‘Teach them how to play, not teach them plays’

Mark Ingle is one of the most familiar faces on the Irish women’s basketball scene, if one of the most hidden figures in assisting Jim Gavin’s Dublin. But football isn’t on his radar this cup finals weekend as his DCU Mercy team bid to stop old friend Mark Scannell’s Glanmire from claiming the five-in-a-row.
‘Teach them how to play, not teach them plays’

There’s a whole generation of basketball people now who only know him as Mr DCU Mercy, just as the wider public may only know him as “that basketball coach helping out the Dubs”.

But there’s no way any chat with someone with as varied and colourful a career in sport as Mark Ingle’s can be reduced to just those two most obvious, recent topics.

Here’s someone who hails from one of Irish boxing’s greatest families. Was initially a soccer man himself, learning some of the tricks of its trade from an old Leinster Senior League teammate who had played alongside Charlton, Best and Law at United.

Coached three different men’s teams to the Cup finals weekend, including a crack Killester side that won everything in a season now simply known as the year of the foot-and-mouth, and the Manchester Giants.

Our conversation though starts by mentioning that it’s the 20th anniversary of our first encounter. It was another January Cup weekend, on the eve of another head-to-head clash with his great rival and friend, Mark Scannell. Only back then the pair of them were the bright new things on the coaching circuit, not its Godfathers, and it was a men’s match between Division One outsiders Tolka Rovers and the mighty Neptune.

It instantly triggers the kind of recall and yarns that only basketball people can have: of mid-game coaching adjustments and invariably some drama in recruiting or retaining some American player.

“That was the year we had Eric Stevens and a small guard, Reggie Brown, who we got for free. I found him at the airport. I was on the golf course when I got a call from Immigration. ‘There’s this fella here who has given me your name. If you’re not here in 20 minutes, I’m sending him home.’ So I went. Tolka had no money and I had never heard of him but his agent had sent him over with a list of some coaches and obviously told him, ‘Call these guys when you get there.’ He didn’t even know where he was. He thought he was going to Iceland, not Ireland.

“Once I got there I vouched for him. He wouldn’t get through now. But 20 years ago, he could. They knew: a black man was probably an American basketball player.”

Unlike now – though it’s something a resurgent Basketball Ireland could revisit – the National Cup was like the FA Cup, where First Division teams could have a crack at – and in Tolka’s case, shock – the big boys. While Scannell’s Neptune would prove to be a step too far, prevailing 85-78, Tolka and Ingle at least had the golden memory of tripping up St Vincent’s, coached by Jason Sherlock’s celebrated mentor, Joey Boylan. In the Ingle canon that quarter-final has been filed away as the ‘Rope-A-Dope-Game.’

“Karl Donnelly was the rock star at the time so a lot of their offence ran through him. So we planned to play a box-on-one on him but I figured if we played it too early, Joey would have adjusted and Vincent’s would have had time to adapt. So we held it back until the last quarter. Karl must have had 20 points by then and we were about six down but when we rolled it out, they hardly scored again.”

That Ingle uses a boxing term to recall one of his sweetest if largely forgotten triumphs on the hardwood is not surprising, given his family history.

His father was a first cousin of Jimmy Ingle, the first Irishman to win a European amateur boxing title. Jimmy’s brother is Brendan Ingle, who famously went on to coach Herol Graham and Prince Naseem Hamed. Maybe, he smiles, that’s where he got the coaching bug from. But as for lacing the gloves up himself? He smiles again.

“I tried out in a gym at six years of age and got the head knocked off me by a 10-year-old. They do a bit of that at the start, to see if you like it. I didn’t like it.”

He liked soccer. His mother’s brothers, Francis and Thomas Swan, all played League of Ireland, with Bohemians and Drumcondra. Francis was more like a brother than an uncle to a young Ingle, being only 10 years older and living in the same house. Together they’d play one-on-one, door-to-door, out the back pathway. By his teens Ingle was playing schoolboys football with and against the likes of Ronnie Whelan at Home Farm. He was a tidy, technical player but a bit light, but again someone would take him under his wing.

“Francis started dating a girl whose brother played for Manchester United. Damien Ferguson was his name. Liam Brady has said he was the best schoolboys footballer to leave Ireland. He actually came back and played Leinster Senior League on the same team as me and he said, ‘You know what, Mark, your touch is good but you can’t hold off a player. When the ball is played to you, put your hand on your man’s face.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Put your hand on his face.’

“Now, no one ever sees that, but that’s what the top players do. And so I started to log all these things into my head. These little nuances. And it would stay with me when I’d start coaching basketball. How do you get open on a pass? How do the pros do it?

“So my philosophy has always been: teach them how to play, not teach them plays. Any coach can teach a play. But when a player is in the play, how many coaches have taught her how to get out of the play? When she’s stuck? It’s the same in every sport. Yeah, we get the ball out here, we can play it forward and look for the centre forward here and run off him. But what happens if that doesn’t happen? What’s next?”

Basketball was a slow-burner. In school he couldn’t really warm to it because all he seemed to do in it was warm the bench. He remembers one game up in Dundalk when the team were 30 points up and the coach asked the 6’7 centre to bring the ball up while Ingle remained rooted to the bench, shivering in his duffle coat.

But then he started going to Superleague games on Saturday nights. Watching the likes of Rob Gonzales and Kelvin Troy, players who rubbed shoulders with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in college, lining out with his homeclub Killester. There was no better way to spend the night before playing a soccer game the next day.

Then he began playing with Delta (later merging with Notre Dame). Started coaching them. Met Annette one night down in Killarney at the legendary Pretty Polly tournament. That was her for life. That was hoops for life.

He’d immerse himself in coaching, shadowing and assisting the likes of Ed Randolph in Delta, Jerome Westbrooks in Malahide, Roger Kelleher with Irish underage national teams. By trade Ingle was as a printer but more than once his bosses would have caught him devouring some book by Bobby Knight or Rollie Massimino when he was supposed to be reading the machines.

Eventually he’d quit the job and coach full-time. There were enough schools and colleges who wanted him to coach them.

On top of all that he made time to squeeze in setting up a small club called Mercy Coolock. That one was on the house. An affair of the heart. It started out in just the school. Vanessa Burke would have been the star pupil when they won an U19 B Cup, pipping Juliet Murphy’s Donoughmore in a nail-biter. Then another later GAA and Irish sporting legend came into their lives. Lindsay.

From the start Ms Peat was a scrapper. Fiery. Pure gold. Only often in her self-loathing she’d forget. “I have been uncontrollable at times,” she’d say a few years ago after being capped by Ireland in rugby, “but it worked out in the end because people like Mark Ingle never game up on me… He’s been that calming influence and able to manipulate my temper in a good way.”

How did he do it? Sometimes by meeting fire with fire to get it to cool.

“‘I’m not going to f****n’ stand for that, Lyndsay. That’s not happening on this team. Sit the f*** down, Lindsay. And calm down.’

“Five minutes later. ‘Right, Lindsay. Let’s go again.’”

And how would he describe their relationship now, a couple of years after she finally finished up playing Superleague?

“Great. She was on only the other day wishing the three teams (U18, U20 and Superleague) best of luck in the finals. Lindsay Peat is a remarkable sportsperson. When we first linked up with DCU and introduced the players to S&C, she totally embraced it. Lost about two stone. Braveheart, I used to call her. An absolute leader.”

Just as Ingle would expose the likes of Peat to high performance, Ingle himself has teamed up with another elite set-up in recent years. After being Rope-A-Doped himself by Jim McGuinness in the 2014 All Ireland semi-final, Jim Gavin made contact. They met for coffee. And while Ingle is reticent to divulge what has since transpired, it’s fair to say things have moved on from just having coffee.

“I’ll just say this. I don’t watch sport to see who wins. I watch it in lines. Unfortunately, when you’re a coach, you watch everything in lines. In directions, in movement.”

Tim McCarthy, he of ‘DOWNTOWN!’ fame among other things, watches sport – and Dublin – much the same way. He’s spoken about how he feels Dublin have tangibly benefitted from the indoor sessions Ingle would have had with them out in the ALSAA Complex by Dublin Airport and how he’s dovetailed with the likes of Jason Sherlock, Declan Darcy and Gavin himself.

“Mark Ingle is an exceptional coach,” McCarthy, who has worked with the Wexford footballers, told the42 last September. “He’s brought an understanding of screens, rolling off the screen and moving into space.”

Gavin has attended several DCU Mercy matches in recent seasons while Ingle will vouch the Dublin manager takes in some college basketball games too.

“He could text me and say did I see the game between Oklahoma and Kansas the other night. So he has his eye on the ball. He’s a terrific coach, not just a manager. I don’t know if people really appreciate that.”

Although for the last 13 seasons there hasn’t been a year DCU Mercy have finished outside the top three in the league and only twice they’ve failed to make it to the last four of the Cup, such consistency, while astonishing, has almost been Wengerian in not translating into more silverware.

It’s 11 years now since their only league title, and seven years since they last won the Cup, edging Glanmire for the second straight year. After Peat & Co raised the standard of preparation for the entire league, UL duly aped it and raised it again before Glanmire would wrestle back complete supremacy in 2014.

It hasn’t sat comfortably with Ingle. “I always feel at the start of every season it’s my job as the head coach to have the team being the best that it can be. But the first thing we say to the young players when they come in is: You’re playing for DCU Mercy now. There’s an expectation to be successful. We’re not just doing this three times a week and doing the strength and conditioning for the craic.

“If it’s recreational basketball you want to play, we have other teams for that. That’s one thing that Annette is very strong on; I call her the Mother Teresa of basketball, for how she looks out for everyone. But for coaches like me, [his son] Sean, [assistants] Damien Sealy, John O’Connor, we have an expectation of what it takes to compete at Superleague basketball.”

Such ambition has been tempered with realism: in truth, DCU were in transition this past five years, with players like Peat and Suzanne Maguire ending up terrific careers while most of the rest of the squad were just starting out on theirs. Only Sarah Woods was in her prime through it all, and with Glanmire’s Grainne Dwyer, Clare Rockall and Aine McKenna in theirs, DCU needed more than that.

But now he likes the look of the team and the club. Woods has assumed Peat’s standing as a leader. The kids are wiser, better.

“The one thing I’ll say about our group is that they’re ballers. They live for the game. They’re unfazed. Sometimes when you have a special group, people can dismiss it and they can’t wait for someone to beat them. But this is a special group and they’re nowhere near their potential yet.”

And so, 20 years on from that Cup semi-final with Tolka, he tests his wits once more against Scannell.

They’ve been running the successful Rip ‘n’ Run camp pretty much ever since then and been close friends for even longer but if anything that gives clashes like this added spice.

“In fairness, we’ve worked well together on things like the Irish team [2008-2009] and the camp, though it can be tough work. It’s like U2 – a lot of bantering and arguing but the right decision comes out in the end.

“The week of a match [against each other], there’s radio silence. Then if he wins, I’ll congratulate him and if he wins he won’t congratulate me! That’s how it f****n’ works!”

Sounds to us like there’s more rope-a-dopes and yarns for years to come.

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