John Morrison: The genial genius who was great for making them feel great

It's been a few years since the two of us last spoke and 20 years now since we first met but the wit, wisdom and warmth of John Morrison continued to pop up in conversation and the imagination.

John Morrison: The genial genius who was great for making them feel great

It's been a few years since the two of us last spoke and 20 years now since we first met but the wit, wisdom and warmth of John Morrison continued to pop up in conversation and the imagination.

Just last month, I was in the Institute of Sport, interviewing its performance director Liam Harbison in his office in Abbotstown, when he mentioned a line one of its service providers had used in a recent staff meeting.

“An athlete doesn’t care what you know until they first of all know that you care. Just as they don’t remember so much what you’ve said as how you’ve made them feel.”

For Harbison, it was profound, something in all his time in high-performance sport that he had never heard before but summed up an aspiration of the Institute. Me, I first heard it 14 years ago in one of the many briefings and tutorials John Morrison would have afforded me. As a Donegal physio he worked with once dubbed him, Morrison was The Man of Phrases, all of which had a habit of making you ponder and nod and often smile.

This time last year I was up in Westport ahead of Dublin and Mayo squaring off in the league, just as they will again on Saturday week. The recently-retired Alan Dillon was reflecting on his career, including the impact that the “infectious passion” of Morrison and Mickey Moran had on him. He only had them for the one year which had an awful final day, but prior to that defeat to Kerry that 2006 season for Dillon had been a joy; it wasn’t coincidental, in his view, that he won his first All Star that year. John may have been “one of the most eccentric coaches” he’d ever encountered but the pair of them had “revolutionised” how Mayo should train, being “so ahead of the game”.

A fortnight later I met up with Turlough O’Brien to learn more about the Carlow Rising. Over our cuppa he’d explain how spontaneous and often cracked he could be trying to learn more about football. Back when he was managing Éire Óg teams, he’d come across an article about Morrison and these coaching books he’d written, and so took it upon himself to drive up to Armagh. Didn’t have the man’s number, or even his address, but later that evening was knocking on a door on Cathedral Terrace. John Morrison, I presume? And at that the smiling stranger welcomed in a friend for life.

“John Morrison is the most generous man I know to give advice and assistance to anyone,” O’Brien would tell me. “A lot of the language John uses has permeated right through the GAA and he doesn’t get credit for it.”

Like O’Brien, I’ve also been fortunate enough to be invited by the beaming ‘Beefer’ into his house; the week of the 2002 Ulster final I wasn’t so much granted an interview as an audience, and a life education, not just a life story.

Morrison had always been, as Dillon would put it, “eccentric”, a maverick, a rebel, even. Though he loved Gaelic football as much as anyone ever has, he was banned from playing it for a while, being a fine soccer player during the Ban. In his five seasons playing Irish league football for Glenavon, he donned hair to his waist.

“I loved wearing colourful clothes too,” he’d tell me. “People would say, ‘John, turn those off!’ It never bothered me. It’s like with my coaching – when people say it’s off the wall, my answer is ‘You laugh at me because you think I’m different but I laugh at you because you’re all the same’.”

Even in his first coaching job, taking a small club called An Port Mór to a county junior league and championship double, there’d be bystanders looking on in bewilderment as he’d roll out rugby balls and tennis balls to supposedly help the team’s mental and physical reflexes.

It would have been coaching Antrim then for a couple of years in the 1990s that he would have earned the name John ‘Mental’ Morrison, Ahead of a top-of-the-table league game against Longford, Adrian Logan and his similarly-bemused TV crew rocked up to Casement Park to find music blaring from the training ground. As someone who studied and worked in child and physical education most of his life, Morrison was only happy to explain the method behind the madness.

“I love dancing,” he’d grin in his living room that afternoon in 2002.

My friends all call me the dancing gigolo; when we’re out, they pint and I dance with their wives. Music can change your pulse; studies show, you’ll skip, run, move better to quick music. So that night we were doing a lot of fast-feet work. Adrian asked why I had the music on. I said, ‘It’s a freezing cold night in February. The music is taking the boredom out of it. Why shouldn’t I do it?’

And by forsaking convention, Morrison found that anyone who joined in and danced with him tended to laugh with and not at him.

For sure he still left himself open. Benny Tierney, the one Armagh man with a similar capacity to regale terrific yarns, once told me about when Morrison was a coach and selector to the Armagh team that reached a league final in 1994. One night, Morrison apparently got up and declared that within three years they would win an All-Ireland.

“And over those next three years, boys, I’m going to be like a father to you boys! And I will do anything a father would do for a son! Any questions?’”

Tierney raised his hand. “Can you spare us 20 bob, Pops? I’m heading out the door here!”

Almost a decade on though, Morrison was still giving Tierney some help with his kickouts, just as he had Paul McGrane fetching for balloons to improve his hang-time and fielding. Long after they’d ceased to share the same dressing room, they were still sharing and working on the same dream, that Sam Maguire might come to Armagh.

Morrison wasn’t on the steps when the big one was handed out to Kieran McGeeney in 2002; as mentioned he was involved with the Donegal team they edged out in that year’s Ulster final. As far as we know, he never won an All-Ireland of any sort. But looking at his career and influence, it makes the standard sports bio inadequate. How do you reduce a John Morrison to his track record? That between 2002 and 2006, he and Moran had the distinction of guiding three different counties – Donegal, Derry and Mayo – to the last eight of the All-Ireland series? How do you get in or even know of all the intangibles, like that in our 2002 interview he namechecked a promising young coach called Mick Bohan who he’d continue to befriend, just as he would a Turlough O’Brien, being not just the coach’s coach, but the mentor’s mentor, Yoda with a smile? That top set-ups all around the globe now use different-shaped balls like he did in An Port Mór all those years ago? How this writer, even the other day, was repeating to his kids the line about people might laugh at them because they are different but to remember that they can then laugh at them because they’re all the same?

A few years ago, a few columnists from this paper gathered for a championship preview when one of them, a former All Ireland-winning player and coach, spoke about how ultimately it’s about winning; that when you go to someone’s funeral, you’ll invariably ask and talk about what the deceased won.

The case of a John Morrison shows that’s not true. Thankfully, in his own lifetime, he appreciated that. During one of our last conversations, about four years ago, he spoke more philosophically than usual, possibly because he was just after a health scare (“Most people are afraid of driving tests and school exams because they feel ‘I’m not prepared for this’. But most people, when they get older and have had a good life, are not afraid to die. I’m ready for it.”)

“I loved the game,” he’d reflect in that chat. “When I was young, my father told me to be careful not to get too hung up on winning and losing. That they’re both fads, soon in the past, so cherish the moments with every team that you go to.” It is obvious from interviewing former players through the years and reading their tweets yesterday upon his passing how they now similarly treasure the time they had with Morrison.

A coach once said that success in his profession should be measured, not in what you won with players but how they felt 10 years after working with you. For the record, it wasn’t Morrison who came up with it, though it sounds like something he’d say.

Yesterday, Conor Mortimer posted on social media the note and photograph of his last-minute free in the last 2006 Connacht final that Morrison later gifted him. Practise indeed does make perfect.

Mayo won that day in Castlebar because of that free. But yesterday that wasn’t what Mortimer remembered most. It was how Morrison cared and made him feel.

A few members from Douglas GAA club have asked us to clarify that in our report of Cork’s defeat to Clare, when Luke Connolly kicked a 40m free backwards in Ennis last Sunday, it was actually to St Finbarr’s Conor Dennehy, and not Douglas’s Kevin Flahive as inferred in our report. Flahive was on the end of the following pass.

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