches they have to deal with at their club. He earned their respect and their trust and what also helped him move on from the Euros was the Olympics. In 2012 he worked with Katie and Pete Taylor, typically for three sessions every fortnight.
The 31-year-old makes it clear he can claim no credit in helping her win Olympic gold; it was won long before 2012. His job as he saw it was essentially to help ensure she didn’t lose it.
“The big thing was that she’d sustain no major injuries. Her physio John Murphy put her and Pete in touch with me to do some extra preventative measures to make sure her training wouldn’t be disrupted. She would have had aches and pains in her lower back and on her shoulders so we kind of really got on top of that to allow her to do the kind of training load she and Pete would have wanted. We would have screened her out first of all, just in terms of her functioning movements. I would say to people that there are no bad exercises but sometimes what’s good for you might be bad for me so we tried to find out exactly what she felt was good for her to keep her hips and shoulders mobile.”
He didn’t travel with the Taylors for the Olympics — “Pete and Katie have their own competition routine well locked down for years now and I wasn’t going to mess with that” but he was there for all her fights, as a punter. His nerves were almost shot waiting for the final result and when it was finally announced, he admits to effectively making love to the still anonymous female Irish reporter standing beside him. All around him everyone was hugging everyone. It was that kind of day. Katie has that kind of effect.
He’d finally catch up with her a few weeks later in the gym in Blackrock. He sees a good deal more of her there now that she’s back up to the standard three sessions every fortnight they do together. Her life has undoubtedly changed but she hasn’t, he’s noticed.
Solan hasn’t either, despite the crazy year he’s had himself. One Sunday evening when he was in training camp with Poland in Austria, he retreated to his hotel room to tune into Midwest Radio for commentary of the club’s first-round game against Tourmakeady. He’d miss their second game and third games as well as they clashed with qualifier games Laois were playing, but after their terrific run through the qualifiers all the way to Croke Park finished up, he was back in the dugout for the team’s quarter-final against Garrymore. His runner activities with Laois severely restricted his recuperation from an Achilles tendon injury — “I’d rest for five days, then have to be the runner again the next Saturday; at one stage when we were playing Dublin and I thought I was going to pull up going across Croke Park” — but now he’s had time to let it properly recover.
For the past three months he’s been routinely making the six-hour commute from his base in Sandymount back to the lads at home. He came on in the closing minutes of the county final, and the last day too against Curry. He could well be on a lot earlier tomorrow against St Brigid’s. He mightn’t be on at all. Whatever way the club need him, he’ll be there. Ask him why such a busy man fits in so much time still for his club on the other side of the country and he’s bemused by your bemusement.
“Because I love playing football. All my friends are playing. There are seven sets of brothers amongst us. We’re all brothers basically.”
Tomorrow might hardly be Poland-Russia but for him it has a glory all of its own. Home