Three years ago, Ballinacourty were looking for a coach so they rang former Waterford manager John “Jackson” Kiely for advice. “I asked them did they want an ordinary guy or the best coach in Ireland,” recalls Kiely. “They asked who was the best and I said Donie Buckley. They said ‘we’d hardly get him’. I said I know him well so I rang him.
“He had to juggle a few things, he had just started Kerry at the time, but we got on and he came down and took it from there.”
Less than a year later and his part-time work with him, he was integral to their winning of a county title. Like Miltown-Malbay, Ennis’ Faughs and Moycullen before them, Buckley’s touch had worked its charm.
Kiely had got to know him when Buckley was joint-manager with Michael Brennan in Clare. The pair would speak about football for hours on end.
“He’s a players’ man,” Kiely says of Buckley, an All-Ireland club winner with Desmonds of Castleisland in 1985. “He brings the best out in them. He’s a wonderful ability to communicate with them. He’d eat the bollocks out of you but it’s for your own good. Some managers have big egos and you can’t talk to them. Donie’s not like that. He has a cracking sense of humour.”
John Galvin would back that up. Buckley’s involvement with Limerick under Mickey Ned O’Sullivan between 2008 and ’10 (he’s back with the county as director of under-age football) marked a second coming for the team after Liam Kearns’ success with them.
“You wouldn’t find a player in Limerick that wouldn’t rave about him. Everyone was mad about Donie Buckley not just as a person but because his training was so good. It was very hard too but everything was quick and fast, 90 minutes between warm-up and warm-down. You could do two and a half hours in a session and not fit in what he managed to do in those 90 minutes. There was always variety. He might be working on the same tactic or the same skill for two weeks but you’d be doing 10 different drills to get it right, over and over again.
“But it was always simple, never complicated and his enthusiasm... it would seep into the whole team. He’d be so into it.”
Galvin remembers Buckley’s effect as being almost instantaneously positive in 2008. “Buckley came in for the last game of the league and in only six weeks we went from being so bad in the league to leading Cork by three points going into injury-time and they got two goals at the end. The year before, we didn’t give Cork a game at all, at all.
“The improvement was there for all of us to see and then it was taken up another level when we beat Meath in the qualifiers. With his enthusiasm and his expertise he revitalised us completely.”
From Limerick Buckley moved onto his native Kerry in late 2010 when the players took to him as warmly as they had in Limerick and Clare, except he was reduced to a smaller role working with another coach in Jack O’Connor.
A knee operation prevented him from travelling to Kerry from his Ennis base in early 2012 and he eventually packed it in.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice would have happily recruited Buckley this season but was of the view he needed to give his management team a new dimension.
Recruiting Cian O’Neill left Mayo and James Horan with a void, but one he quickly filled with Buckley. Kiely knew how good a deal Mayo got when they brought him in but he sees it now too. “You can see his work with Mayo in their tackling. They’re doing it properly. Stupid fouls and stupid things lose games.
“He sees the team who makes the fewer mistakes as having the best chance of winning a game rather than relying on some act of extraordinary brilliance.”
Keen observers of the league and championship football in Mayo have noticed a vast improvement in the skill levels of the county players this year. As Galvin says, in practice his exercises are simple but according to Kiely they’re more sophisticated in theory.
“I asked him one time for a drill and he came back to me with this thing on a sheet of paper that looked like a plan for steelworks. I told him that. He got a wicked laugh out of it. He was the county engineer in Clare for years so what would you expect.
“I introduced him to my coach Michael O’Loughlin and they’re the best of friends now. Buckley made a right good coach out of Loughy.”
Every autumn, the retired Buckley heads over to Florida where he gets the most out of the 90-day visitor visa. There he golfs and extrapolates what he can from other sports. He’s also been known to coach Hispanic-Americans in soccer.
His devout work as a coach brings him elsewhere too. Kiely chuckles at the story of Buckley and a friend going over to Spain to catch a Barcelona game.
“His friend thought they were going to be in the Nou Camp just before kick-off but Buckley says he wants to be there an hour beforehand to watch the warm-up. He felt it was just as important as their formation and tactics.!”
But such is Buckley’s attention to detail. The tackle, as Mayo so adroitly showed against Galway, is an area Buckley invests a lot of time and a grey area where gains can be made upsetting the “busy hand” of the opponent.
Buckley encourages tackles to be made as high up the pitch as possible. Mayo, more often than not, start them in the opponent’s half-forward line unlike Donegal and Dublin who usually wait to make their collective move to intercept or interrupt around midfield.
“It’s the positivity in Buckley’s mentality,” explains one figure who worked under the Castleisland, Co Kerry man. “There’s dispossessing but then there’s dispossessing and trying to score from that turnover.
“But sometimes it isn’t always about winning the ball. The northern theory seems to be about winning the ball back immediately but Buckley’s is more about breaking the opposition’s momentum and forcing them to punt the ball when they don’t want to, thus making it easier for you to win the ball back.
“A lot of his beliefs are very traditional. He’s not one to be sitting four or five back. He prefers to see players master every element of the game. Look at how comfortable Mayo are on the ball and how composed they are. Their handling errors are down.”
When the group met in Castlebar last Sunday morning to go through their tactics for tomorrow’s All-Ireland quarter-final against champions Donegal, Buckley would have been a prominent voice.
Having taken in a number of their games this year including their opening win in Ulster against Tyrone in Ballybofey, he’d have taken a forensic comb to the All-Ireland champions. Including their win over Laois, he’ll have broken down Donegal’s failings for the Mayo players.
“He brings analysing teams to another level,” remarks Galvin. “He’d spend hours watching video but then he only tells you what you need to know.
“He might only be trying to get one point across to the team and he’d do that in a one minute video but that would involve four or five clips from different games. Imagine the work it would have taken to go through all of that.”
Making players’ lives easier. Making players better. It’s the Buckley way.