Big Interview: Gary Connaughton goes from saving goals to setting them

And there you were, thinking you’d never see him or Westmeath again, when who springs up in Croke Park and on your screen but himself. 

Big Interview: Gary Connaughton goes from saving goals to setting them

Hopping about the place, hugging Tom Cribbin, looking like Woody Harrelson in White Men Can’t Jump with his backward baseball cap and long white shorts and legs.

Just like his county did against Meath, Gary Connaughton came back.

That was part of the beauty of last Sunday week; that on one of the most joyous, buck-mad days of the summer, Connaughton would provide one of its most joyous, buck-mad images. The unlikely man, back among the unlikely lads, in the most unlikely of places: on the line in Croker, Westmeath selector, goalkeeping coach and backup goalie.

Two years ago he’d retired. He was 33, cranky with how he’d been playing but content with all he’d won and seen.

For a Westmeath footballer, you could hardly do better than he had: a Leinster medal and All Star, with tales to regale anyone. He’d played for Páidí and alongside Dessie. And before that, he could tell you about the time he was over in Newcastle, mixing it with Alan Shearer and Shay Given.

It would have been 1998, same year he did the Leaving. At the time he was the backup keeper to the Brian Kerr youth teams that were winning all around them in Europe. Closer to home he was vying with another ginger Gah-head in Shane Curran for the number one jersey with Athlone Town.

That year it had belonged to Connaughton and on their way to the FAI Cup semi-final he’d impressed a couple of scouts. Before he knew he was sitting on his tod in the Newcastle United training ground canteen, watching Shearer laughing boisterously a few tables away. Then Aaron Hughes, only about the same age as himself, had the decency and presence of mind to come over and join him.

“He must have talked away to me for 20 minutes, just to put me at ease. Every time I see him, even to this day playing for Northern Ireland, I’ll always have good time for him.”

It’d be out on the pitch though where Connaughton would really have his eyes opened. Every day there he’d train alongside Shay Given, Shaka Hislop, Steve Harper and Pavel Srnicek, under the supervision of goalkeeping coach Terry Gennoe.

He wasn’t in Athlone anymore, Cake.

“There were all these drills for your hands, your feet,” he says in that likeable droll, frank manner of his.

“I used to have my feet turned out, but they told me to keep them in, something I do to this day. At home specialist goalkeeping training consisted of Curran kicking the ball in the air, doing a summersault and catching it before it hit the ground. And then you’d be wondering why you’d a sore back half the time...”

“The trial would last 10 days. It felt longer. He’d actually love the football. The problem was when it was over.

“They’d drop you back to your digs at 1.30 after your lunch. I knew no one. There was nothing laid on, nowhere to go or to walk; it was just houses everywhere for miles. All you had was BBC and ITV in your room. To be honest I didn’t enjoy it.” As an experience though, it was priceless. While he didn’t make it with Newcastle, Newcastle would help make him.

Connaughton had only been playing soccer for three years. What he learned over there, he’d take into his preparation for Gaelic, and later, his goalkeeping coaching.

“I see it now. You put young fellas going through ladders and cones to get their footwork quicker and better and at first they’re all over the shop. I now know what I was like when I was over in Newcastle, what they must have thought of me.”

Páidí Ó Sé liked what he saw of him though. Connaughton had been on the county panel two years before the human hurricane from Ceann Trá blew into Westmeath but it hadn’t really been happening for him or for Westmeath.

Connaughton was still behind Aidan Lennon while the side still hadn’t recaptured the verve of 2001 when they’d blazed through the brand-new backdoor to reach the inaugural All Ireland quarter-finals. The 2003 season had ended with an early-round qualifier defeat to Monaghan and the bus home from Clones told Connaughton everything.

“Half the team didn’t come down on it. You knew then that it was the end of an era and probably Luke (Dempsey). That summed up why we didn’t achieve anything that year. Too many individuals. We just weren’t a team.

“When Páidí came in the first thing he did was bring us over to Sunderland (FC) for a training camp and he’d keep harping on about becoming more of a team and more mentally tough.

"I was late for a bus the last morning, something happened with the hotel, it wasn’t that I slept in, but Tomás (Ó Flatharta) and Páidí tore into me in front of the whole team. No excuses. There was no turning up late anymore or any of that kind of crack.”

On their return though, Ó Sé would pull him to the side at training to say he’d been watching closely. You’re good enough, push on now. By the second game of the league, he was the number one keeper. He was away.

It would take Páidí himself a bit longer to get motoring. What ultimately transpired that summer would only enhance his legend but we forget how questionable his appointment appeared earlier in the year.

“Players were definitely wondering about him. I remember games during the league he’d come into the dressing room and he’d say nothing: he’d leave all the talking to Tomás. But by God come championship, he was a different man. The first to training every night. So driven, so enthusiastic. Phenomenal.”

That’s about the best way you can describe that summer in Westmeath. Phenomenal. A county that had never before won a Leinster title had won it in Páidí’s first attempt.

Sure they had some luck. The first day out they beat Offaly by a point that wasn’t. The next day against Dublin, Stephen Cluxton was out suspended as a result of his altercation with Stevie McDonnell the previous summer. While everyone can remember the Dublin ‘fans’ over the dressing room tunnel roaring abuse down on Tommy Lyons, Connaughton is one of the few who can recall there were no Dubs on the Hill: it was closed for redevelopment.

As Páidí would keep telling them, trying to beat Westmeath that summer was “like trying to beat your fist off an oak tree”.

A year later the great man was gone. Their 2005 qualifier defeat in Ennis was as tame as the one in Clones in 2003.

“The year was just flat. From the start lads were missing training with flaky excuses. A lot of the older players were just happy with their Leinster medal. Not enough lads pushed on.”

Yet when anyone thinks of Páidí’s time in Westmeath, the memories are almost all warm and fuzzy. Connaughton’s are little different. He fondly remembers the man for his boldness; how he got them all suited up for the Leinster final and then a few weeks later mentioned they’d have to help fundraise to meet the tailor’s bill. He recalls the man’s generosity and the magical weekend in Ventry he treated them to that November, putting them all up in his place, the Delaney Cup perched beside the Sam Maguire his three nephews had brought along.

Above all, Connaughton is thankful for what the man did for his career. The last time they spoke was in 2008 when Ó Sé would call Connaughton to congratulate him on his All Star. Only for Ó Sé there probably would have been no All Star.

“He’s definitely been one of the biggest influences in my career. I’d been just an ordinary sub goalkeeper on a county panel.

Post-Páidí, Connaughton would become one of the faces of Westmeath football. Good days, nearly days, bad days, he was a constant, be it producing heroics and saving bullets or picking the ball out of the net, another goal and defeat to endure.

There was a defiance and consistency about him. In 2007 he’d make a blunder on national TV, failing to deal with a high ball in a first-round defeat to Longford, yet he’d bounce back in the qualifiers to save a penalty from a rookie called Michael Murphy; though Donegal would edge it that day, Connaughton had proven something to and about himself. Either side of that campaign he’d win All Star nominations, including the All Star outright in 2008.

Gradually though there was slippage. In performance, in motivation. 2009 was especially tough.

Westmeath took some terrible beatings in a league that ended with relegation. That summer Pat Gilroy’s Dublin would riddle his goal for 4-26.

Even when Westmeath would win promotion back to Division One in 2013, they’d be the first team in the country knocked out of the qualifiers, losing to Fermanagh at home.

Connaughton had let in a soft goal that day. More and more often he was letting in soft goals. He himself had gone a bit soft.

“If I was to be honest, I didn’t push myself enough or work hard enough the last few years. I switched off. I had my name made. I was just kind of there because of who I was. I certainly wasn’t the goalkeeper I was the previous few years. I used do serious training on my own back around ’04 to ’08.

"I’d go up to the [Tubberclaire] club pitch on Christmas Day, running, taking kickouts. You were just that driven for it. But after ’09 I wouldn’t have been at that anymore. By 2013 I knew it was best for Westmeath that I finished up.”

He’d other commitments by now. After the economic crash work had slowed down at the family sand and gravel business so he’d gone back to college to do a degree in Business Studies in Athlone IT. Then he signed up for a masters. When Paul Bealin asked him to come out of retirement, he had to decline, but he did agree to take Darren Quinn and the other goalies for some specialist coaching the odd night.

The following winter he was roped in some more. Things hadn’t worked out for Bealin and so Westmeath had turned to Tom Cribbin who wanted for a selector a former player the players would all know and respect: Connaughton perfectly fitted the profile. Connaughton was finished his studies and had aspirations in managing. Cribbin could provide the perfect apprenticeship.

He’s learned a lot from Cribbin. The man doesn’t mollycoddle players.

“If a player asks ‘Why did you take me off?’ Tom will be straight up and say ‘Because you were shite, that’s why.’ A lot of these other managers, they try and be nice with players. Tom’s honest.” And yet Connaughton notices that he’s constantly looking out for them too. “He’d be getting on to me to make sure I’m talking to all the players.

The likes of John Heslin and Kieran Martin, they’re playing, they’re happy. It’s the guys who aren’t playing you have to look after more.”

In January Connaughton’s remit was extended to backup goalie. Stephen Gallagher did his cruciate, Cribbin felt other goalkeepers in the county were still too raw for this level, and Connaughton had kept in shape over the winter playing local junior soccer. When Darren Quinn went down injured after a couple of league games, Connaughton duly stepped in and was man of the match his first game back against Kildare.

He’d play the following three games as well before Quinn assumed his position for the last league game against Roscommon. You couldn’t say Connaughton was dropped, more like beforehand he’d been filling in.

“Look, I’m in bonus territory. I retired two years ago. Darren’s a really level-headed lad, works hard and has a better kickout than me. Páidí would tell me in 2004, ‘Just kick them out as long as you can.’ But now it’s strategy and accuracy rather than distance that counts and Darren’s is better than mine that way.” That said, the old fella could still do a job. He’s fresher, fitter than he was in 2013.

The year out helped renew the appetite. John Doran’s training he’s found top class. He’s bought into it all the more for the words and example of Gerry Duffy. Connaughton has been around inter-county setups a long time and he describes the endurance athlete-motivational speaker as “the most talented backroom team member” he’s encountered.

“Gerry’s been absolutely brilliant around the place. I knew he’d run 32 marathons in 32 days a few years back but I wasn’t aware that in his mid-twenties he was smoking and drinking and had a big belly on him. He’s sold us completely on what can happen when you believe in yourself and get out of your comfort zone. I was never into running before this season. I’d maybe stop halfway through a run and say, ‘I’m a goalkeeper, I should be catching or kicking a ball instead.’

“Now Darren and myself are completing those long, lung-sapping, runs. It just steels you.”

Duffy and Cribbin had quite a bit of work to do with them. The league would end in relegation to Division Three. Sure, there were a couple of wins and a couple of other decent performances, but in a couple of other games they outright folded.

“We went to Meath and after half-time switched off, conceded about 2-3 in 10 minutes and heads just dropped. The next day out Down hammered us off the pitch in Mullingar. Our attitude was completely wrong. We went into the game still feeling very sorry for ourselves about what happened against Meath and thinking ‘This year is going to be the same old story [as last year] again.”

How far they’ve come. The last day against Meath they could also have started thinking it was the same old story. In 23 previous attempts the county had never beaten Meath in championship football. Twenty minutes in they trailed 0-8 to 0-1. At half-time Meath’s lead was out to 10 points. Even with 20 to go the gap was nine.

“In fairness to Tom at half-time he had a cool head on him. And about 10 minutes into the second half I said to one of the selectors ‘We’re going to win this game.’ We were gradually getting into it, Meath weren’t really responding, and then when we had serious momentum for the last 20 minutes. John Connellan came on and all summer he’s been just a revelation.

“I was on a stag with John last year. He wasn’t long back from being in Australia for four years and there wasn’t a fear of him playing county football for Westmeath again.

“He was saying, ‘Sure look at the results they’ve had; why would you bother wasting your life training like that?’ But when Tom asked me to come in as a selector, the first player I rang was John Connellan.” Tomorrow Connellan starts in a Leinster final. Like Duffy he’s shown you can discover a whole new best friend in yourself when you push yourself to the limit.

As to the validity of Duffy’s maxim that you can achieve anything you put your mind to, well, it faces the ultimate test tomorrow. Their opponents are Dublin. True, Westmeath have beaten Dublin before. That day in 2004. And again in 2008 in a Division Two final. But Connaughton is the first to acknowledge there’s no comparison between that Dublin team and the one now.

“They’re a completely different animal.”

Still, Westmeath are going to surf this wave for all its worth. Today they’ll all call over to Kieran Gavin’s house, like they have before every championship game this summer, and panellist Ger Leech, a barber by trade, will help maintain their reputation as the side with the best haircuts in the land.

(If it’s any bit sunny though Connaughton won’t be displaying what little hair he has left: ‘A few years ago we were playing a game, I’d no hat, and I got the head burned off me. Never again.”)

Connaughton reckons that already about half the Tubberclaire team that won the U21 county title last year aren’t even playing football now: either they’re playing rugby as they would have in Marist College alongside Robbie Henshaw, or not playing any sport at all. The county needs new football heroes, like Ger Heavin was in 2001, like Dessie Dolan was in 2004 and beyond.

“I remember one time in the late ‘80s going to watch Westmeath play in the first round in Tullamore with my father who was a big GAA man. There weren’t 20 Westmeath people at it because they knew they’d be getting bate and walking out of the ground you had Offaly ones laughing at you. But you’d just feel this pride about it, that we’re Westmeath, you know, that someday we’ll do something, just you see. And we did.

“Winning Leinster in 2004 was the best moment in my life. The most prized possession I have is my jersey from that game signed by all the players and management. I would do anything for these young lads and this county to experience something like that.” So much so that he returned. In more ways than one. Yet again backing his words with action.

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