The Big Interview: Sporting chief Dave Mahedy calls time on his illustrious career at UL

Last night Dave Mahedy closed his office door for the final time at the University of Limerick. As Director of Sport and Recreation, Mahedy has been the driving force behind the growth — and importance — of sport at all levels in UL for almost 30 years.

The Big Interview: Sporting chief Dave Mahedy calls time on his illustrious career at UL

Last night Dave Mahedy closed his office door for the final time at the University of Limerick. As Director of Sport and Recreation, Mahedy has been the driving force behind the growth — and importance — of sport at all levels in UL for almost 30 years.

It’s hard to know which party will find it the more peculiar: Dave Mahedy without UL Sport or UL Sport without Dave Mahedy.

For aeons now this place hasn’t been merely his home, he’s been its father, even mother, bringing into the world facilities and partnerships that not one else had even imagined.

Spending a few hours in his company in the college’s sports bar is to survey and marvel at both a career and a campus, each decorated with so many milestones and landmarks.

Take this month. September. Twenty-five years ago he was a key member – “the key man” according to manager Tom Ryan – of a Limerick hurling team that suffered one of the most heart-breaking All Ireland final defeats ever either side of winning a couple of the most glorious Munster championships ever.

And when he thinks back on it, it would have been around this time of the season 20 years ago that he facilitated a now-famous goal-setting session of a Munster team still grappling with this concept of professionalism at which Keith Wood floated the notion of entering another brave new world: winning the Heineken Cup.

Thirty-nine years ago this week he was in Madrid with Eoin Hand and Limerick United, clubbing with the late Laurie Cunningham hours after they’d played his crack Real Madrid team in the Bernabéu.

But the big one, when he looks back on it all, was this month 45 years ago: when he first came to Limerick, as part of the first PE class to start and finish their degree in Thomond College.

He can still recall the trepidation initially overwhelming any sense of adventure, a Dub now suddenly beyond the Pale. “It was traumatic. Back in those days anywhere beyond the Naas Road was the country. I got off the train and right away I was on Carey’s Road with people hanging out and I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?’”

What was he doing there? When he was 13 his school, St Benildus, Stillorgan, played a Gaelic football match up in Gormanston College. Mahedy was struck by the authority and occupation of the onsite PE teacher Joe Lennon and how the Down All-Ireland winning captain organised teams and games and presided over the school’s impressive sports facilities. Mahedy had already a sense he wanted to work in sport for a living and the sense to know it wouldn’t come from playing it.

“So that day, I thought, ‘This is a life for me now.’ In those days there was no sports science, no rec[reation] management, only PE.’”

As there was nothing else he wanted to do, there was no other place but Limerick he could go.

It helped that another Dub was in the same quandary. Tony Ward had also gone to Limerick with the sole intention of getting his degree and then getting straight out of Dodge and back to Dublin to teach for the rest of his life.

They instantly gravitated to one another, tagging along in their first week to a meeting of the college GAA club.

“I went in thinking I was quite a handy player, coming from Kilmacud Crokes. Then the chairman of the club got up and first congratulated Brian Mullins and Fran Ryder on winning the All-Ireland and commiserating with John Tobin on losing it. I looked around and Pat Spillane and his brother Mick were in front of me. Ogie Moran was also in the room…” So where did Mahedy and Ward slot in that year with the GAA club?

“As umpires!” grins Mahedy. “Enjoyed it, actually.” But as for actually playing somewhere or some sport, they’d go a little further afield, joining the college’s Collingwood Cup team.

Soccer was their game back then. Ward, it’s hard to believe or remember, hadn’t played rugby for a couple of years until Garryowen out-half Johnny Moroney broke his leg and an English PE lecturer suggested to the club that one of his students seemed handy whenever they threw an oval ball into a coaching module; prior to Moroney’s misfortune, playing for Shamrock Rovers was Ward’s primary sporting focus.

Mahedy, who in Dublin had played for St Joseph’s and St Pat’s, in turn fell in with a local junior club, Wembley, taking their sessions while also rolling out FAI coaching courses.

A year after graduating, Limerick United came calling, wanting him to pair up with another promising new coach, Eoin Hand.

Mahedy was literally of the new school, brimming and buoyant with ideas. In Thomond lecturers like PJ Smyth and Dave Weldrick had opened his eyes, so he’d open others, like Hand’s.

“Growing up, coaches would have just ran us around the field, have us do a few press-ups and sit-ups and then play a match. If you were a good player you went to the A team, if you were a bad player you went to the B team. You were either born with it or you weren’t. But PJ and Dave showed us, no, that skill could be taught and learned and developed.

“He showed us the power of positive reinforcement. In those days everyone used to shout at us, abuse us if we missed a ball or a shot. But PJ would say, ‘Well, is that [shouting] working? And maybe it’s your fault as the coach that they can’t do it. Did you prioritise or coach shooting in practice lately?’ “So suddenly we had psychology, skill acquisition, small-sided games. You could play 3v2, 2v1, 1v1s. Coming down to Limerick, I’d never seen or heard of this before. So we learned about all this and that if you were any bit creative, you could go and develop that further yourself.”

With Limerick United he would, dovetail brilliantly with Hand. The club had no previous tradition of success but within a year they had won the league.

To win something they’d never won before meant doing things no League of Ireland club had done before. Pre-season training was gruelling. Initially there was some resistance to Hand and Mahedy adding in a weekly weights session – but over time they listened to the man and his science and saw and reaped the benefits.

By the following September they were playing Real Madrid in the European Cup, foiled by only a last-minute goal in their ‘home’ game in Lansdowne Road before the return leg in the Bernabéu a week later. Real would win it 5-0 but that didn’t ruin either the trip or the memory. For one, it basically doubled up as Mahedy’s stag. “I was getting married on the Saturday and our game was on the [previous] Wednesday. After the game, Laurie Cunningham – maybe because we spoke English as well – came out with us and took us around some of the best night clubs in Madrid. There’s a great photo of with Laurie and half of us with our shirts off, just like in training where we’d have skins against shirts.”

Limerick United would be one of many fascinating collaborations Mahedy would have. In later years there would be Tom Ryan with Ballybrown and Limerick hurling teams that would win Munster championships; Pat Dolan and St Pat’s where they’d win a League of Ireland; Niall O’Donovan and Shannon where they’d win multiple All-Ireland Leagues; and Declan Kidney and Munster who’d reach a couple of Heineken Cup finals.

Yet for him two of his most formative and memorable came around the same time as Limerick United’s title and European run.

The woman he was marrying, Kay, was a nurse he met while helping set up a Special Olympics club.

A Sister, Maria, had called into Tony Ward Sports, the shop that Mahedy helped his college friend manage, asking if Tony could help, so he did, pointing her in the direction of Mahedy.

Within a year Mahedy was back up in Gormanston, this time with his group of very special friends participating in the first national Special Olympics games in this country.

“That experience probably more than any other showed me the power of sport. Because in those days any child or anybody with severe mental difficulties wouldn’t be seen. They were hidden away. But here they were, able to do a sequence in gymnastics. Swim. Succeed. So it was telling everyone, especially themselves, ‘Look at what they can do.’”

Ward and the sports shop was another key dot, though it would take a while later for him to connect it with others. Ward had been such a hit with Garryowen the club needed something to entice him to stay in Limerick and so Pa Whelan and Frank Hogan helped him set the business up. Running it was another matter.

“Tony and myself didn’t know the difference between an invoice and a delivery note. We’d say, ‘Oh, we’ll put all the white ones together and we’ll put all the pink ones over there.’ We didn’t have a clue. But it worked. People wanted to come in and see Tony and get a ball or a poster from the All Blacks game.”

In time that interest would peter out for all concerned: the public, Ward, Mahedy. Ward needed to get back up to Dublin while Mahedy grew tired selling football boots and runners. When a job came up in Thomond in 1985 for a facilities manager, he jumped at it. He got it too. But only, as he now appreciates, because he’d learned from the shop the difference between invoices and delivery notes, something not even PJ and Weldrick covered in his student days.

To think of how different the facilities that orbited his office then are to the ones that orbit it now is phenomenal – for one, his office is in a different place. Back in ’85 it was in the old Thomond building, back when the college was called Thomond. Then in 1989 their neighbours and rivals NIHE became a university. In 1991 it teamed up with Thomond to become the University of Limerick.

All the time Mahedy saw only opportunity.

“At the time Thomond would have been looked down upon. But in 1990 I wrote a document saying, ‘Look, this is how we should progress.’ Because UL had the clout to do it. And in fairness UL bought into it.”

Part of that was how he sold it to them. UL had already built a concert hall, about the only one built outside Dublin that century. So Mahedy played to their sense of vanity as well as open-mindedness. How about going for the first 50m pool in the country?

“No one else had done it. Everyone else was saying it couldn’t be done. So I said, ‘Would you like to be the first?’ And they said, ‘Okay, if we build it, can you make it run?’

“And of course, I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, of course!’ Not having a clue! But we would do it.”

Like with funding the building of it, they’d find a way.

Ed Walsh as college president was key, finance director John O’Connor equally so. Chuck Feeney, the philanthropist, was especially generous, chipping in with six million euro of his own. By 2001 the indoor sports hall with its running track was opened, and a year later the pool was there too. All 50 metres of it. The goal wasn’t to have the finest sports campus in the country. It was to have one of the finest in all of Europe. In his research Mahedy visited campuses in the UK and was unimpressed.

“I saw fellas shovelling coal into boilers or putting salt into the pool to chlorinate one pool.” The US was another matter. That provided the template.

While on these reccies, he was still fitting in gigs as a trainer, coach, advisor, guru, whatever you wish to call him. He didn’t charge for any of them. “I remember Revenue didn’t believe me so I had to get letters from the likes of Jimmy Hartigan [Limerick secretary] to write to them. I never charged. Because that way I could come and go as I wanted. And above all, I just loved it.”

The payback came in all other sorts of ways. Last Friday week Mahedy’s family threw him a party upon his imminent retirement. Tom Ryan and Joe McKenna were there, lauding his contribution to Limerick hurling, echoing the words of Mike Nash in Henry Martin’s Unlimited Heartbreak that “Dave Mahedy was way ahead of his time”.

Pat Dolan was there, fondly recalling of how he helped tutor him as a manager when Dolan, by his own admission, “was 28 years old and 28 stone heavy”.

And Declan Kidney was also there, to nod how Mahedy, the first physical trainer the club ever had, helped enlighten them as to what professionalism actually was.

So, he says, you can’t put a value on that. “I’ve been very lucky in my life, to be in the right place at the right time.

“To get into Shannon when they had the likes of Anthony Foley and Mick Galwey. To get into Munster just as they were becoming professional.”

He won’t lie that it had its challenges. No, he never tried to get Claw to give up the fags. “We were introducing urine tests for hydration and some of them were looking at me – ‘You’re taking the piss! Literally!’ But what you were hoping for was that you’d create an environment where some bought into it and then a younger generation just accepted it as the norm.”

That is part of his legacy: though he was only in the dugout for the two Heineken Cup final defeats, not the two wins under Kidney, in spirit he was there too. He wasn’t directly involved when Limerick finally got over the line in 2018, but then when you think all of that team came through an academy system that would run most of its sessions on the new north campus he imagined and helped get built, that’s legacy too.

He’s finished up this week. He’s still just 63, and a fresh 63 at that, but, he smiles, he wants to go out like most players try – at the top of his game.

Last year Munster decided to use UL as their base for all preparations. And only last week the college opened up a new seven million euro pitches facility.

He has no real plans as to what’s next. He might go back helping out with a team or two now that he has more free time; last year he helped out with the U14 Limerick Kennedy Cup team.

You would think government or Sport Ireland might tap into his expertise. He’s certainly not short of opinions – “Soccer and rugby should be back in Croke Park – there’s no point in it being only full only three or four times a year” – or insights.

When it comes to facilities in this country, few have a better track record.

More than bricks and mortar though, he helped build a spirit. That’s what he’s proudest of.

“The main mission, the dream, has always been to create a sports environment which can cater for the basic beginner all the way to the professional or Olympic athlete.

“You could be studying PE here, business, anything. You could be a school kid coming in for the day. A Special Olympic athlete. We cater for you. We cater for them all. If you build it big enough, they’re all catered for.

“So you could be on court number one playing indoor soccer. On court two, could be a Superleague-winning basketball team, on court number three you could have Special Olympics and then Munster on court number four, with Thomas Barr out on the [indoor running] track. You don’t make places just for the elite. You make it so everyone can use it.

“Yes, there are times where Munster need to be on their own. They’ll go into their own gym and their own lecture theatre-film room and that’s fine. But they’re still around here.

“They’re touchable. They come in here [to the sports bar] for a cup of coffee and could sit down alongside a young swimmer or a lecturer in nutrition. That’s the dream.

You couldn’t count the number of athletes who PJ “Smyth talked to over a bite to eat. So when I come in here and see people having those kind of interactions, it’s great.”

He may always be from Dublin but Limerick made him. What’s more, he helped make and build part of Limerick.

Dream maker.

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