Stephen Lavin: 'The current Limerick team would hammer us'

Stephen Lavin was a rarity in Limerick - a dual star who often prioritised football. That means he brings both romanticism and pragmatism to the football academy project grooming the county's next generation
Stephen Lavin: 'The current Limerick team would hammer us'

Stephen Lavin pictured in Adare, Co Limerick this week. Picture: Eamon Ward

Although he’s a teacher and principal in his native Adare, Stephen Lavin still has his own share of homework to submit.

Every Thursday, ahead of coaching his U15s in the Limerick football academy in LIT every Saturday, he sends on to a trusted friend and authority a draft of the session he’s planning to roll out with them.

That friend and authority is Paul Kinnerk. While he was setting out helping Tony Kelly and his vintage of Clare hurlers to a string of Munster minor titles, U21 All Irelands and the Liam McCarthy itself, and long before he helped transform the Limerick hurlers into the most dominant team in that sport, Kinnerk played with Lavin in the cause of the Limerick footballers.

That cause remains dear to each of their hearts. In 2014, the year after Lavin retired after 13 seasons of service, the Limerick football board established an academy and appointed Kinnerk its head of coaching. Lavin was entrusted to take the U14s all the way up to them being minors before maybe looping back and taking on a new crop. All these years on and the pair of them are still there in LIT most Saturdays, even when Kinnerk and the senior hurlers might have a game later in the evening like the one against Waterford last month.

But before any session Lavin puts on, it first needs to be designed. After chatting with his brother and fellow selector David, and occasionally bouncing a few ideas off an old teammate like Tommy Stack or an old coach like Donie Buckley, he’ll draw up what Saturday’s session could look like and then fire it onto Kinnerk. It’s not so much for approval as for feedback. Guidance rather than judgement.

“Every session will have a theme. Last week it was bringing the ball out of defence. So I sent on my session to Paul and then he gave his thoughts. He’ll never tell you what to do. It’s just subtle suggestions that when you think of them long enough, you go, ‘Yeah, that could really work.’”

Every Saturday Lavin and the other head coaches of an age group will typically be in LIT by 8.30am, with a couple of squads first maybe hitting the pitch before going indoors for an S&C session with James O’Leary before they rotate. Overseeing it all and advising them all is Kinnerk who you could describe as a pracademic: not only is he au fait with the latest research and coaching science, he practises it.

“I read recently some manager, I forget who, encouraging coaches to go coaching conferences because you’ll always learn something at them. I feel like we have one of those every week. After a session Paul will have a chat with you over by the sideline about it. How did you think it went? What worked? What maybe didn’t work the way you wanted it to? And from that conversation, you’ll come up with ways it could work better.

“For coaches who want to improve at their craft, it is a serious place to be. Because you’re learning from doing, reflecting, getting feedback and going again.

“Before as players and coaches we would have done a lot of drills that had no real purpose. We were just doing what we’d learned when we were young: go out to that cone and come back. Paul encouraged us to use games as much as possible to get our messages across. Because that way they can learn the skill under the context of a game. Occasionally of course you have to learn a skill in isolation, especially if you’re as young as these fellas are, but as we say a skill really isn’t a skill unless you can perform it in the context of the game: when there’s real defenders, when there’s pressure on.

“Paul won’t simply give you a game. Instead he’ll let you try to figure out one and then from that he might offer a few suggestions through questions as to how it can work even better. So it could be a 6v6 game that I found wasn’t working but Paul would say don’t give up on a game, find a way to make it work. Maybe just keep a forward up, or switch the pitch into zones. And from that you’ll tweak it and try it out the following week and usually it works.”

It’s more than that. Through games players get far more touches of the ball. They’re making more decisions. Last year a colleague of Kinnerk’s studying for a PhD contacted Lavin and his brother. He wanted to compare their games-based approach with a traditional queue-and-drill session that would still be quite pervasive, so a team of U16 girls and a team of U17 boys were subjected to both styles. The data showed that after 20 minutes of one of the games-based sessions the players had done as much high-speed running as they had in their entire traditional session.

The academy itself, however, is not a sprint, Lavin will promptly note. It’s a marathon, sometimes a struggle and always a challenge. Only two of Lavin’s initial crop of U14s from seven years ago are on Billy Lee’s current senior panel. Neither are starters.

“What’s happening now [the ascent of the senior county team in recent years] is all Billy’s work. The academy hasn’t really started filtering players through yet. But last year the minors got to a Munster final and gave Cork a good run at it. There’s no guarantee of success; the year prior to that Clare pasted us. But there’s a lot of good work being done. The aim is that eventually every year there’ll be a couple of players coming through to supplement the project Billy has built.”

There’s both a romanticism and a pragmatism to the football academy project.

It’s driven by former players such as Kinnerk and Lavin and Pa Ranahan, Andrew Lane and Seánie Buckley as well as servants like Diarmuid Carroll and John O’Grady and conversations they have with the likes of Stephen Lucey and Muiris Gavin who played such a huge part in its early years. 

“We still talk all the time,” says Lavin, “and a lot of the time it’s on ways to help Limerick football. Like, Lucey played in an All-Ireland hurling final yet he’ll come up with a thousand suggestions to improve Limerick football. He’s the team doctor to multiple Limerick underage football teams. They’re all still fierce passionate about it.”

And yet they’re highly aware that if it came to it, few young lads would take the route Lucey did and often favour football above the hurling.

“Look, we get that they all want to play hurling and that’s fine. It’s a hurling county and so we’re not going to get the cream of the cream. So we might have 50-plus fellas on the radar but 20 of them might be trialling with the hurlers. But we’re finding the 40-odd lads who do go in with us come to love it.”

Lavin himself is living proof of the hold Limerick football can get on you. He played for them before he ever watched them. His mother was Ciaran Carey’s aunt which meant hurling was his sport. He knew nothing of John Quane and 1991. “I didn’t even know Limerick football existed.”

With a Sligo father though he knew football existed and played a good bit of it with the club in Adare while winning everything underage in the hurling. In 2001 they won the intermediate county football championship, the same year Liam Kearns called him up to both the U21 and senior panel. Straight away he was hooked. To the way Kearns would instil you with confidence. To how hard they trained. And to the craic.

In 2002 after they drew with Cavan after extra-time in the qualifiers, they were in some establishment along the Dock Road at four in the morning when they learned the replay wasn’t a fortnight later but the following Saturday. No difference: they were all young and went and won the replay well up in Cavan. Twenty years on and the journey home is still etched in the mind and heart. The bus stopping off in a bar in Ferbane. About six of them clamouring for the mic, with Lucey getting his hands on it and imitating everyone from Mick McCarthy to Roy Keane and whoever else Gift Grub was taking off that summer of Saipan.

The ride didn’t stop there. By the time Lavin finally disembarked he’d played in five Munster finals and in Croke Park by being part of the first Limerick team to reach an All-Ireland quarter-final. Doesn’t matter at this remove that they didn’t win any of those finals in Munster. The journey is now all.

“Look, I won five county senior medals with the club and they were all great but they were just moments. I don’t look back on my time in football with any less sense of completion or certainly any less sense of satisfaction. Of course I’d love if we had gotten over the line in those finals and they were crushing at the time but I’ve no regrets. Tomás Ó Sé had a great line: ‘I went as hard as I could for as long as I could.’ I gave it my all and loved doing that.”

Interestingly, when he does look back on those near-misses, there’s little sense of victimhood. He points out that in the 2003 Munster final the ref awarded Limerick two penalties and they missed them both. 

“In 2004 I distinctly remember going through and thinking I was a hero and kicking it with the outside of my boot. I missed a goal against Cork in 2009. John Galvin said in a recent interview when he kicked the equalising point in 2010 he could have slipped the ball in to me instead for a goal. So you can talk about refs but we had chances. But a bit like when we played, you’ve to move on and plough on. I rarely think about it. It’s about these lads there now.”

He can’t speak highly enough of them and Lee. “He’s gone with lads who’ve had their fun in college, had a few years to develop, and then come into the setup at 22, 23, 24. As opposed to a fella coming in at 19 or 20 and after a couple of years being disillusioned that they’re not getting into the team and then throw their hands up at it.” 

Lavin and a couple of others have recently set up an emerging talent squad to help players coming out of minor and U20 but he’s struck by the commitment levels of those already part of the senior setup.

“I met Hughie Bourke from our club about a month ago in a café and he was with Brian Donovan, the centre forward, just chatting about football. You can tell they’re so into it.

“I wish I thought about the game more in my time. I put an awful lot into it but if someone marked me from wing back and I didn’t have an influence on the game, I wouldn’t reflect on how I could have lost him or took him out to the wing. I just played. We just rolled on from game to game.”

He’ll go even further. Though he won a Railway Cup for Munster and was part of a team that rattled All Ireland winning Cork and Kerry teams, he says without qualification, “The current Limerick team would hammer us if we played as we did and they played as they are. In my time nearly half the players couldn’t pass off both hands. That’s essentially a given now. They’re far more comfortable on the ball, better able to take men on. Now part of that is they’re allowed to take more steps, the rules aren’t as adhered to as much, but they can kick the ball better than we could. They’re just better. It’s a better game.

“Now, if you’re watching a game in the winter, it’s likely going to be dogged. But come the championship the standard of football the past five years when the top teams have played is exceptional. I love watching it.”

Then again, he’s wearing a coach’s hat. That’s his latest addiction, so much so that as well as coaching the UL Sigerson Cup team, he and his brother Dave have set up a social media account and subscription service. GAA Game Sense Coaching is a source for coaches of every age group and level to go and find and an array of games that will help them with whatever coaching point it is they want emphasised.

Kinnerk has taught him well. And together they’re teaching further generations of Limerick footballers to play the game well.

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