When Tom Cribbin was first approached about managing a senior inter-county team, Laois, in late 1998, he presumed it was a wind-up and resolved not to be made a fool of.
He was pretty sure, in fact, that it was Willie McCreery, a Kildare legend and renowned messer, on the line when his daughter handed him the house phone and said Laois official, Dick Miller, wanted a word.
‘You’re some bollix!’ declared Cribbin, grasping the phone. Only it wasn’t McCreery, it was actually Miller and, when the communications mix-up was resolved, Cribbin agreed to become the new Laois boss.
It was a homecoming of sorts, because while best known for playing with and then successfully managing Clane in Kildare, Cribbin is a Laois native who only moved to Kildare in his teens.
Around two decades on, Cribbin’s desire for inter-county management continues to place him in curious positions. Tomorrow, as Westmeath manager, he will find his beloved Kildare firmly in his sights when the sides meet in Division 3 of the Allianz Football League.
Having soldiered with Clane, in so many ways, and managed Kildare’s U21s as recently as two years ago, it’s an awkward situation but Cribbin knows he can’t be distracted. Kildare and Westmeath are the two favourites to gain promotion from Division 3 so a win for either team, even at this early stage, would be a huge result.
“Look, it’s not nice, playing your own and playing lads you know,” said Cribbin. “You want to do your best and you want to win to be successful but at the same time you get no pleasure out of beating your own.
“I don’t know, I suppose it probably doesn’t hurt as much if you are beaten by your own, it’s a funny one. What really hurts is the slagging because everyone will be lining up for that dig!
“No, it’s going to be tough against them and nobody knows that more than me. But we’re at home and we feel we’re going well so we’ll give it everything and see where that leaves us.”
If Cribbin is feeling conflicted, or perhaps inclined not to go for the jugular, he would do well to recall how last year’s league campaign panned out.
Westmeath were ultimately relegated and, feeling the pressure in his first season, Cribbin gave his players the most public dressing down imaginable, claiming “the few big lads who should be standing out and leading” instead “ lay down and that’s the trouble with this team”.
Three months later, of course, Westmeath were Leinster finalists. Clearly, the rant was a masterstroke, designed to inspire? “Well, it wasn’t a planned thing, I can guarantee,” said Cribbin.
“I was just emotional at the time. The players know I was genuinely hurt, and hurt for them. We were good enough to stay in that division, we played some brilliant games and didn’t turn up other days. It was frustrating and it just came out because I tend to speak my mind.
“I knew immediately after saying it that it wasn’t the right time to air that point. But I was hurt and the players in fairness to them accepted the apology when we had a chat about it.”
The mood is more optimistic now. Last year’s championship ended in disappointment against Fermanagh but powerful memories remain of coming back from the brink to shock Meath in remarkable circumstances and then holding Dublin for the guts of 40 minutes in the Leinster final.
“I feel the panel is stronger again, we developed three or four very good young lads from last year and found another two or three during the club championships and the O’Byrne Cup, so we’re definitely stronger,” reckons Cribbin.
“Without a doubt, the boys enjoyed the experience last summer but it’s a new year, they know that, they’ve got to make it happen all over again.”
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