Tracking rebels’ rise

Jamie Coughlan felt like as if they could keep running forever.

Their league semi-final in Semple Stadium was entering the last quarter, Eoin Kelly had just buried a 20-metre free to edge Tipperary back in front and from afar it looked as if a puppish young Cork team may have run their race. Among themselves, within themselves, their outlook couldn’t have been more different. When Jimmy Barry-Murphy had met the Kildare-based physical trainer David Matthews last autumn, he told him he wanted his new young team to less resemble elephants or pups and be more like greyhounds. And that’s the animal they felt like in Thurles that time: greyhounds that could have been as easily running in the track across the road. They knew they had what Coughlan calls “this extra kick” and that kick would see them blitz 1-7 to 0-1 past Tipp in the closing stretch.

“The fitness levels that came out the last day in the final 10 minutes were unbelievable,” says Coughlan. “Lads were just hopping. In nearly all our matches this year you’d be flying for the first 40 minutes, maybe flatten out for five or 10 minutes and then driving on again. I’ve never been as fit as I am this year.”

They’ll get even fitter. Matthews, like all members of JBM’s backroom team, is stressing this is a long-term project. It might take them two or three years to catch up with the Kilkennys and Tipps; he doesn’t see Cork winning the All-Ireland this year, only being competitive in every game; they can’t try to change and do everything this year. “You have to have something in reserve for later on,” says Matthews, “otherwise you overwhelm lads. So we’re not throwing the whole kitchen sink at them this year, just some of the utensils.” Already though, those utensils have been radically different to anything they’d come across before.

It’s what attracted JBM to him: his fresh thinking along with his affability which carried considerable weighting when the Cork manager was assembling his feelgood, think-great backroom. Matthews’ two buzzwords are speed and endurance. A decade ago speed, agility and quickness was all the rage in GAA training circles while these days it seems to be strength and conditioning, but for Matthews the holy grail is finding that perfect blend of both speed and endurance.

He’s spent all his adult life chasing it. As the fastest 800 metre runner Ireland has ever produced, that event centred around finding that ideal combination. And now, as unconventional as it may sound, he maintains that 800-metre running is the best fitness template for the modern GAA player, or at least for the current Cork hurler.

“As an 800m runner you need something of the speed of a sprinter and the endurance of a long-distance runner. For instance, I could run the 400m in 47 seconds. Now, that was never going to get me to an Olympic Games in that event but at the same time you need a good set of wheels to run it while I also had the staying power of a marathon runner within reason by being able to knock down 10 miles in 60 minutes.

“So an 800m runner needs to have the engine to keep running and at the same time have this turn of pace. And if you can bring that to the GAA field, you’re at a massive advantage. If you have someone that’s very fast and nippy but doesn’t have the endurance, it will show, whether it’s in the 50th minute, the 60th, the 65th.

“The ideal player is someone like Cathal Naughton. He’s not our fastest in our tests over 20, 30, 40 metres, he’s just one of the fastest. In the endurance runs then he’s up with the Seán Ógs without maybe beating them. Cathal has the classic make-up of an 800m runner. Would he be of an Olympic standard? No, it’s a different sport, but you watch Cathal Naughton in the second half of a game — he’s still going like a steam train, he’s still able to operate at a certain pace and intensity.

“Look, if I was over the Waterford or Kilkenny hurlers I’d take a different approach. The same if I took the Cork footballers. Their physique is totally different. They’re big strong powerful men whereas the hurlers in general fast, nippy, agile; they play a type of hurling that suits Jimmy and Ger Cunningham’s training and philosophy. There’s no point in trying to brawl with brawlers.”

For all Matthews’ offbeat and upbeat manner, there is nothing soft about his approach. The players are still hitting the gym to get their strength and conditioning in, while establishing their endurance base in the early months was gruelling stuff. Although Matthews will say that he’s “no vomit merchant”, Coughlan recalls one January workout on a hill where of the 20 players in attendance, 14 threw up.

“It’s been a massive challenge for us, with the standards Dave sets,” says Shane O’Neill. “He was an Olympian so his standards are very high while mixing the 400 and 800m runs with speed is a difficult thing to do.”

They haven’t returned to that hill since but one place Matthews will keep bringing them back to every now and then is what he calls the bottom of the well. In steeling them physically he’s steeling them mentally and he’s not getting them to do anything he didn’t do himself. As a world-class 800m runner, the bottom of the well was a place he continuously revisited. It was hell, and he was forever going to hell and back.

“The last 80 metres of a race is a complete blackout. You can’t hear, you can’t see anything, not even the line; it’s just a white haze. You’re in oxygen debt. It’s like someone hands you a fridge with those 80 metres to go and you have to carry that fridge. Most 800m runners will end up being nauseous though it’ll probably be about 20 minutes later that you puke. At first you feel salivation in the mouth, followed by a thumping headache, followed by getting sick. It’s horrible, getting sick with an empty stomach all the time. Shocking.”

Why did he keep putting himself through it? Because he was very good at it. The pain was temporary, gone as soon as he’d throw up. The memories will last a lifetime. He ran in two Olympics, three world championships and eight other major championships and while he never won a medal at any of them, still, the things that he experienced, the things that he achieved.

The one time he ran the 1000m he broke Marcus O’Sullivan’s Irish record. When he broke his own Irish record for the 800m on a wet night in Reiti in Italy in 1995, it made him the second-fastest white man in the world that year. Think about that. There’s a lot of white people in the world. Didn’t matter that he was only the third-fastest person in that race in Reiti. In running 1:44:82 he entered that so-elusive zone.

“It’s like anyone who plays golf will understand: when you hit the ball on the sweet spot and it feels so effortless. I didn’t get sick that night. There was no fridge handed to me coming down the straight that night. I didn’t win the race itself but we were going at such a pace, it was as if we were flying.”

Atlanta 1996 will live with him forever too. He qualified from his first-round heat for the semi-final round which was on the same bill as the women’s 5000m. His old training partner Sonia O’Sullivan had been expected to win gold in that event and a large Irish crowd had pre-booked their seats for her imminent coronation but after she bombed out in her heats Matthews was suddenly their only hope. Now he could hear their urgings from above the white noise of the 95,000-strong crowd, just as you’d hear someone across the room in a bar mention your name.

“What made it all the more surreal was that for the previous hour you wouldn’t have uttered or heard a syllable. We’d all entered the call room and once you walked through the door, that was it — no walkman, no phones, no contact with officials or coaches, anyone. Then we got onto a yellow schoolbus, like something in the Simpsons, to take us to the stadium half a mile away and the only people on it were the eight of us racing in that heat, one official and the bus driver.

“So you’re sitting there on this non-air-conditioned bus with no one saying a word but you’re thinking, ‘Holy God, this is it!’ Then you start thinking ‘Who can I beat here? Well, I have him and I can certainly beat him and him. I don’t know about [Verbjorn] Rodal, he’s in good shape.’ You run through the scenarios in your mind a million times. If I take the lead where do I go from there? If I don’t take the lead, do I look at the clock?’ If you’re feeling a bit knackered and not at the pace you should have been going through, it can have a massive negative effect on you whereas if you’re feeling good and run through in 52 seconds, it energises you. All these things are running through your mind.

“Next thing you’re out on the track and you’re on the 100m starting line with these seven other guys, all walking down to our starting line. Then the camera comes in front of you. And I’ll always remember it to the day I die: I looked at the screen, saw myself up there and I went ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ It was the most lonely place in the world, like walking from the centre circle to the penalty spot in a shoot-out. The enormity hits you; you’re minutes away from making an Olympic final. But then you check yourself. You have the dry mouth, the sweat dripping off you, the weak joints but there comes a point where you say ‘Get yourself together, this is what you’ve trained for, this is what you want.’ It’s something the Cork lads can relate with. There comes a time when you let the rollerblind up and once it goes, you’re ready to go not just on the bang but on the B of the bang.”

Matthews would run well that night but by finishing fourth he would miss out on the final by one place. Two of the people in his heat would medal in the final, one of whom would later be suspended for doping. Matthews though is at peace with that night, both with how he performed and the fact that in many ways he was cheated.

“I’ve never had a chip on my shoulder about it. I remember alright at an early championship in Athens going into a loo and finding a viral and syringe there. That was a real shocker to me. Before that I might have been a bit green and sheltered from the big bad world of big-time athletics. Even in Atlanta I’d believed I was competing on a level-playing pitch. But I still wouldn’t be bitter about it though I’d agree with Paula Radcliffe that anyone found doping should be banned for life. I was clean, I ran my best. I might have lost out on an Olympic final but it wasn’t like I lost out on a medal. If I was maybe someone like Sonia who was beaten out of a medal at the ‘93 worlds by three come-and-gone athletes on turtle soup, I might feel different.”

He knows Sonia well. Every summer from 1995 to 1997 he’d train and live with her and all the Kenyan athletes in Kim McDonald’s stable over in London. He went on training camp with her too to Australia a few times. Although she had her meltdowns like that one in Atlanta, Matthews has never encountered a mentally tougher athlete, not even Moses Kiptanui. “Every training session for her had a purpose. If she wasn’t racing someone right there physically, she was racing someone in her mind.”

It was a privilege in many ways to be in her inner circle, and getting invites to race all over Europe because he came part of McDonald’s package to race promoters, but in hindsight it was a bit of a mistake too. After the 2000 Olympics, Matthews retired from running. He was 26 and burned out.

“An Irishman can’t run or train like a Kenyan. We did too many miles and that takes the speed out of your legs and I lost too much weight. But the thing was when I broke that record in Rieta, I was only 12 weeks back from training and Kim and I had figured, ‘Well, if I could run 1.44 after just 12 weeks, I can definitely run 1.43 and become the fastest white man in the world if I train with the Kenyans.’

“Looking back, I shouldn’t have turned my back on Noel [Carroll]. He wasn’t just my coach; he was like my father. I’d meet him every day of the year. He’d come on holidays with me and I’d go on holidays with him and his wife when they’d be in the Canaries. Noel was a great believer in balance and moderation — training, the competition, fun. A happy athlete, he always maintained, was a productive athlete, and that worked for me, but because it seemed so simple, it didn’t seem right.”

If David Matthews the physical trainer of today could have given some advice to David Matthews the 24-year-old athlete, it would have been to ease down, maybe take a year out to get the hunger back. Instead the hamster kept running on the treadmill without getting any faster. After Sydney he pulled the plug.

There was no retirement blues. That same year he married Niamh. “We got engaged in college. You can imagine your daughter coming home while she’s doing her finals and saying she’s getting married; you’d tell her to get some sense, travel the world, enjoy herself. But she has more sense than anyone I know. She’s my rock. If I was to open up a burger joint in the morning Niamh would say no problem, what do you need from me?’”

They had testing times. After working for AIB and a couple of insurance companies, Matthews had his own property business and although he didn’t get burnt (“The last house I bought was in 2000”) Niamh’s income as a secondary school teacher provided the stability he needed as he set out establishing a personal training business.

The crash though was nothing compared to the real tragedy they experienced in 2008. For eight years they had tried for children; as Matthews puts it, “We married young to have children young.” Then Niamh eventually got pregnant with twins after IVF treatment. She went into premature labour after 24 weeks. David and John survived just 15 minutes.

“It was horrendous. For years there your life would be kind of empty without kids; well, not as complete as it could be. You see friends having children and you can only put up a front so much. Then you get the good news. And then [something like] that happens. Shocking. I was adopted myself, and you always long to see your own flesh and blood. You know, the way people might say you look like your uncle or your own dad or have the traits of your grandfather. I was lucky to have two wonderful parents bring me up but as an adoptee there’s always that piece of the jigsaw missing, the ‘Ah you look like so-and-so.’ That would have completed that jigsaw at the other end in many ways.”

In recent weeks though there has been good news for David and Niamh. They’re fostering a child and are going through the adoption process. As he keeps telling the Cork players, never give up and never let in; good things could be just around the corner.

He brings a whole lifetime of wisdom to them. Go on the B of Breaking Ball. Visualise but remember to switch it off so you don’t sap your energy. Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And enjoy it all.

“If there’s one word to describe the Cork camp, it’s ‘fun’. It starts with Jimmy and his ability to communicate and share a joke with lads. He’ll come in, ball hop, go out, let Ger or me at it, then come back in, make an observation or two, ball hop and out again. He realises there’ll be good days and bad days on this long road we have to go but that there must be a sense of fun.”

Last Thursday night after training Matthews’ car wouldn’t start. Cue an army of Cork players and selectors around his car like the McLaren team around Lewis Hamilton’s. “God, David, get a proper car, you’re in Cork now!” quipped JBM before AA fixed Matthews’ rusty connector and he was back on his way up to Kildare.

Either way Cork are back on the road now. And they’re glad to have an operator like Matthews driving them.

More in this section