Still the coach’s coach: Liam Moggan on supporting Ireland’s mavericks

Liam Moggan chuckles at one point as we chat away about athletics and some of its seemingly intractable issues, at the Pillo Hotel just outside Ashbourne in Meath. 
Still the coach’s coach: Liam Moggan on supporting Ireland’s mavericks

We could, he says, be here all day, and the voice inside this column’s head thinks, ‘well, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world’.

Kieran Shannon did a piece with Moggan for this newspaper three years ago under a headline calling him “the coach’s coach”. He has worked with everyone from Ken Doherty to the Kerry footballers, Brian Kerr, and show-jumping’s Gerry Mullins. An hour in his company spills over in all directions. There are no boundaries to his thoughts and imagination.

A specific job title is far too linear and constraining but he is employed as a coach education officer with Coaching Ireland. Though not for long. Moggan finishes up later this month and, though he has no intention to stray from his specialised subject, he has no definitive plans either. He’s happy with the uncertainty and the options that brings for now.

His interest in athletics stretches back a lifetime and he’s still knee deep in all sorts of ways, aside from the coaching. You’ll hear him commentate on the Morton Games and Cork City Sports but most of his work is done away from the crowd. He’s deputy president of Schools Athletics and president of the Schools International Athletics Board, too.

It’s a love to which he’s committed while refusing to ignore the blemishes.

He tells a great story about the sport’s place in the wider scheme of things. It’s 1982 and his old friend Ray Flynn has just posted an Irish mile record that still hasn’t been broken. 3.49:77. It makes him the ninth fastest miler in the world and he’s done it at the Bislett Games in Oslo. Serious time, serious stage.

Two days later and Flynn is back in Longford Town, staying with his parents in their house on the Dublin Road, when he pops down to the local shop to buy a paper. As he walks out, the guy behind the counter pipes up: “Ray, by the way, are you still at the jogging?” Moggan laughs again but he’s not joking when he adds that Flynn would have been carted shoulder-high down the street had he scored the winning point for the local footballers.

This is athletics in Ireland.

A

thletes requires a single-minded focus and the deeper that drive the more it can separate someone from their surrounds, their community. Coaching is the same in that it beavers away in the background, unheralded and, in Ireland, undervalued.

Moggan mentions Jack Sweeney by way of explaining just how much.

A teacher at CUS on Leeson Street in Dublin who coached Ronnie Delany before he left for Villanova in the States, Sweeney ran a Summer School of Athletics with coaching classes for teachers and anyone else with an interest. “It was crude, it was raw, but it is as good as we have ever had it,” Moggan says.

Delany made for America more than 60 years ago.

Moggan sees coaches such as John Shields and Eamon Harvey as inheritors of that flame nowadays but they are individualised operations working in a sport devoid of any centralised coaching structure and one where the process and those central to it simply aren’t embraced as they should be.

“There is a dearth of understanding in relation to coaching,” he explains. “They are not supported, not seen. Real good coaching happens in the shadows. It happens in the wilderness. It happens on a persistent weekly basis. It doesn’t fit in with this awful thing of KPIs (‘key performance indicators’). That doesn’t work. So we need to have a charismatic person who values the value of the process every day.”

That isn’t easy. Moggan describes his own way of thinking as “flowery” but he fully appreciates the cold, hard, financial realities facing people like Paul McNamara, the new Athletics Ireland high-performance director, whose job it is to come up with a system that embraces coaching while satisfying medal and other performance targets.

“Coaching is about helping people to think and learn for themselves. Systems don’t like people who don’t think like they think. So some of our great, great coaches are great simply because they think. So when they think differently the odds on them being brought in…

“There’s a tendency for: ‘get them away’. And because they are thinkers they can talk and that can ostracise them a bit more. So I wouldn’t be hopeless in the sense that I feel a lot of the people are there and a lot of the structures are there. The only talent needed is for hard work.”

He tells the story of Michael Lane to illustrate just that. Lane had a dream that Ireland could be great at race walking and approached Moggan soon after he started with Coaching Ireland. Lane was, he admits, a thorn in their side but he persisted. Now national walks coordinator, the Mullingar man has been hugely instrumental in a discipline that has produced half of Ireland’s six World Championship medals.

“So you need to give support to the mavericks, the thinkers, the workers,” Moggan says.

He should know.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @ByBrendanOBrien

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