12.47am on a Tuesday night, a call goes in to new Offaly manager Stephen Wallace. He answers on the first ring. The drive from Offaly to North Kerry requires a few calls to pass the 400km round-trip. Here’s what came up along the way…
Q: How long is the journey down from Offaly for you tonight?
A: Tonight was a bit different because of the inclement weather conditions in the Midlands. We were lucky enough to get the facilities in Clara for training, so that added a bit to my journey. You’re looking at three hours tonight. Up and down.
Q: So, you’re facing another three-quarters-of-an-hour or so on the road?
A: We’re well within the county bounds of the Kingdom again so we’re not too bad!
Q: You’re well into the routine so. How many of these trips have you made so far?
A: We’re up and down since probably October looking at (club) championship games. Then, we’re back training since mid-November so you’re up and down three times a week, maybe four.
Usually, we’d be in Kilcormac in the Faithful Fields Centre of Excellence, which would be a slightly shorter journey. It’s a bit of a trek but I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t enjoy it.
Q: Those six-hour trips must really hammer home your motivation for inter-county management. Following the dream?
A: Yeah, everyone speaks about the sacrifices and the time that’s been put into it, both as a player and manager.
It’s something that’s irking me with the last few weeks, ex-players saying they wouldn’t do it again, it took over their lives and all that.
For me, that’s nonsense. There’s nobody put a gun to these people’s heads.
They wouldn’t have done it unless they wanted to do it. If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing? You’d probably be a fine bored individual.
Look, why didn’t they walk away when they’d the chance to walk away besides throwing this nonsense out?
We do it because we love it. We do it for the love of the game, the love of the GAA. It’s a passion or it’s a disease for fellas. It is what it is and we enjoy it.
Q: Offaly have 14 players travelling from outside the county, so they must get a kick out of it too?
A: Absolutely. If they don’t want to do it, I can’t make them do it. The county board can’t make them do it. For a county like Offaly, which hasn’t had a whole lot of success in the last 15 or 20 years, you have to question what’s there for these young guys to be making these sacrifices.
It’s because they’re proud of their county and proud of their clubs. They want to play for themselves, for their family and for the love of the game. People shouldn’t be saying that young guys shouldn’t be doing this and they should be going off working their careers or studying.
If they want to do that, they’ll do that. These guys have chosen not to do it, so why beat them with a stick?
Q: How did you pass the time on your journey down tonight?
A: I’m on the phone constantly. It passes the drive for me. There’s always calls to be made, calls to be returned, people looking for you.
You’re thinking about the session you’re going up to, then you’re breaking down the session you just had on the way down. Looking at players that are showing form, players that are going bad, little knocks or niggles you’ve picked up, anything we could’ve changed in the session.
The first call when I get back into my car after leaving a training session is from Billy Sheehan (his coach, who faces a similar drive to Dublin). We’ll dissect the session. We’re always looking to improve ourselves and move things on from a coaching point of view.
Q: You’ve a few Kerrymen on board as well as Billy, with Brendan Kealy and Brian Egan. Do you have company on the road?
A: I’m coming from a different side of the county to Brendan so usually we’d meet in Abbeyfeale and we’ll travel up together as much as possible.
Brendan is on board looking after the goalkeepers – not an area I’d consider myself any way knowledgeable in – so you’d be picking Brendan’s brains on the way up as to how the goalkeepers are going.
Q: You’ve three All-Irelands won between Ardfert and the Kerry juniors but is it taking you time to adapt to the demands of senior inter-county management?
A: The big difference is the time involved in it away from the pitch. It’s almost a full-time job and you’re trying to balance that with your own job and your own family.
I’ve a fiancée and two young kids and you’re trying to give them as much time as you can in the hope that you won’t arrive home some night at 3am after a training session to find the door is locked! (laughs)
Q: Does your work life fit around football?
A: It does. I’m lucky enough in that I’m self-employed. I sell wine for a company called The French Market so I’ve a good bit of flexibility.
I can work my own hours and get out and about. The problem is you’re trying to sell a few cases of wine and a lot of the time all people want to talk about is football – particularly in Kerry! But look, that opens doors as well.
Q: You’ve spoken about your belief in the traditional way of playing football being the right way to go. Given how Dublin hockeyed Tyrone last year, do you see there being a change of emphasis with teams taking more risks against the big teams to try to get greater rewards?
A: If you’re going out to play a game of football you may as well go out to have a go, whether you’re playing Dublin or us playing Longford on Sunday in O’Connor Park.
It’s just a personal thing, I’m not saying that I’m right or other managers are wrong, but playing negative football, putting all these men behind the ball, trying to shut up shop and stop the opposition playing, Dublin have made a mockery of that system over the last few years.
They’ve proved if you’ve players good enough, you can break down all these negative systems.
It just wouldn’t be in my nature as a manager to decide we’re not good enough so we’re going to put 13 men behind the ball. I just don’t think it’s the way the game should be played.
Q: Is that what you’re talking about when you say you want to make Offaly football “sexier”?
A: Yeah, on the field is a big part of it but outside of that, it’s to put systems, structures, platforms in place for guys coming in to training, having the facilities there for them and saying, ‘We’re serious about what we’re at, we’re going to do everything in our power to give ye the platform to improve as footballers’.
If they’re good enough after that, then they’re good enough, and if they’re not, they’re not. But to at least give them a chance by having the project running – I’m going to say – professionally, which is a word we shouldn’t use within our organisation.
But look, the way the game has gone, senior inter-county football is a serious business now and if you haven’t your house in order, you haven’t a chance before you start.
Q: Speaking of houses, we’ve hit 1.12am now. Are you nearly home?
A: I’m nearly home. If I’d some sort of remote control I could be turning on the kettle for a cup of tea!
The thing is you’re half wired when you get home, there’s so much going through your head. It’ll be another couple of hours before I hit the leaba, before we get up for work and school runs again in the morning.
But, like I say, we do it because we love it.
Q: I’m your last caller of the trip then?
A: I would think so – unless there’s anything in the voicemail after I come off the phone to you, Stephen (laughs).
Hopefully, (I’ll get) a cup of tea now, chill out on the couch and watch a bit of TV… And probably put some form of a game on the laptop for half-an-hour before I go to bed in case I’m after missing something from tonight.
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