John Allen a leader of men

John Allen remains the last Cork hurling manager to win the All-Ireland — and the last Limerick manager to win the Munster Championship, yet his achievements and methods have tended to be underestimated.

John Allen a leader of men

These days it’s the challenge of the concertina more than coaching that is focusing the mind.

About a quarter of an hour into a conversation with John Allen and it dawns on you that while you’re the one that requested the interview, so far he’s the one that has asked most of the questions. About your children.

What are their names? How old are they? And what are their interests? Or, as he beautifully phrases it, what lights them up?

As someone who taught primary school children for 35 years, it’s something that has long occupied a considerable part of Allen’s thinking capacity: What are the keys to opening up this child’s soul and letting it shine?

These days there are all kinds of schemes to develop a reluctant reader but when Allen started out as a young teacher, he quickly identified that the best course was to find out what topic they were interested in. Cars, sport, whatever.

It was the same in his final three years, when after three decades in the same classroom in Togher, he took on the challenge of being principal of a small school out in Kilbarry.

It reminded him a lot of his hometown of Aghabullogue: A farming area, with kids from farming stock. And so he went back to the sort of topics that he and his classmates would have delved into over 50 years ago: Tractors and bullocks and calves.

And every year he’d introduce them to some new field of discovery because it might just ignite a previously unknown fire within some child. It could be cooking, coding, fixing a puncture in a tyre, reporting and editing the news.

So when he hears that your daughter is consumed by the musical spectacular Hamilton and shooting videos miming to its soundtrack, he smiles with endearing approval.

Having volunteered that, you quip it’s only fair that you start asking more of the questions. Namely, what lights up John Allen these days?

For those who know something about the man, it’s no surprise to learn that music remains a passion.

When you first put the call into him looking to meet up, he was on his way back from London after seeing Paul Simon perform there.

Last year he similarly followed in Simon’s footsteps, albeit it was a considerably longer trek.

Like Simon, he saw the Mississippi Delta shining while on a musical journey that also took in the jazz and Cajun of New Orleans, the blues and crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, and the surprisingly commercial, almost tacky, Nashville, though the night in the Grand Ole Opry with Ricky Skaggs and the old MC still still reading out the local advertisements was truer to the tradition and his vision of the place.

John Allen celebrates Cork’s victory over Waterford in the 2005 All-Ireland SHC quarter-final at Croke Park. The Rebels would go on to win the All-Ireland. Picture: Brendan Moran.
John Allen celebrates Cork’s victory over Waterford in the 2005 All-Ireland SHC quarter-final at Croke Park. The Rebels would go on to win the All-Ireland. Picture: Brendan Moran.

And for reasons that he cannot explain — he was only ever a passing admirer, never a fan, of Elvis — some part of him wanted to see Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, probably because Simon had reason to believe it’s where we’ll all be received.

“I’m glad I went,” he says of his visit to the Presley estate. “But I wouldn’t go back there again.”

Nowadays his musical pilgrimages are closer to home and ones he’s happy to re-embark upon.

As an old opposite number of his on the touchline famously observed, in Clare they love their traditional music and their hurling too and as a man with similar passions, expeditions into the Banner are commonplace if precious to him.

A few weeks ago he was down in Miltown Malbay for the Willie Clancy festival. Forty-six years it’s going now and Allen was at the first of them.

A classmate from teaching college, Ciaran Friel, hailed from the town where his family had a well-known pub so Allen tagged along to see if it was all that his friend cracked on.

It was, and one summer, back when he was the regular full-forward for the Cork footballers, Allen ventured into a music shop where he picked up a concertina, enthralled by the free-reed instrument he had just seen a musician on the street play.

“I started playing a few notes,” Allen recalls, “when the man in shop said to me, ‘You know you have that upside down?’

“So I took my tail between my legs, stepped back and said, ‘Oh I do, yeah.’”

And for 35 years that’s where he stayed, until last summer after another visit to Miltown with his wife Jo he plucked up the courage to step forward once more and pick it back up.

“I love it. I get up in the morning to play it, every single day. I play it every single day. Now it’s not easy. It’s a bit like learning a new language or hurling — it takes time and there’s a process and there are steps. Because it’s not like a guitar or a whistle. You could be playing A and B on the right hand, then C and D on the left hand.”

But that’s where his teacher, his mentors, come in. He’s joined Comhaltas. He travels up every few weeks to Tulla for a masterclass from Mary McNamara.

He religiously listens to Noel Hill, one of Ireland’s — and the world’s — greatest exponents of the instrument.

At this stage Allen knows he’ll never be a Hill but is hopeful some year that he’ll be able to join in at the Willie Clancy.

He’s seven years retired now but he’s still a fresh, active man; he cycled in to meet you. But that’s about the only sport if you call it that which he really participates in these days.

He used to play the Limerick hurling golf classic under duress but then told them it had been the full 12 months since he last took his clubs out of the bag and it wasn’t really for him.

And no, neither is management nor coaching these days. That’s something he used to do in the past. But it’s probably only now that hurling and coaching in this country has awakened to the fact that his way was the way of the future. Only now are they wising and catching up.

‘The board didn’t much like Donal O’Grady. John Allen, I don’t think they could take or understand at all. This quiet and philosophical man who attended training in his sandals or bare feet was a mystery to them and an affront to them. John had the wisdom to let us grow as a team and to carry the weight of responsibility within the group.’

— Dónal Óg Cusack, Come What May: The Autobiography, 2009

‘In the 21st century, leadership will be through persuasion and goodwill. It will replace leadership through power and intimidation.’

Murray and Mann, Leadership Effectiveness, 2001

‘Every manager wants the players to take ownership. They are driving it themselves.’

Micheal Donoghue, 2017

Nowadays it’s all the rage, in vogue, the norm. The player-centred — even player-led — approach.

Developing decision-makers, on and off the field. Asking questions instead of bellowing orders and instructions.

But as Dónal Óg Cusack alluded to in his autobiography, John Allen was the subject of some bafflement among the traditionalists back when he was routinely leading Cork to Munster titles and All Ireland finals and even some ire when one county board sympathiser railed that the players on strike had become conditioned during Allen’s tenure to “running the show”.

It was a time when the style of a Ger Loughnane and Fabio Capello, and not Micheal Donoghue and Gareth Southgate, was seen as the preferred model of leadership, long before Steve Kerr was handing his clipboard in timeouts to Steph Curry and other Golden State Warriors.

Allen was one of a few renegade new wavers, like his contemporaries Declan Kidney and Billy Walsh, whose ideas, for all their chart success, had still to go mainstream. For Allen though it was the only way to go, or at least that he could go.

His reputation as the accidental coach is a tad overstated. For the guts of 10 years he played either senior hurling or football for Cork and then upon retiring from club football with St Finbarr’s — on a count of three All-Ireland medals and four county titles to go with the one All-Ireland and five county medals he won with the hurlers — he immediately took over as team manager and led them to two consecutive county finals.

Seamus Hickey and then Limerick manager John Allen celebrate at the final whistle. Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final, Limerick v Cork, Gaelic Grounds, Limerick. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE.
Seamus Hickey and then Limerick manager John Allen celebrate at the final whistle. Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final, Limerick v Cork, Gaelic Grounds, Limerick. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE.

But around that time the GAA was starting to formalise its coaching education and though Allen was one of the first asked to roll it out in Cork, he found it all a bit too solemn and sterile, especially with its emphasis on the technical and tactical.

Intuitively he favoured a more holistic, even spiritual, approach and after seeing how Tony Quinn had helped Steve Collins synch both body and mind to shake up Chris Eubank and the world, Allen’s own world was rocked as well.

Every weekend for six months he went up to Quinn in Dublin to learn ki-massage and by 1998 he was giving rubs to the Cork minor hurlers that went on to win that year’s All-Ireland.

The following summer his old clubmate Jimmy Barry-Murphy asked if he’d come on board with the seniors.

On that old table and in those old dressing rooms in the old Páirc, players would open up to him in a way they never could with a selector. The masseur became their confidante, even their friend.

So when he progressed to be a selector (under Donal O’Grady) and then manager (upon O’Grady’s departure), Allen viewed that bond with the players as an asset rather than a hindrance.

“I know there would be a certain cohort of people who would say that you can’t be the players’ friend. That managers manage and players’ play.

“When I look back on my playing career, it’s true when they say it’s not what people say that you remember, it’s how they made you feel.

"I can remember almost nothing of what was said in dressing rooms but I will always remember how [player-coach] Billy Morgan made me feel in the lead-up to the 1980 league final [victory] against Kerry. I was going to be on John O’Keeffe. John O’Keeffe at the time was a star.

"I wasn’t a star; I was a rookie full-forward. But Billy almost had me believing that I was as good as John O’Keeffe.

“We’re all human beings at the end of the day. That to me was number one. I wanted to be a friend of the players. I wanted them to feel I was on their side all the time and after that they were always going to do their best for me and the team.

“I now know as a manager of the team that I had a certain standing. I was the number one man in that domain so if I showed an interest in a player’s personal life, that obviously stood out for him.

“I wasn’t just asking about Niall Moran or Joe Deane, the player, the commodity — I was asking about Niall Moran, Joe Deane, the person. So therefore just chatting with them, be it on the pitch, in the dressing room, on the bus or in the team hotel, had to have an importance for them.

"And I would hope that I’m not caught up in my small world and thoughts all the time and that I’m listening to people in those sort of interactions. I always had an interest in finding out what made that player, that person, tick.”

With that, an unbreakable bond was formed, and for most of his reign, an unbeatable one as well. Even now it’s probably not appreciated just what an environment and spirit he cultivated.

Dónal Óg Cusack wrote in his book about how he was able to confide to his teammates and his manager about his sexuality and how they were able to deal with the threat of a newspaper possibly revealing it.

“I spoke to John Allen, one of the few men I know with no ego. John’s concern as a manager and a friend would always be for you.”

And that was Allen’s genius. By helping his players realise there was more to hurling than hurling and that there was more to them and life than hurling.

There were managers he went up against — and beat — in those years that were far more knowledgeable about hurling. But his edge and secret was that he knew more about hurlers.

Not least because he viewed them as much more than hurlers. And he knew they’d respond when he tapped into all they knew about hurling.

“I was never under the illusion that I had enough knowledge or experience to be able to drive this thing myself. I needed people like [trainer] Seanie McGrath and [selectors] Ger Cunningham and Fred Sheehy and Joe O’Leary there.

"And for me it was a no-brainer that the players going out onto the field had to be the designers of the tactics on any particular day.

“So I would never put the players out on the field before we had spent time discussing how we were playing, what puckout strategy we were using, who was standing on the goalline for 65s.

"That would have been driven by them. And I would have facilitated that by asking them questions. ‘And why do you say that?’”

It was a classic example of ideal situational management. As Timmy McCarthy would tell Michael Moynihan of this parish in the book Blood Brothers, “It was the right sequence. Donal was tough, he put in the perfect structure, but after two years you nearly had enough of that. John came in and gave the players a bit more leeway to make decisions.”

Allen’s job was to reflect the increased maturity of the team.

“When I saw how obsessive the likes of Dónal Óg and Seán Óg were about the game, they drove the whole thing. I could just sit back and facilitate this blossoming.

The players never picked the team or made a change in the game; there was never a lobby made of any sort for anyone to be made on the team or even the panel. But they were delighted that they were getting a say on how we were playing.

“When I met with Limerick as well I left them under no illusion: I would be the director, in the chair, with the cigar [he mimics taking a puff], saying, ‘Lads, this is what we’re going to do; I’m going to ask you a few questions and then you’re going to drive this.’

“Because that was my style. That’s what I could bring to it. I got the best people around me and then the players drove the rest of it.”

With Cork, he had told Frank Murphy that if after one year the job was too big for him, he’d gladly step down; Liam MacCarthy quashed any such doubts. Regardless of how the second season went though, he was finishing up.

He had initially taken the job because he felt the honour was greater than the pressure. After two years the pressure too much. Beyond the cool exterior, beneath the surface, the swan was feeling the effects.

“It used to worry me too much. It used to stress me too much. And the stress was probably put on by myself.

"I see Arsene Wenger said recently that while he often gave the impression of being calm, there were many nights he’d spend awake, thinking of team selections and players and planning. I was in the same boat.”

Limerick happened to catch him at the most opportune time. He was just cycling back from visiting his mother in St Finbarr’s hospice when they rang and he was contemplating what to do with all his spare time, now that he had just retired from teaching.

“There was a fear inside of me,” he confesses, “that I would crack up!”

The partnership worked out well for both parties. Allen got to meet people and work with players that he treasures to this day while the county won its first Munster title in 17 years. Niall Moran has spoken about how at the start of that season Allen asked how many of them felt it was possible. No-one was putting up their hand.

“John got fellas believing. He’s so personable, he’s able to force answers out of lads but not in an aggressive, pressurised manner. He made you question old habits and point you to where you were willing to embrace change.”

Former Cork manager John Allen. Picture Denis Boyle.
Former Cork manager John Allen. Picture Denis Boyle.

Their summer — and Allen’s reign, upon his own volition — would end with a subdued seven-point All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Clare, something Allen still looks back on with some regrets.

“If you look at [Brian] Cody, he’s very good at identifying players in club matches who have the traits that he wants — that absolute doggedness and will to keep going.

"There are players who can play very good in challenge matches and league matches but — and I don’t like saying this because I think the sport has gone too bloody serious — they might lack that die dog and eat the hatchet mindset for Championship.

"And looking back, I might have started one or two other players against Clare if I had thought it out enough.”

Something he had thought about was who would succeed him. John Kiely was a selector to him in those two years, impressing hugely in how he would analyse and scout games while as another teacher, his communication skills were excellent.

For Allen he was the obvious man for the job but that same autumn Kiely became a school principal and so didn’t apply for the Limerick vacancy.

In recent years the job evidently suited Kiely more and clearly he’s suited the job. For Allen though, management no longer has any appeal.

It’s in the past, like all the medals he won as a player — you won’t see them on display in his house, just like no pictures of his time in football or hurling adorn the walls — the medals are upstairs in the attic somewhere.

These days it’s all about the grandkids, his own kids, Jo. And, of course, that concertina.

As he heads off, he tells you he’s going back to tackle Peadar Ó Riada’s ‘The Hop Stores’ that he was working on this morning.

And then he’s gone, the hurlers’ man who is much more than just a hurling man.

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