Despite being gone from Dublin now for six years, the bonds I formed with the management and backroom staff are so strong that we still have our own Whatsapp group. You can always pick up the phone to any of those lads at a second’s notice but retaining that page is our way of keeping that unique dynamic we had as a group alive.
Every so often, someone will sprinkle some old stardust across the screen, rekindling those magical embers and stoking them in our souls again. Last week, Ray Finn – our brilliant kitman – put up a photo on the page under the caption: “Look what I found when cleaning out the garage.” It was an old pink T-shirt, with the words ‘Billy Dodo’ written across the front.
The idea behind the T-shirt stemmed from my experience with the late John Finn, who taught me Irish in St Flannan’s. John was a brilliant teacher but he had two terms for the guys who finished the bottom two in the class – the Billy Dodo and the Nanny Dodo.
I got caught once in the bottom two. “Now for the first time this year, from the village of Clarecastle,” John stated to the whole class, “Mr Antonius Ó Dalaigh, step up.” It was harsh but Finn knew what he was doing; I never studied as hard for the next test.
That memory returned to me when I analysed Dublin’s stats at the end of the 2014 league. There was a glaring trend from our free concession rate because 45% of the 91 frees conceded were for technical fouls. When I dug a little deeper, I discovered that our six biggest offenders were responsible for 60% of that total. Conal Keaney was the biggest outlaw of the lot, having conceded 17 frees.
I told that story about John Finn’s methods to outline the heedlessness of our needless fouling. It obviously left a mark on Keaney, who went away a couple of days later and bought six pink T-shirts with the word ‘Dodo’ written across each one.
Keaney took the initiative himself to drive the issue. The six biggest offenders wore them at our next training session but their status as GAA fashion statements were continually under review.
The T-shirts were passed around as management saw fit. I’d often be driving home afterwards when I’d get a call. “Dalo,” the voice would say -it was mostly Ryan O’Dwyer- “I don’t think I deserve to be wearing that pink T-shirt the next night.” I was always ready with a response. “Hi, remember those two shots you took over your left shoulder, near the sideline, into the breeze? Were they high-percentage shots?”
Different levels of offences merited being handed T-shirts. Lazy tackling was a stonewall sentence. Sometimes, just to mix it up, I’d throw lads the T-shirt to keep them on their toes. Stephen Hiney, who was our Bull McCabe, got it a few nights for harmless offences but Hiney never even blinked or asked for a reason.
I nailed Mikey Carton once for turning up late. Mikey had to change from his fireman uniform into the pink T-shirt. “Ah Dalo,” he pleaded “I’m just after rescuing Mrs Wilkins’ favourite cat from a tree out in Kimmage. She was worried sick so I’m after adding years to her life.”
Mikey was fine in certain situations - fighting some backdraft was always going to take precedence over Dublin training. But if Mikey knew he was going to be late and he didn’t text me, the Billy Dodo T-shirt was waiting for him.
Teachers wouldn’t get away with that kind of a stunt now but John Finn’s methods were of their time, and they hit the mark. Others might say that managers and coaches shouldn’t put players in that kind of a position, because it may make them feel isolated. But one of the players came up with the idea at that time, which handed ownership of the concept over to them. We, the management, just administered it for them.
In the modern game, everybody wants a new way, and the most up-to-date approach possible. But sometimes, old school is the best school to learn hard lessons. And yet everybody is afraid of their lives to even mention old school. A manager or coach deemed from that time is nearly treated like a leper by the modern player. So every manager and coach is chasing the next best thing from the new school.
The pause button has been pressed on society’s rat-race over the last few months but, in a strange kind of way, there has been a coaching rat-race played out across all of the social media platforms in the same time-span.
I’m not for a second knocking ingenuity and creativity but, if you were to get caught up in the vortex, the quest to find that next edge from podcasts, webinars and Zoom calls has been so relentless that it must be exhausting.
That might sound rich coming from me when I’m heading up a podcast in this paper. But I think most people are more interested in the human stories than the data and the coaching detail and the latest software.
Modern players want to be challenged and stimulated. But it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when you’re so focussed on all of the other stuff supposedly designed to provide those challenges and stimulants.
I can speak from experience because I’ve been on that chase. A lot of that insecurity, and tendency to overthink and over-plan, within management and coaching stems from the attitude of your panel: ‘Ah, that other crowd are drinking nettle soup, we need to do the same.’ When I was Clare manager in 2005, we should have beaten Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final. As soon as we were drawn against Cork in the opening round of the 2006 Munster championship, we studied them so much that we nearly knew each Cork player’s favourite biscuits.
We went down to Thurles in May and forgot to fight the fight. Cork decided ‘Hi, we’re going to show ye that we deserved to beat ye last year.’
We got so caught up in the search for the inches that we forgot about the miles. All we really needed was a gentle tweak, a sharper level of focus than what we had in 2005. Drinking nettle soup wasn’t going to give us that insight.
I made a similar mistake with Dublin at the end of 2013. After narrowly losing the All-Ireland semi-final to Cork, management spent 12 hours in a hotel in Mullingar with a facilitator that September. It dragged on so long I couldn’t even get to see the Clare U21s win the All-Ireland title the same evening on TV. I never felt so drained that night in my life.
The facilitator, who had experience from the Labour courts, absolutely grilled us, before putting this substantial document together. When I look back on the experience now, the whole process could have been done over an hour and a half, followed by a round of golf. All we needed was a couple of basic themes to work on, not the 13 we were presented with in the document.
We thought we had it all sorted for 2014, that we had all bases covered. Maybe we had but we forgot the most basic one of all – to fight the fight against Kilkenny and Tipperary in the Leinster final and All-Ireland quarter-final.
As a former inter-county manager, you’re often better just to step back a little. So if I was to give any advice to coaches and managers now, many of whom are caught up in this rat-race for more knowledge and more information, that would be it – step back and reflect.
Think about your management style, your coaching philosophy. Think about your squad. Write down their names. Jot down their strengths and weaknesses. Is there something that player needs to work on, something you're not picking up on when there is 30 at training and you don’t have the time for individual chats? Can I pick up the phone to him or her now and have that discussion?
Please God whenever the GAA action does return, I really hope we don’t have this platoon of coaches who feel so enlightened from their new knowledge that they start bamboozling their players. Players want to play, and that desire will never be greater whenever they do get that chance again.
Fellas need to have context. The last thing coaches need to do is put down more cones that were on the M7 road widening from Dublin to Naas over the last few years. You don’t need these new tackling drills that you heard the ACT Brumbies were doing in some podcast. All you’ll probably do is confuse the players, as well as yourself.
After everyone has been so physically disconnected over the last few months, the priority for any coach and manager should not just be reconnecting with players, but making those connections stronger than ever before.
Whenever I did one-on-one interview with the Dublin players, I’d always finish up by asking them if they were happy. They’d nearly always bring it back to being delighted with the set-up, or the quality of training, or whatever, but that was never my focus in a one-on-one scenario. “No,” I’d reply “if you take away hurling, are you happy?”
That is the bottom line because you have a duty of care to your players, to look after them, to make sure that they’re content in their lives. You have to ask the same questions of yourself as a coach and a manager.
Are you happy in your life? Do you have that proper balance, one that works best for you and your family and your players? Because if you don’t, something is going to give.
It’s not always about the newest coaching gimmicks or fandangos. Some of the greatest books you can read as a coach have nothing to do with sport. Their core message may reinforce the importance of happiness and contentment in your coaching or management role.
When Claudio Ranieri orchestrated one of the greatest sporting success stories ever, when leading Leicester City to the 2016 Premier League title, one of the standout images for me was how much Ranieri enjoyed the journey. The Italian just smacked of being so happy in his own skin.
Ranieri was considered a genius but he came across as the most basic fella God ever invented.
“Yes, we play well,” you’d often hear him saying in press conferences after a win. “We enjoy our football. I promess that we keep the clean sheet and I buy for the players the peeza and the ‘ot dog.”
It was easy for Ranieri to keep buying the pizzas when he’d Jamie Vardy sticking 30 goals in the net, with Riyad Mahrez showcasing his magic, when Leicester had two rock-breakers as centre-halves, and Ranieri had Peter Schmeichel’s young fella stopping marbles inside in goals.
Ranieri got the formula right but he didn’t complicate matters. And he certainly didn’t worry about what everyone else thought of him. “I don’ta believe the bookamakers. The bookamakers donta know my player . At the beginning, they say ‘Ranieri suck’.”
If the inter-county game does return later this year, I can’t wait to start writing about hurling matches again in this column, or to start chatting about them on ‘The Sunday Game’.
The fare will no doubt be more fascinating than ever but I won’t be overly focussed on the tactical minutiae of the games - I’ll be more inclined to talk about the game’s characters, to rave about hurling’s subtle beauty and brilliance, the stuff that stirs our soul, that makes our hearts dance; John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer’s golden wrists; Cian Lynch’s sorcery; TJ Reid’s genius,Tony Kelly just at full gallop.
Because that’s the kind of magic that ignites the blazing love of this game in our souls.