The Kieran Shannon Interview: The wonder of Jamie Wall

The Kieran Shannon Interview: The wonder of Jamie Wall
Jamie Wall. Photo: Sportsfile.

As a coach, he likes to have music around the dressing room. Doesn’t have to be Oasis, just whatever helps the lads gel and feel at ease. These are the sounds Jamie Wall likes to hear. Not people telling him ‘it’s going to get better.’

“I don’t think it’s anyone else’s place what they can or can’t withstand. It’s a very personal thing. But we can all do is empathise and be there to help the person. And sometimes that’s letting the person express some awful dark thoughts.”

    I live my life in the city
    And there’s no easy way out

It takes that bit longer for someone to answer this door on the fringes of Limerick city, but once Jamie Wall stretches his arm to slide the latch, he opens up not just his house but invites you into his world.

Before he brings you into the kitchen where on the table a celebratory Aaron Gillane, the captain of the Mary Immaculate College team he coached to another Fitzgibbon Cup final earlier this year, shines out from the front page of last Monday’s Examiner Sport, he explains the vinyl record collection you can’t help but spot passing his downstairs bedroom.

Out in front and pride of place, it definitely had to be Definitely Maybe. Wall is too young to remember when Oasis played Páirc Uí Chaoimh in ’96 – he was only five at the time and his family had yet to move from Navan back to his mother’s native county – but he’d come to appreciate that the music his parents played over and over in the car wasn’t just the soundtrack to their early 30s but classic, timeless, gonna live forever.

Since a cousin got him a record player for Christmas, he’s bought 15 essential albums. A couple from Springsteen and The Stone Roses, The Pogues’ If I Should Fall From Grace with God, one apiece from The Verve and Kings of Leon and then four each from the Arctic Monkeys as well as Manchester’s finest.

“It’s a nice thing to be able to do,” he says, “to just come in and put one [album] on and chill out.”

In the corner rests a guitar. He began learning it to help get through the lonely nights over in England when he was undergoing all his rehab shortly after his operation from that crippling back pain that changed his life five years ago this month.

He smiles that he’ll hardly be performing in Carnegie or Royal Albert Hall anytime soon, but it’s another way for him to unwind and unleash as well as pay homage to the brilliance of the likes of Noel and Liam. The lyrics. The tunes. And theattitude.

Fearless, sometimes brazen but mixed with a bit of tenderness and humour. His kind of blend.

As a coach he likes to have music around the dressing room. Doesn’t have to be Oasis either, just whatever helps the lads gel and feel at ease. It’s a ritual that perplexes his fellow Kilmallock selector Dessie O’Brien, Paudie’s dad, but Wall himself is down with whatever the kids are down with.

“The first time I would have come across it was in 2010 when Brian Cuthbert was coaching us [the Cork minor footballers that reached that year’s All Ireland final]. Our goalkeeper David Hanrahan was nominated the music officer for the year so he’d put together a playlist of whatever lads wanted to hear. And I found myself going earlier to training just to hear what lads’ songs would be playing.

“Often lads can be very quick to skedaddle out of the place. But that time before and after training is nearly as important as the training itself when you’re trying to create a spirit among a team.”

He’s receptive to the beats being played on game day as well, just like John Kiely welcomes it while coaching some of the same players Wall has likewise mentored. Although some players opt to listen to their own tracks, Wall finds most of them forsake their headphones to check out what’s being played on the collective jukebox.

Lads don’t need to be in the war zone an hour beforehand, glaring at the walls. And then it’s a good trigger to have when you do switch the music off. ‘Okay, we’re not taking the hinges off the door yet but we’re moving up another gear now.’

He shares this house with his kind of people, mostly football people. Upstairs, asleep after a night shift as a Garda, is Eoin Cleary, one of the standout players for the Clare team managed by Wall’s uncle, Colm Collins.

The owner of the house is Martin ‘Ogie’ Murphy, another man who has played under Collins, for both Cratloe and Clare. Sally Quinlivan, brother of Micheal, is a Tipperary ladies footballer. The remaining housemate then is a Kerryman, who Wall sometimes has to keep in check by reminding him that he won three Munster U21 football championships back when Cork were more than handy in that code.

The way things have fallen though, Wall has gravitated towards the small ball in his coaching, leaving him with one of the most fascinating vantage points from which to follow this championship.

    Because we need each other
    We believe in one another
    I know we’re going to uncover
    What’s sleepin’ in our soul

When we sit down by the kitchen table, Wall opens up last Monday’s Examiner Sport to where there’s a panel illustrating how both Limerick and Clare lined out for the Gaelic Grounds massacre. Five of Limerick’s first 15 he’d have coached.

He’s somewhat surprised going through Clare’s starting lineup to discover only two of them – Colm Galvin and John Conlon – have been there in his time in Mary I. He’s also coached the likes of Tipp’s Ronan Maher. And of course, Wall himself is from Cork, just like Luke Meade and Tim O’Mahony that play for him with Mary I.

Gillane, in particular, has been profuse in his praise of Wall, crediting him as “one of the people that’s had the biggest impact on me”.

“I learned so much from Jamie,” he’d recently tell The Players’ Chronicle. “Not just about hurling, about attitude too. Whether it’s help with your studies or your hurling or even if you just want to meet up for a coffee and a chat, Jamie always there to help.”

He’s cited one particular intervention from Wall as being crucial. At the start of the 2017 campaign, he was dropped from the Limerick senior panel, which coincided with the eve of Wall’s first season as a Fitzgibbon Cup coach. “Things weren’t going my way but Jamie threw me in at the deep end, playing with lads like Ronan Maher, Colm Galvin, Cian Lynch – lads I would have looked up to.

Jamie Wall is flanked by Aaron Gillane and Cian Lynch after Mary I's Fitzgibbon Cup final win over IT Carlow in 2017. Photo: Inpho.
Jamie Wall is flanked by Aaron Gillane and Cian Lynch after Mary I's Fitzgibbon Cup final win over IT Carlow in 2017. Photo: Inpho.

“We were paying Carlow in the first round of the Fitzgibbon and I was the last man coming out of the dressing room. Jamie came up and said, ‘Relax, you don’t have to impress anyone today. You’re up there with these guys. You’re as good as them all.’ Maybe that’s all that was holding me back. Just needing someone to give me that extra push.”

Wall himself is quick to point out that it wasn’t as if Gillane was at nothing before the Fitzgibbon they won in Wall’s first year as coach. Only months earlier he’d seen Gillane shine for Patrickswell against Glen Rovers in the “real men’s hurling” cauldron that’s the Munster club championship. The kid just needed some more time to grow and some more confidence to flourish.

“Aaron was still a year or two younger than the likes of Ronan [Maher] and Richie [English]. I mean, the pair of them are born mean. There’s a real bark and a bit to them. The first time I came across Richie was back in 2014 when he was playing for the college’s freshers against us [the senior Fitzgibbon team] in an old in-house game in the Old Christians pitch and after 10 minutes he was already fighting with our full forward.

Playing with the likes of Ronan and Richie really brought him on. That kind of attitude, competitiveness, cuteness. You see him Aaron when his team might be a point or two up with two minutes of added time left and he’ll know how to win a free to take another minute of the clock.

Wall also highlights the role Darragh O’Donovan played before that pivotal first-round game against DJ Carey’s Carlow IT. O’Donovan had been the team’s freetaker but suggested to Wall that such a duty should be handed to Gillane; it would be just the fillip for the lad’s confidence and get him into the game. “The same man [O’Donovan] then hit the equaliser to give us a draw. That’s the kind of character he has.”

And then, of course, there’s O’Donovan’s regular midfield partner, Cian Lynch. A central tenet of Wall’s coaching philosophy is to embrace a player’s individuality as a person and with Lynch in particular he felt there was no option but to cherish his uniqueness. So what if even Wall was initially puzzled by the fresher walking around the Mary I campus with a rat tail?

“The most remarkable thing I can say about Cian is that he always has time. He makes time for everyone. I remember seeing him after training one day, talking to some kids, and 10 minutes later he was still there, sitting on the steps and engaged with them. He’s always been that way since I met him. He’ll look you in the eye, shake your hand and next thing you can be into this deep conversation.

“Cian and I would have totally contrasting religious views. He’s a very devout Catholic which I totally respect but I’m not. And we’d chat about these things by the fire, out with the team. You can have real conversations with him.”

And so, he was delighted for those boys – his boys – last August. He was even happy for them when they edged his native county in the All Ireland semi-final.

Ronan Maher
Ronan Maher

It’ll be something similar if or whenever Ronan Maher with Tipp might get the better of Cork in a big game, though he still reckons Limerick will retain their Ireland.

“Although Cork is my native county, seeing [other lads from other counties] do the business would certainly take some of the sting out of it. Because you care more about the guy than geography. As a coach, relationships matter more than geography to me.”

Geography still matters to him though, all the more so when he’s renewing and reinventing relationships with it. As well as driving home to take the Kilbrittain U21s once a week, he’s coach to the Cork U16s, just as he oversaw them at U15 level last year.

Much of that role invigorates him. Working with the young fellas themselves. Liaising with the rest of his management team and his equivalent in football, Noel Twomey, trying to forge a way that no player shuts the door on the other code prematurely.

But it can be hugely frustrating too. Something as basic as getting a pitch to train or play on. Last Saturday the county U15s and U16s were looking for a place to have a game among themselves ahead of them all heading down to Páirc Uí Chaoimh to see the minors and seniors play Waterford.

A southside school came to the rescue and though Wall appreciated their hospitality, in truth the surface would have been short of what most other counties would provide for one of their underage squads during the summer. Meanwhile, the 3G pitch beside the shiny new stadium remained vacant.

“It’s a disgrace that our county teams have been constantly moving around and looking for pitches with selectors calling in favours everywhere. Tipperary have Morris Park. Limerick have Rathkeale and the use of UL. Clare have Caherlohan and use UL as well in the winter.

“Derek Kavanagh wrote a few years ago in the Examiner that we should have a place that says ‘This is Cork GAA’ to all our teams. And he’s right.

“I know Kevin O’Donovan well. He and my dad would have coached me with Carbery teams when I was younger. He would have directed my mom when they were in plays with the Kilmeen drama group. He’s an honest, stand up fella.

I’m confident himself and [chairperson] Tracey Kennedy and the rest of the board are going in the right direction. But Cork’s priority now has to be finding a home for all our county teams, underage and senior, Cork LGFA, Cork camogie, Cork GAA. We need a place to call home.

    I want to talk tonight Until the mornin’ light
    ‘Bout how you saved my life
    You and me see how we are
    You and me see how we are

It’ll be five years ago later this month. From when he got his final exam results in Mary I and played in a Munster intermediate final for Cork against Tipp and the next thing couldn’t move with this searing pain in his back that proved to be an abscess crushing his spinal nerves.

The last thing he said to his mother before he underwent surgery was that if he was in no better state after it, could she just put a pillow over his head and end his misery. “I’d forgotten ever saying it with the pain I was in but she reminded me about a year later.”

Mom never did, of course. Some days though were tough. Some days are still tough. But he manages. As well as anyone could have. So how did he? Well, it wasn’t by following any sage’s advice. He’ll tell you that.

“I’ve no time for what I call ‘If-then’advice. ‘Well, if this happens to you, then this is how you should react.’ Now, it’s something we’ve all said. I’d have spoken like that before. But I realised pretty quickly after [his incident] that it’s bullshit and very naive. So this isn’t some after-school mental health pep talk. I’m not going to say that you can deal with everything that is thrown at you. You haven’t got a clue what you would do until you’re in it.

“Like a part of me would rail against the constantly optimistic outlook of ‘It’s always going to get better.’ I don’t think it’s anyone else’s place what they can or can’t withstand. It’s a very personal thing. But we can all do is empathise and be there to help the person. And sometimes that’s letting the person express some awful dark thoughts.”

Sarah Nell-O’Donovan, the camogie player and journalist from back home, was there to empathise and be there for him. She had just moved to work in Dublin when he was being treated in Beaumont and Dun Laoghaire.

“She was one of those people who sat with me when I was at my most rotten and listened to stuff I wouldn’t say in front of my mother.

“I remember one night being in a very low place and making some morbid comment about Switzerland [where assisted suicide is legal]. And because she knew me so well, she took a different approach and went, ‘Yeah, you can do that if it that’s how you still feel in a year’s time. We can look into that alright.’

And I thought, ‘Okay, I have a bit of control of my life back’ so I then didn’t want it to end.

“I’d just got so sick of people saying, ‘Oh, you have to be strong.’ It was [almost refreshing] that someone said, ‘No, you don’t.’ Just someone allowing you to feel like a human being and work something through rather than having to have constant happy thoughts.”

And that’s how he got through it, he says. Through a hundred little interactions with a hundred different people and a hundred different moments. By pumping Oasis full blast in the car.

The kindness and support Frank Murphy and the county board extended to him. Recalling when he was taken off at half-time in the 2010 All Ireland minor football quarter-final and the way Brian Cuthbert still showed interest and then faith in him and team doctor AidanKelleher still backed him, telling him. “We’ll need you back.” And he did get back. If he dug in there, he could dig in here…

And so here he is now, one of the top young coaches in hurling, and back incollege, studying law and accounting in UL, another new course and adventure opening up ahead of him. He’s glad he gave himself a few years off rather than rush his next career move, but he’s equally glad now that he finally has an answer for the well-meaning but constant queries about what he’s at outside the coaching. “I find it gives me a real drive to get up in themorning, a real focus.”

In the Kilmallock and Mary I dressing rooms he can join in the chat about exams and imminent assignment deadlines. “Being a young coach is a massive advantage,” he argues. “What you lack incumulative experience you can make up with immediate experience in that you’re very close to the game that’s now being played. And you’re able to relate to the lads. Sometimes when I’m looking at them, they remind me of myself.”

He’ll follow events from Thurles and Ennis tomorrow but that’s not where he’ll be. Instead, he’ll be in Malahide Castle, taking in Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, just as he’ll be in Musgrave Park next week when Liam returns to Leeside.

Last summer he spoke about how he didn’t want to live with an asterisk in everything he did. “I’ve been to two FA Cup finals,” he’d tell, “and I found myself starting to go, ‘This is great. But wouldn’t it be great [too] if you were on your feet?’ Then you have to catchyourself, ‘This is May. You wouldn’t even be here if you were on your feet. You’d be at training. Cop on.’”

His life isn’t an asterisk. The way he’s responded, it’s an exclamation mark.

All lyrics courtesy of Noel Gallagher, © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

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