Hurling has never been short of charisma or characters, least of all when it comes to managers that have prowled the sidelines on some of the biggest days in the sport’s history. For charisma and even mystery, Kilkenny’s Brian Cody stands head and shoulders above the rest for how he has always managed his team and himself, leaving people with more questions than answers about the secrets of their success.
Cody’s modus operandi was always to put forward as simple a philosophy as possible. If you allowed yourself to be lulled into his rhetoric you could be lead to believe that all Kilkenny ever did was throw a sliotar out onto the pitch and let the players figure it out amongst themselves and those left standing were the 15-plus men who would take to the field.
For characters, there are more to choose from, such as Babs Keating, Ger Loughnane, and more recently, Davy Fitzgerald. Managers who wore their hearts on their sleeves and played every ball as if it were meant for them. The atmosphere in their dressing rooms before, during, and after matches have a folklore to them that would make for cracking viewing in a documentary and would probably leave you exhausted from watching it let alone what it must have been like for those present in the room.
However, the modern-day hurling manager appears to be moving in a different direction.
Not necessarily better or worse, just different. Possibly more informed and definitely more supported.
Managers of yesteryear had to be a jack of all trades and master of a few, if not everything. They were pulled from left to right, up and down, in and out, with every decision having to go through them no matter how big or small. Managers would get to the end of their time in charge looking like twice the number of years had passed as seasons had gone, all for the love of the game.
Today’s manager has a team of people working with the team of players. In fairness, football had been building comprehensive backroom teams for quite some time before hurling realised the merits of sharing the load.
This is not the first time that football has pushed the boundaries of tradition first only for hurling to follow shortly thereafter. The win-your-battle narrative from hurling is now coupled with a far more detailed game plan and set of principles of how to play that lends itself to a far greater spectacle.
Of course, the more detail applied to the preparation of a team the more personnel required to help deliver on the promise of such detail. And not just any personnel, the days of bringing a former player into the fold for his presence alone are coming to an end with more and more informed, educated, qualified, and experienced coaches emerging with every passing year.
Limerick’s John Kiely is the model of the modern-day manager. He cut his cloth with the underage section of his club before a string of roles that eventually led to his current position as bainisteoir for the senior hurlers. The learnings with Limerick teams from his time as intermediate manager, U21 selector, U21 manager, and senior selector will have given him ample time and space to see what goes into developing a high-performing environment and a culture of excellence.
This step-by-step progression will also have infused him into a long-standing system of player development that started over 10 years ago when Limerick were one of the first hurling counties to commit time, patience, and resources to the physical development and skill development of their youth.
Limerick invested in coaches who were given the licence to educate players at the same time as training them. Players in the underage system didn’t just do gym sessions, in fact, the size of the weight being lifted was never what was important, it was how it was lifted and even more importantly, how the young player moved.
This premise enabled players to develop an understanding of what was important for their bodies to develop at a pace personal to them and not to someone else’s timeline.
Hurling sessions were about principles of play and focused on developing a greater understanding of how a team needed to collectively respond when they were in possession or out of possession. This was learned through scenarios and small-sided games, with little repeated drilling of moves in search of perfection, and more about exposure to the unpredictability of the game, leading to more adaptable players.
The days of tippy-tappy hurling to get your eye in were numbered in Limerick, it just needed a manager strong enough to break away from convention with a leadership style based on trust to support his staff in doing their jobs.
This describes John Kiely’s approach to management and will be reflected on in years to come as the standard by which all managers will be measured. Everyone involved has a distinct performance-related purpose.
Everyone involved is operating under the assumption that they are either already one of the best in their area or have the drive to be one of the best which results in a thirst for knowledge and the development of an ever-evolving philosophy.
People like Michael Kiely who oversees the physical preparation of the squad, Caroline Currid who leads the psychological aspects of the player’s welfare, and Paul Kinnerk who is responsible for the tactical readiness of the team have all spoken of the collaboration with John Kiely in their roles. He supports them in what they want to do as they lead the conversation based on their expertise.
No doubt this relationship runs smoothly when things are going well, as seen in 2018 for their first All-Ireland title since 1973. But the measure of the leader is to stay strong on your trust of your people when things do not run so smoothly, like when Limerick failed to reach the final in 2019. In fact, following this disappointment, Kiely was said to have given his backroom team even more responsibility and with this seal of approval and vote of confidence a greater sense of shared contribution to the cause of returning Limerick to the summit, as they did with last year’s 11-point win over Waterford in the final.
What John Kiely is doing for hurling management is appreciating and respecting the size of the task to lead a county to be consistent contenders. Consistency in approach, consistency in staffing and consistency in vision. High-performance sport does not like radical change, it feeds off continual, gradual progression where people are given time and space to find their strengths and a safe environment to tackle their weaknesses.
In this century Kilkenny and Cork are the only counties to have retained the All-Ireland hurling title. Should Limerick do so on Sunday afternoon it will be more than just a win for Limerick but it will also be a win for long-term planning and investment in systems and structures for sustainable growth.
Limerick play a modern form of the game with a modern form of manager at the helm, expect other counties to follow suit in the years ahead and the game to benefit along the way.