The balance every manager and player should be looking to strike

On my first year starting on the Clare team in 1990, our manager Tony Kelly dispatched Cyril Lyons, Alan Neville and myself to the Clare Inn to do a TV interview with Michael Lyster. 

It wasn’t even for The Sunday Game, it was just a tiny snippet for Sports Stadium, a general sports programme shown every Saturday back then.

Michael knew Cyril but he hadn’t a clue about Nev and myself, two young lads not long out of St Flannan’s College. I arrived straight from work in a suit. I probably thought I needed to look sharp for the TV but the interview was so short that if you blinked, you’d have missed it on the box that Saturday.

We had no profile as Clare players but even the most popular inter-county hurlers and footballers of that time were granted limited exposure. Live TV was still restricted to All-Ireland semi-finals and finals. 

The newspaper GAA culture was still only catching on. The digital age was on the other side of the abyss. Social media was as far away as Mars.

When I was named to start for my debut against Limerick that summer, a few neighbours turned up at our house in Clarecastle that evening to congratulate me, and to bask in the good news. 

With a handful of Clarecastle lads on the panel, somebody told somebody who told somebody. That was how news travelled.

Almost 30 years on, we are living in the greatest technological age imaginable, and yet trying to find out GAA news is almost as hard as cracking the code to Fort Knox. You can’t get accurate information on starting teams for love nor money. Injury updates are concealed tighter than government reports.

Helmets are a factor but modern hurlers are largely anonymous because most managers want them to be. We have the greatest game in the world but I often wonder if we promote it enough. 

The inter-county game is serious, serious business but it should never get to the point where fun and enjoyment is replaced by the monotony and drudgery of how you prepare for that business.

When I was manager of Clare between 2004-06, Niall Gilligan would often, just for the craic, say to me: ‘I’d love to have experienced just one year like a 1989 or a 1990’. 

Gilly wasn’t talking about the hammerings we got in both of those years from Waterford and Limerick respectively, it was more about a longing for the general stress-free environment in which we all operated in back then. We got what we deserved in terms of results and respect but there was still almost an innocence to the whole scene. 

When we’d play a league game, we’d come back as quickly as we could and head straight for Powers pub in Clarecastle.

‘How did ye get on lads?’ we’d be asked once we arrived in the door. They didn’t even know the result.

We’d invariably end up in the Queens Hotel for the disco that night. The status of being a Clare hurler meant little or nothing because Clare hurling didn’t really have any status. 

It’s a different time but if a Clare hurler is spotted out now drinking a glass of 7-Up, somebody could take a picture and the subsequent heated debate on social media could speculate on whether it’s gin or vodka in the glass.

It’s gone to another world but I still believe that the teams which have that balance right are the teams which are the most successful.

I know from talking to people in Dublin that the footballers seem to have that mix right. You never hear stories of them going for a pint but I know full well that they have at various stages of the year.

I believe that John Kiely’s approach is something similar. It’s very strict but it’s not like a Stasi-run regime either. Brian Cody had a similar attitude in Kilkenny when they were laying waste to all before them. 

When they were in their pomp, Kilkenny seemed to be almost inhuman, a ruthless machine that was only programmed to mow down anything that came in their way.

You only have to read Jackie Tyrrell’s book to see that Kilkenny were as human and as up for the craic as the rest of us. It’s gas being on The Sunday Game now with the Kilkenny lads and listening to some of their old war stories. It’s only when you get to know them that you realise how sound the Kilkenny fellas are.

It appears to be the same with the Limerick fellas. The way they’ve carried the load of being All-Ireland champions has been exemplary. 

The Dubs have been the same, especially now with the burden of five in-a-row immortality resting on their shoulders.

Inter-county players now are ultra-professional, supremely disciplined and committed but that doesn’t mean they have to turn into monks either. 

And Lee Keegan raised an important point last month when speaking about the need for a better balance in players’ lives.

“You sit in the pub even having a Miwadi and the heads are staring over at you, ‘Why is he in here?” said Keegan. 

“If you can’t have a normal life like that, what’s the point? I think it’s just the culture within GAA. If you can’t enjoy life with a bit of success or even if you lose, to have a few beers with your mates, that’s part of sport you might as well hang up your boots. There has to be a balance. If you are always locked into GAA, what is there out there for yourself?”

I’d say there was a good night in the Bronx last Sunday but Mayo boss James Horan is a well-rounded fella and he knows where and when to draw the line. There is no place for some of the carry-on from the old days but players don’t want that chaos either. Once the round robin starts, there isn’t time for any of it. 

On the other hand, lads don’t want to be signing contracts or being told what they can or cannot do outside of their inter-county lives.

Any team I’ve ever been involved with, I always say ‘Lads, we will guide it the very best way we can but all we will ask ye to do is to match us with the way ye drive it’. That’s about lifestyle, commitment, dedication, getting your body and mind right to give yourself the best chance.

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