The role mental-fitness played in Galway's historic All-Ireland win

Mental fitness coach Ciaran Cosgrave added another chapter to an impressive CV at Croke Park last Sunday, writes Jackie Cahill.

Harry and Jake Keady, sons of the late Galway legend Tony Keady, walk out with Galway captain, David Burke, and the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

As Ciaran Cosgrave made his way into Salvador’s Arena Fonte Nova for the Spain-Netherlands group game at the 2014 World Cup, he was spotted by a crew member from French TV channel Canal+.

Cosgrave was recognised from his work with various sporting teams across the globe, and he agreed to an interview.

Cosgrave was there to watch his friend Ron Vlaar, the Dutch centre-half, who he’d met during his time with Aston Villa.

“One of the journalists asked me about the teams in different sports I’d worked with, and what separates the truly elite from the rest,” Cosgrave recalls. “I said to him that the best players I’ve been fortunate to work with always want to get better. And the top managers get their best TEAM on the field, not necessarily their best 11 or 15. Team is what wins, not individual.” 

As the interview progressed, Cosgrave was asked if there were any teams that he hadn’t yet worked with caught his fancy.

“Two,” he replied. “The first is a hurling team in Ireland called Galway.” 

Cosgrave’s interviewer looked at him with a bemused expression.

“The lads hadn’t a clue what Galway was, so we got YouTube up. These were French journalists and they were mesmerised. But I told them that I didn’t just want to work with them, I wanted to win an All-Ireland with them.” 

As for the second team, Cosgrave cited a football team in England that plays in red.

The clue might lie in the observation that they once strutted like peacocks across not only their domestic League, but Europe too.

Galway’s famine has now ended but for the team in red, the long wait continues.

October 1998 

October, 1998. Ciaran Cosgrave is in a hotel room in London.

It’s a Sunday morning and he’s reading about Sunderland’s ascent to the top of Division 1.

It’s a position they would hold from there until the end of the season, finishing with a massive haul of 105 points.

Watford’s form is decent too, with seven wins, five defeats and three draws from their first 15 matches.

They’re just four points off the pace-setters but Cosgrave thinks he can help.

“I wrote a letter to Graham Taylor (the Watford manager at the time) and within 24 hours of him receiving it, his secretary rang me back, and Graham had asked to meet me.” 

In late February and into early March of 1999, Watford’s form slumped and they lost three successive fixtures.

Taylor called Cosgrave, as the Hornets languished in ninth position.

The message was simple. 

"Now’s the time to bring you in.” Cosgrave’s first game involved was a 0-0 home draw against Bury on March 20.

“I was disgusted, coming from a rugby and basketball background. 0-0 wasn’t an option.” 

Taylor asked him back ten days later – and Cosgrave was ready.

In a meeting room, he showed the 27 Watford players present an eight-minute hurling compilation video.

“I said, right guys, no audio, just visual. Tell me in one word what you’ve seen.” 

The responses came thick and fast. Fit. Togetherness. Lunatics. Skill.

Cosgrave wrote the answers on a flip chart, and then paused.

He turned the page and showed them one word – unpaid.

Watford finished the regular season with seven wins out of eight, to clinch fifth place and a play-off spot. They then beat Birmingham City on penalties in a two-legged semi-final, before winning 2-0 against Bolton Wanderers at Wembley to clinch promotion to the Premier League.

A POTTED HISTORY

A potted history of Ciaran Cosgrave.

Born in Dublin, sent to Carraroe in Galway to learn Irish as a young boy, and then back to the capital for boarding school.

Flirted briefly with third-level education and found himself in Australia at the age of 20.

“It was around 1981/82. I was a very poor rugby player, with a good kick,” he smiles.

“I’m mixing with a load of rugby players and there was a group of brothers – the Ellas – two very talented and one less talented.

“However, they all got capped for Australia, and I studied the guy that was less talented. I basically said that I can make a career of out working with guys if their attitude is right. What an attitude this fella had.” 

It went from there and Cosgrave, a Mental Fitness coach, lists Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, the L.A. Lakers, Wigan Warriors, Wales Rugby and Aston Villa among his previous clients.

He professes to having no formal qualifications but what he does have is life experience and an endless supply of determination. 

“I’ve been knocked back so many f*****g times it’s untrue. But no losing team has ever brought me in.” 

Cosgrave rubbed shoulders with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabar at the LA Lakers. In three years there, they won two NBA titles. He linked up with Manchester City in November 2006. They hadn’t won away from home for over six months or achieved consecutive victories in over a year. Within six weeks, they’d won at Aston Villa, Sheffield United and West Ham, and finished six places higher than when he’d first joined them.

Cosgrave’s next Premier League port of call was Villa in March 2015. Tim Sherwood was fresh in the manager’s seat after the sacking of Paul Lambert, but Villa had lost their first two League games under his stewardship.

Cosgrave knew Sherwood and reached out. He met the Villa players for the first time on Monday, March 2, and the following night they beat West Brom away from home.

Four days later, they knocked West Brom out of the FA Cup and in Villa’s next League game, they won 4-0 at Sunderland.

By the end of the season, Sherwood’s men had survived in the Premier League, and beaten Liverpool in an FA Cup semi-final.

We haven’t yet mentioned that Ciaran is the son of former Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, who’s 97 now. It’s not something he dwells on either. In fact, an esteemed former hurler and ex Fine Gael councilor knew Cosgrave for three years before learning who his father was. I’m very proud of who I am but in sport, you have to put these things separate,” Cosgrave says.

ALONG COMES GALWAY 

Then, along came Galway.

“I’ve a very good friend from Salthill, and I’ve been saying to him for 15 or 16 years that I’m going to win an All-Ireland hurling title with Galway. In January this year, I read an article about how Galway had lost so many All-Ireland finals and the players were being compared to the lads in the 80s.

“I thought ‘this is bullshit’ and let me explain why I say that. I didn’t know Micheál Donoghue or any of them but I found a way to get hold of Micheál, and I sent him some details about myself." 

Cosgrave first met Donoghue and his backroom staff in early February. His first encounter with the players was on February 21, two days after they’d lost to Wexford in the Allianz League.

It was the one and only time they lost a match in League and championship all year.

Back in his hotel room, a half an hour after meeting the players in Loughgeorge, Cosgrave rang his wife Catherine.

“I’ve hit the jackpot,” he said to her. 

“Why?,” she replied. 

“Because of the reaction I got from the players tonight.” 

He had told them a little bit about his background but more importantly, he was struck by what they brought to the table.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some very successful teams and I’m going to share some of the reasons why they became so successful. I’m looking for four things – belief, togetherness, trust, attitude.

“Going back to that conversation with Micheál, when you’re talking about losing previous All-Ireland finals, and comparing players, it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

“You might as well go down to Coolmore and ask John Magnier if there’s any similarities between the stud teaser and Galileo.

“John’s going to look at you and say ‘the only similarities is they both have a pair of liathróidís and both eat nearly the same food.

“This Galway team has never lost an All-Ireland – and the only one that counts is this one. That was the cementing point of Micheál and I going to work together.” 

His work with the Galway hurlers was one of the game’s best kept secrets in 2017. There were individual and collective sessions and last Sunday, he sat in the Hogan Stand to watch them power to Liam MacCarthy Cup glory.

“There’s only pressure if you haven’t prepared,” Cosgrave says. “And confidence comes from knowing you’ve prepared properly.

“Very few people knew I was involved but those that knew saw in me that steel that this was going to happen.

“But I couldn’t speak highly enough of Micheál. How would I describe him? In a word, professional. Same with the players. Professional is not about money – it’s about your attitude.

"I know guys in England who are getting paid plenty of money who are not professional. Would I compare him to some of the great managers I’ve worked with? I’ll put it this way – he’s on the podium.”


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