To most of the casual supporters of Gaelic football in the country, the name Donie Buckley probably means little, if anything.
You’re unlikely to read a two-page spread on the All-Ireland final replay on Saturday morning about the quality of work he has done with Mayo in the past four years, such is his chameleon-like ability to fade into the background and avoid the spotlight.
You won’t find him driving a sponsored car, nor talking about himself in the third person to make himself appear more than he is.
He’s just a football coach, and from my experience, a damn good one.
If Stephen Rochford is the driver of the Mayo locomotive, Donie is the guy standing close by shovelling coal into the open firebox.
In 2011, the Castleisland native Buckley, who now resides in Ennis, took a spin on the big wheel with Kerry and added a freshness that helped get us back to an All-Ireland final after a disappointing quarter-final exit in 2010.
He was after serving as a lieutenant to Mickey Ned O’Sullivan in Limerick for a few years, and had brought about a stark improvement in their performances during that time.
There was a great yarn about when Limerick were preparing to face Kerry and Kieran Donaghy in the Munster championship back in 2010.
Donie took their primary ‘Star’ stopper Stephen Lucey and a few other Limerick defenders off the training pitch and into a local basketball gym to work rebounding a basketball for a night.
He had them ‘boxing out’ — giving them a crash course in how to use their bodies to back into him and eat the space around Donaghy’s legs to eliminate his renowned leaping ability.
I can remember people sniggering at the idea of it when it started doing the rounds down here before the game…
But there weren’t too many laughing as the match wore on and Donaghy could scarcely win a ball against a physical and newly crafty Lucey.
When he joined the Kerry set-up, Donie’s work on the training field was brilliant.
He was very different, he was always trying to think outside the box.
He challenged you to engage in the training session as opposed to just going through the motions.
He was meticulous in is planning and was always bursting with an enthusiasm that players really enjoyed and fed off.
He brought a huge repertoire of training material, full of new twists on old drills and games that kept everybody on their toes.
The brain had to be switched on all the time when Donie was in full swing.
He could stop the session and throw a question at you at any stage to check for understanding of the drill.
And if he caught you out, you’d pay for it and be the butt of the dressing room jokes for the week.
Down in Fitzgerald Stadium, he was battling for rarefied coaching oxygen at the very top of the mountain with Jack O’Connor and his trusted deputy Alan O’Sullivan who continue to form an impressive partnership years later.
Back then, it must have been an uncomfortable marriage for them in a lot of ways, but nothing that was ever made obvious to us players.
They were as professional as any amateurs could be, but with Donie’s addition to the coaching group, he raised the bar.
This definitely forced all of them to lift their games and helped provide an even higher standard of preparation for the team.
After a knee operation that led to a year out in 2012, he eventually joined up with James Horan and Mayo in 2013.
And he’s been there shovelling in the coal ever since.
During that four-year stint (including this year), he’s helped guide Mayo to two finals, and two semi-final replays (losing to eventual winners; Kerry and Dublin in 2014 and 2015, respectively).
Including his 2011 trip to the final with Kerry, that’s three finals and two semi-final replays in his past five years of coaching senior inter-county football.
No All-Ireland wins yet, but it is one hell of a CV.
And watching that first All-Ireland final 10 days ago, the intensity, the tackling, the character and honesty of effort were jumping out at supporters, without them fully appreciating the work it takes to get that performance out of players.
I thought the Mayo performance bore all the hallmarks of a Donie Buckley coached side.
His work on treating tackling technique as a skill in itself was a calling card of his along with doing everything in the session at high-paced match intensity.
He saw it as one of the key elements of the game, something most guys do more than kicking in a game, but yet he felt it was rarely worked on specifically in training.
Back in 2011, Kerry’s half forward dog of war Donnchadh Walsh spoke about the strengths of Kerry’s new coach: “I think Donie’s arrival might well give us an edge because he’s improving our tackling.
“It’s something that goes un-coached an awful lot of the time but he has brought it back to basics — how you tackle, how you position your legs and hands, which hand you go in with.
“We’ve actually learned so much from him that you really enjoy coming to training, enjoy doing the drills as we try and perfect what he’s teaching us.”
When Mayo players met to axe what they felt was their malfunctioning joint management team of Connolly and Holmes late last year, word filtered through the cracks that they were very anxious to keep the services of their Kerry coach.
Donie had kept the show on the road in times of uncertainty and unease and they wanted to make sure he was part of the new ticket.
When Stephen Rochford was putting his crew together he was shrewd enough to recognise the abilities of Donie Buckley, and the esteem with which he was held within that Mayo squad.
Possibly a new manager less confident in his own abilities to guide a group with this pedigree could have felt threatened by the affection with which Buckley was held by the dressing room he was walking into.
But to his credit, he embraced it and has apparently managed the situation well to get the most out of himself, Buckley and Tony McEntee as a coaching team.
I don’t know what Saturday evening will bring for Mayo, but with a man like Donie Buckley still filling the firebox behind the scenes, you’d have to think that their locomotive will reach the station eventually.
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