In a world where we have become conditioned to the top teams reaming off their dry, cold, clichés of obeying the ‘process’, departing Carlow football coach Steven Poacher was a brilliant contradiction, a Jackson Pollock splat of colour across the last three seasons.
Along with manager Turlough O’Brien, they talked themselves up and urged others to believe in Carlow. In the little guy. They went all out on Twitter and in interviews, engaging with the world around them, stamping a #CarlowRising on everything as they went, like a pair of Gaelic football Banksys.
The footballing establishment wasn’t fond of their punk rock aesthetic. But a look at Poacher’s announcement on Twitter that he was leaving and the subsequent love-bombing from Carlow fans is a demonstration of the impact they had in recent seasons.
Success is all relative of course, but their record stands up.
In their first year, they won Carlow’s first Leinster SFC game in seven years with a win over Wexford. They made life very uncomfortable for Dublin for 40 minutes the next day.
They won Carlow’s first promotion in 33 years on a snowy Belfast day in 2018.
A couple of months later they humbled Kildare in the Leinster Championship. They scored 2-14 that day, achieving a 100% scoring rate. The @dontfoul blog, held as the ultimate authority on such matters, stated they had never seen the likes of it.
Big days became a thing at Netwatch Dr Cullen Park, with Tyrone and Monaghan both visiting on sunburnt days and the place rocking.
No wonder when Poacher arrived down to Carlow on Saturday to tell O’Brien he couldn’t continue, it got emotional.
“I travelled down on Saturday to see Turlough, such is the level of love and respect I have for him as a person,” he begins.
When he began explaining his reasons, he wondered how he has managed it at all. The last three years have been wishing his two girls and wife a goodbye at half eight (in the morning) and getting back into the house at midnight, three or four times a week, negotiating a 250-mile round trip to their Fenagh training sessions in the process.
He switched jobs some time ago to teach PE in St Joseph’s school in Newry, which will involve afterschool coaching and he was added to James McCartan’s backroom with the Down U17 team.
“It was an emotional conversation with Turlough. There were a few tears shed, I’ll not lie,” he adds.
“And I met with some of the players. I had some beautiful messages from them and formed some deep relationships with some of the players. It showed me the bond we had, we created something special over the last three years and some wonderful memories when I think back on it now.
“There were special memories. The bus journey back down from Belfast when we achieved promotion was something else. The wife (Marie) ended up on the bus that day actually as well. The Carlow team bus reversing into a cul de sac in Newry to collect her overnight bag, that wouldn’t be seen in too many county teams.
Last year, some of the momentum stalled. Heading into the second last game of their Division Three campaign against Down, a win would have had them challenging for promotion. As it transpired, referee James Bermingham played over the allotted extra-time and Down took the opportunity to claim the points.
The reaction of Poacher, along with O’Brien and midfielder Brendan Murphy afterwards to match officials, left them with hefty suspensions. O’Brien was hit with 20 weeks, Poacher and Murphy 12 weeks.
“The other thing too was that I come from the north, which sometimes can go against you in certain places,” says Poacher.
“No matter what you say, there is a level of prejudice. I experienced it first-hand in places, particularly in our final league game against Laois. You would have heard a lot of references to the British state, but it wasn’t the first time. When you put yourself out there, you can become a target. It was a negative experience (the suspension) but a positive too because I learned a lot from it as well. Officials and referees are a protected species, you cannot engage with them at all. And I learned that to my cost and will take that forward. We all know what went on, we looked at James’ report and what was in it and what shouldn’t have been in it. But the report is bible, we were told. And it is an experience that wasn’t pleasant, but you hopefully learn from it and move on.”
With Carlow dropping back into the bottom tier and subsequently defeated in round one of the qualifiers by Longford, it wasn’t long before the sniping started. Poacher’s name was used as a figure of fun and the pious sought to ridicule Carlow for their counter-attacking tactical approach.
“I think that is life in general. It makes me chuckle sometimes. When something is going well, there is a begrudgery against it,” says Poacher.
Still, he and O’Brien kept at it. They refused to hide and engaged on all matters GAA with anyone who wanted to on Twitter.
This autumn, O’Brien went on a bike riding tour of the border and spent his time ruminating. Then he wrote an excellent blog that was part travel journal, partly a cathartic scream at where the GAA is heading as an association after the Tier Two competition proposals were rammed home recently.
Poacher states, “We were banging the drum surely. But we were banging the drum for the weaker counties. For the level of injustice and the financial imbalance in the country which is ridiculous.
“We were operating with no GPS system. We must have been the only county in Ireland with no GPS. People don’t realise how your hands are tied.
“We couldn’t go on a training camp for two nights because it was too expensive. I mean, two nights? You have counties going away on foreign training camps for five days. It makes a massive advantage in raising standards and bringing things on. The problem with Carlow is that it is such a small county, you are trying to balance everything, the hurling is going well. It’s a proper dual county and the hurlers have enjoyed a lot of success as well. When teams are going well, it costs more money and puts a strain on.”
If he’s being brutally honest — he can hardly help himself in that regard, even if he wanted to — the introduction of a second tier nudged him away from another year barrelling down the roads of Leinster.
“It’s ok people saying, ‘get your house in order and get out of Division Three,’ but it is not about that. The league, that’s what it is there for,” he says.
“I love it when people say it is not about the media coverage. Of course it is! The media is the most powerful tool in society. The media influences young people to play sport, to be like their heroes on the back pages of the paper. Just like young people seeing senior players in Carlow live on TV against Monaghan. Or Tyrone, with the field swamped at half-time.
And that’s Poacher checking out of the inter-county game. For a time anyway. He’ll not be gone for long.
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