Hurling on a winner as preacher Paudie O’Neill spreads gospel

Today, in Portlaoise, former Tipperary coach Paudie O’Neill will have divided loyalties, part of his heart lying with both Clonmel Commercials and Ballyboden St Enda’s. As always, he’ll see the big picture, the health of the game. As he must in his role as chairman of the Hurling Development Committee.

Hurling on a winner as preacher Paudie O’Neill spreads gospel

Even for a man who lives a full life, Paudie O’Neill has a particularly full and interesting day ahead.

This afternoon he’ll unassumingly take a seat in the stand in Portlaoise and observe the All-Ireland club football semi-final from that most unique of positions: a proud Clonmel man that won multiple county titles with the Commercials before dedicating much of his adult life into helping make Ballyboden St Enda’s one of the strongest dual clubs in the country.

Then, he’ll dash straight to Thurles to take in another game. For the first time in three and a half years the Tipperary senior hurlers will play a competitive league or championship game without Eamon O’Shea or O’Neill, the team’s coach during O’Shea’s tenure, on the line.

And Tipp’s opponents tonight? Dublin, a county that O’Neill hurled with himself in the mid-‘80s before going on to coach a stream of players who’d wear the same jersey.

Before any of that though, in the morning Munster Council will bring mentors involved with the various county development squads together for some coach education. O’Neill will be one of the various speakers to address them in Thurles as chairman of the current Hurling Development Committee, the choice of GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghaíl.

It’s an inspired one. There’s not a level of the game that O’Neill hasn’t coached at. From the primary schoolyard of Knocklyon where he was principal before his retirement a few years ago, to the club pitches of both today’s big-ball adversaries Clonmel and Ballyboden, to the big stages of Semple Stadium and Croke Park with O’Shea’s Tipp.

And during that lifetime of service, he’s come to a clear finding: players want and need games. From the six-year-old in the schoolyard, to the neglected club player, to Seamus Callanan and Brendan Maher at the highest level, it’s universal. More games. Games first.

“My best coaching experiences were in primary school and the best people I learned from were the pupils. Because the one thing I learned in 36 years in teaching was this: I never once had a child come to me and say ‘Teacher, can we do drills today?’ What they’d always say is ‘Teacher, can we have a game?’

“You constantly hear the refrain ‘Oh, promote hurling – get plenty of coaches in.’ You start by promoting hurling by giving them games. A meaningful programme of games. That way there’s context.

“Over the years there’s been an awful lot of coaching done. We’ve development squads in every county. A big name will be asked to go up to say Donegal and do a coaching session. But what’s the point in me going in to coach a team in Donegal when they don’t have a game? What’s the point in coaching guys when there’s nothing to play? Because the real coaching is not just coaching the sport. It’s assessing ‘Hey, based on that game we played, now we know what this team really needs to work on for the next game.’ That way you have progression and development.”

He’s seen it first-hand. Back in 1994 when he was over a Ballyboden team that won the club’s first minor hurling county championship, those players still were only guaranteed six or seven games a year. Now a hurler in Dublin is guaranteed a game every second week: then on alternative weeks he plays football. It’s one of the reasons why the GAA is booming in the city and there’s been a massive increase in the number of clubs playing hurling: even traditional football clubs want hurling because it keeps their lads together those alternate weekends.

So that’s what the HDC are addressing. Instead of running All Ireland minor B and C competitions that included a total of just 13 games, they’re replacing it with the U17 nationwide Celtic Challenge that will guarantee each team a minimum of six games through the summer months.

A similar model will eventually be rolled out at U20 level, replacing the U21 B and C championships. At senior inter-county level too there needs to be change. No more than the schoolkids that were like caged tigers unleashed at lunchtime, mad for a game, the likes of Callanan are itching to play more. Administrators would benefit too.

“Every time the Tipperary panel convene to train, it’s probably costing the county board about €2,500 a night. That’s between food, mileage, physio and backroom, etc. A senior county team typically trains 100 times a year. Now what’s the revenue stream? Five or six league games with only a few of them at home; only two guaranteed championship games.

That’s not a lot. Whereas if you could tilt the balance and have a better training-to-games ratio, especially in the summer: have more games and more revenue, less training and less expenditure.

“Why would we in Munster not have a situation where Tipperary play the other four [traditional] Munster counties? Then, out of that you get two teams contesting the Munster final – I wouldn’t scrap the Munster championship; you couldn’t anyway, nor would you want to. The winner goes through to the All-Ireland semi-final; the loser falls back to an All Ireland quarter-final. You’d have something similar with a more eastern conference run by Leinster Council.”

The inter-county season and All-Ireland final could be run off earlier. A round-robin segment would ensure clubs and club players would know for sure when they’d be playing. That would make their lives – and those of their families – a lot easier.

“Where we’re falling down is players don’t know when they’re playing. They need to know in this day and age when I’m playing, where I’m playing and who I’m playing against. Because life has moved on. People now have to be making their plans three or four months in advance. The old days when people were just hanging around and didn’t travel anywhere are gone. In the GAA we need to realise that.”

The broader, bigger picture is something O’Neill has long seen and not just because he’s spent his working life in education. He remembers when he was a student and child himself.

In explaining his concerns about the direction the Department of Education is taking and their obsession with standardised tests – “But sure what happens then? Teachers are going to start teaching to the test! That narrows education down to ticking boxes...” – he produces a photograph for you to examine. It’s from the early ‘70s, a team photograph of youngsters with a few mentors also standing in. There’s someone there, he says, that you interviewed last year.

You soon spot who it is. Paudie Butler, the great hurling evangelist. A much younger Paudie Butler, with jetblack hair, but one even then wearing glasses and spreading the gospel.

After even more scrutiny, you recognise O’Neill as well. He’s 14 years old, a few years older than the rest of the children.

“Paudie was a 19-year-old trainee teacher down in Clonmel at that time,” O’Neill explains. “The club ran an U11 street league and that was the team from our area. Paudie was the facilitator of the team. He had me as the coach. He’d my friend Frank Nyhan there in the back as the manager.

“But the thing that really struck me about that photograph was how in it you had children from every social class: from lads whose parents would have worked in the professional classes, to other lads who didn’t have an arse in their trousers. That was real social cohesion at work, that was real community, and that was real leadership he entrusted me with. He was saying to me, ‘There’s your job now, you coach that team. Frank, you’re the manager.’”

Frank Nyhan is now a highly-respected solicitor in Mallow and a key figure in the recent, hugely impressive Mallow GAA Complex development. O’Neill likewise has turned out the better for being entrusted with such leadership. What value, he wonders, do the powers-that-be place on such education now?

“Why are so many third-level students pulling out of year one or two of their courses? Because they were never taught how to think. It was all geared towards points, points, points.”

Something similar is happening with third-level GAA, he finds. It’s losing sight of its real and bigger purpose. Big-name outside coaches are being brought in to increase a college’s chances of winning the Fitzgibbon. “The whole idea of personal development seems to have gone out the window.”

Back when O’Neill was a student at St Pat’s Training College in Drumcondra, the college registrar, the late and loved Stiofán Ó hAnnracháin, emboldened the students to run the college teams themselves.

The legacy of that philosophy cannot be measured in trophies. Just look at who it produced. Ger Loughnane and Brian Cody captained and thus coached the hurling team. So did O’Neill and Pat Daly, the GAA’s Head of Games. Kilkenny’s Martin Fogarty coached there, as did the current president of the GAA, Ó Fearghaíl. His predecessor Liam O’Neill too. Great servants of the GAA, not least because in their college days they were encouraged to serve.

It warms his heart to see that tradition still lives on in St Pat’s, and to read Ciaran Kilkenny laugh about the time last year the football team he coached couldn’t get the team bus to go under a bridge; in the end Kilkenny worked out that the best thing was to walk the half mile down the road to the venue, hauling a bag of around 12 footballs along with him.

Likewise, O’Neill was enthused by a presentation from Gort Community School at the recent GAA Coaching Conference where they have a 16-year-old female transition year student as their chairperson.

They have their own fixtures committee, even their own panel of referees. There’s one school that sees a bigger picture.

So, when he thinks back on his time coaching Tipp, it can’t be reduced to just trophies that eluded them or that they won.

Something that struck him about the scene and the Tipp dressing room alone was the huge range of personalities that inhabited it, and the diverse backgrounds they came from, and while acknowledging those differences, everyone still striving to sing off the one hymn sheet. The challenge and complexity of that. The privilege of that.

“I remember thinking at times that for a lad in his 20s, just what an incredible learning experience it must be. I know people will say lads at that level are putting in an awful lot and there’s an awful lot of pressure involved, but it really does equip them with so many skills that they will carry them on throughout life.”

Of course it finished disappointingly. After steaming through Munster, Tipp stuttered and spluttered in Croke Park last August. While he gives full credit to Galway, Tipp’s five-week layoff was definitely a factor, just as it hasn’t been lost on him as HDC chairman that Cork in 2014 and Limerick in 2013 similarly never got to the pitch their opponents were at, or they themselves had been operating at in Munster.

“I remember about 10 minutes into the second half I happened to look at the scoreboard and it read Galway 0-16 Tipperary 2-9. And I was thinking to myself, ‘No, that is not good.’ We were only a point down but it was 16 scores to 11. Galway were picking off scores with greater facility while we were depending on some magic from Seamie [Callanan]. Even when we went ahead we never really got into our rhythm.

“But my view on these things is the result is the result. You just move on. On the Monday morning some friends called to see how I was. I was down in Kildare cycling with my wife Claire by the Grand Canal. On the Tuesday we were cycling in Berlin. So life goes on. The only thing you can look back on is could we have done anymore? I don’t think we could have done any more.”

He has much more to offer hurling. He’s especially conscious of developing counties. For the past three years he’s been a mentor to Kildare. He’s seen them put together a meaningful programme of games for the local club player, at least 16 a year. Now the job is to provide that model throughout the country.

The HDC and the GAA is especially targeting counties like Laois, Offaly, Carlow and Westmeath. He could only laugh when Cheddar Plunkett initially voiced his scepticism of the HDC’s Celtic Challenge proposal, saying they’d be better off financially assisting counties like his own.

Good man, Cheddar! What Cheddar neglected to mention was that those very counties were each given €40,000 from Croke Park to bring in extra expertise to their setups, from strength and conditioning to performance analysis.

He’s appreciative though of Plunkett’s service and challenges, just as he’s realistic to know that football will probably always be number one in certain counties, including Kildare.

It’s why he has no major objections to the Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cups being completed by June, as it clears the rest of the summer for club fixtures in those counties. But football is not the enemy. It’s his experience the two can exist and even complement each other.

In school in Clonmel he played with lads whose grandfathers played football for Tipp on Bloody Sunday. He captained the Commercials to county football titles at minor, U21 and senior.

“It wasn’t like one was in opposition to the other,” he says. “We just played both.” He takes great pride that tradition continues. Just the week before Commercials won the Munster club title, their sister club St Mary’s claimed their first ever county minor hurling championship.

He was there the day Commercials shocked Nemo. And when they won the county title against Moyle Rovers, twice coming from six points down. There’s an indomitable spirit about them, he finds, something that stirs his own soul.

But is he cheering for them today? Well, he’ll be applauding Ballyboden as well. A lot of their players he’d have taught in school and coached in hurling. There was a time when the two sports didn’t co-exist as smoothly as it did in Clonmel.

Initially, O’Neill and some fellow small-ball enthusiasts from down the country were told by some sections of the club their plans would hurt football. But O’Neill had in mind the thousands of kids not playing GAA at all in that part of the city. So it started in the schoolyard: by playing the game they’d come to love the game and the club.

In time their parents would fall in as well. Someone like Dave Bobbitt saw how much his children were taken by the sport and the club and started sponsoring some of its teams. Bobbitt’s business provides furniture worldwide to McDonald’s. “In Ballyboden you have a really interesting mix of people from diverse backgrounds,” says O’Neill. “Parents who never played Gaelic games have an awful lot of other skills to contribute.”

So, both clubs have a lot going for them. And the support of O’Neill. “Whatever way it goes,” he smiles, “I’m on a winner.” So is hurling by having someone as rounded and grounded as him who sees the broader view.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up