The big backroom teams driving top clubs to success

The big backroom teams driving top clubs to success
The Dunloy squad standing for the national anthem before their Antrim SHC final clash with Cushendall Ruairí Óg at Ballycastle. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile.

While being a tribute to the doggedness and dedication of the players behind Kilcoo’s march to their third Ulster club football final achieved last Sunday with a win over Derrygonnelly Harps, it was also reward for the huge backroom effort that has powered the Down club over the past decade.

With eight senior Championships accrued since 2009, Kilcoo are one of the superclubs dotted around Ireland with outrageous ambitions, though they have yet to break the glass ceiling of winning their own province.

They have one innovation that although not widely known, would be the envy of many others; a dedicated kit van to transport their equipment.

According to former Kilcoo manager Paul McIver, four people gladly take up this role, with another two young players in the club helping out with balls, water bottles and other equipment.

They have Mickey Moran (from Glen, Maghera) as manager, former Derry player Conleith Gilligan (Ballinderry), and Paul Devlin (Ballinascreen) as coaches.

Add in others helping out behind the scenes and we can see that top clubs engaged in provincial Championships compile backroom teams to rival many county sides.

The recent Ulster hurling club final between winners Slaughtneil and Dunloy was a case in point. Slaughtneil had Michael McShane as manager.

He brought in brothers Barney (statistics) and Patrick (video analysis) McEldowney.

Bernard Cassidy was a selector. Dee Doherty was their physio and Dr Noel Brick, a lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology was brought in as (in our own terms) “disruptive thinker”.

That core was complimented by others who helped out carrying hurleys and so on. And it’s common practice for clubs to bring in guest coaches as the season develops, Slaughtneil having been paid a visit by Anthony Daly in the pre-McShane era.

Dunloy manager Gregory O’Kane took what must have been an excruciating decision last winter to reshape his backroom team, which meant letting go respected former team-mates.

Kilcoo’s dedicated kit van to transport equipment, the envy of many clubs.
Kilcoo’s dedicated kit van to transport equipment, the envy of many clubs.

He brought in former players Michael McClements and Paudie Shivers as two coaches.

Former Derry goalkeeper Eoin McNicholl has been overseeing their strength and conditioning work for the last few seasons, combining it with his work in the same field with Northern Ireland’s netball team.

Chrissy McGilligan (equipment and matchday runner), Joe Clifford (stats), and Kevin Martin and Dominic Dillon (more coaches) complete the picture.

The evolution of coaching teams, and the willingness of managers to delegate work to others has helped drive on the standards of the club games. The notion of an all-seeing ‘manager’ now who will do everything is a quaint notion belonging to the past.

There can be a serious crossover of additional support. For example, Dr Ciaran Kearney, a co-author of ‘Pure Sport: Sport Psychology in Action’ has been attached to the backrooms of Tyrone club Trillick and Kilcoo over the last few years.

Ollie Cummings, a strength and conditioning coach has helped outwith Dunloy, all three codes of camogie, hurling and football with Slaughtneil, as well as Kilcoo and recently joined up with Rory Gallagher’s new-look Derry management.

If all of this sounds remarkably po-faced and serious, there is a strong human element when it comes to club teams. Kevin McStay led St Brigid’s of Roscommon to an All-Ireland club title in 2013 before bringing a Connacht title to Roscommon in 2017.

“There’s a different dynamic at club level,” he says, while making the point that plenty of people are willing to be part of ‘The Push’ behind the senior team, and keeping people involved in the club that might otherwise slip out of the picture.

It’s hard to explain. You couldn’t be taking fellas to task all the time, is probably the better way of looking at it.

“At club level, if a fella makes a mistake, you can’t go mad. Like, we were on a bus on the way to the match to play Crossmaglen in the All-Ireland semi-final.

"We like to put ourselves up there as highly-organised and all that, and then we give the job to a guy to get us there on time.

"He will use Google maps, whereas the pro guy might take a run up the week before and have a look around.

“But there we were driving right into the Brigid’s crowd, the Crossmaglen crowd into a narrow street and we couldn’t turn the bus. And we were morto!

“It was more that we were laughing about it. It was no big deal. Now, that wouldn’t have been the issue at county level, if that makes sense.”

Paul McIver is well placed to offer an assessment. He has been involved in Ulster club activity as coach of Ballinderry, manager of Dromore in Tyrone and Kilcoo up until this year, before linking up with Ryan McMenamin in the Fermanagh backroom team. He believes the cross-pollination of county and club has been a huge positive.

“I’d say there are hardly any clubs left in Ulster that would be operating a one-man show. A manager that does strength and conditioning, can take a training session, does the psychology, the day of that manager is long gone,” he states.

“Players expect that knowledge to be top of the range. The only way to get that is to get that expertise in.

“It would be great if you could get someone to tick all of those boxes, but dealing with the day-in, day-out business of a top senior club team, you need to have the right people in around you.”

He continues: “The thing that stands out for me is that the teams who are involved in the Ulster club at the minute have all big backroom teams, because they are all teams that have been successful and people want to be involved with teams who are successful.

“Getting your entourage of kit men, your psychologist, your physios and so on, the players who are competing to win county Championships, looking to be Ulster champions, clubs and players are expecting the best of the best.

“You take for example Kilcoo. They would have had in any given year, seven or eight county players.

So those county players, and four or five that would be county material but don’t go to their county, those players are expecting what they are seeing at county, replicated at their club.

It sounds expensive and eye-watering figures for management teams are often bandied about, much to the amusement of McIver.

He says, “A lot of the finances and rumours that managers are getting this and that, I can tell you now, they are not.

“It’s just people out there who like to throw figures about. Yes, there is an expectation that you have to have the expertise, if you want a sports psychologist and you want a masseuse, you will find that a lot of clubs have those people internally.”

In McIver’s own club Ballinderry, they have former player Michael Conlon overseeing the strength and conditioning programmes from underage up.

Most clubs will have a player who is very clued-in and will tap into their expertise, although they may hire in a service to get the system up and running.

He adds:

“The other thing is that you find, if you put a bit of work into the strength and conditioning, your physio bills come down.

"Which is ultimately what you want. Clubs recognise now if you invest in strength and conditioning, it offsets the bills elsewhere.”

The games now demand higher standards than ever. The genie is out of the bottle.

The roles in a backroom

MAOR FOIRNE: Will carry instructions from managers onto the pitch during a break in play. Often a selector or a coach, but it is rare for a manager to wear the bib.

STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING: Somebody with a background in athletic development, often highly qualified and working full-time in the field.

At this stage of the winter, most ambitious clubs will have their strength and conditioning coach setting out a winter programme for players before pre-season starts.

SPORTS PSYCHOLOGIST: A role that has many different names and definitions, but essentially the task involves guiding players to make the right lifestyle choices, being able to take onboard manager’s concerns and criticisms and showing how they can move forward.

There is also a trend for managers to use their sports psychologists to challenge them in their work.

STATISTICIAN: One way of implementing in-game targets, the statistician will measure success from kickouts, the amount of turnovers, identify where scores are coming from and as the role grows, the reasoning behind trends.

VIDEO ANALYSIS: A lot of managers prefer to do this work themselves, with former Kerry football manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice renowned for his work ethic in this field.

MEDICAL TEAMS: Most big clubs will have a doctor. Almost every club carries a physio, while some will also have masseurs.

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