Steven Poacher’s Ulster accent has been one of the main backing tracks to the movie reel of the moments that mark Carlow’s progression from anonymous extras to strong supporting actors in Gaelic football this last 12 months.
Many have found it to be a discordant one.
The Down man has lambasted the lack of respect afforded to his charges’ efforts from RTÉ and others, rubbished the idea of a ‘B’ Championship, hit back at Joe Brolly over criticisms of his approach, and attacked recent critics of the Leinster county’s minors.
Paul Galvin, writing in his Sunday Times column last weekend, pointed out how unusual it is for a coach, as opposed to a manager, to be so visible while Colm Parkinson has grumbled about his visibility on the pitch as a ‘maor foirne’.
Poacher is clearly not someone who will be easily silenced.
In Carlow manager Turlough O’Brien he has found a kindred spirit: Another talker who embraces openness and shares his view of football as offering a “sanctuary” for players from the stresses of jobs, exams, or money and not some form of hardship.
“You listen to some of the tripe that’s out there at the minute — clowns that have never coached the game in their lives and stuff like that — just sensationalist, craving attention.
“I respect opinions of players who’ve worked with me. If you ask most of the players that have worked with me, I’d be surprised if any of them had anything negative to say.
“Cue them coming to slate me now!” he laughs.
Poacher describes himself as a players’ man. He has embraced social media and, like O’Brien, encourages the squad to socialise. The culture of closed training sessions, closed challenge matches and media bans turns his blood cold.
“If someone needs to pull a tweet off someone’s social media, or pull an article from the newspaper to motivate their team, they ain’t doing a good job. They need to seriously look at themselves and say, ‘well, if that’s your motivation, there’s something seriously wrong’.” The road taken from his native Down to Carlow may be unusual but he has form in that.
Ask him where his coaching days germinated and he takes you back to Manchester in the mid-1990s. Old Trafford was in thrall to the Red Devils, Oasis were the biggest band in the world and venues like the Hacienda and Tiger Tiger felt like the centre of the universe.
“Ach, they were good days,” he laughs, “I could tell you some juicy stuff.” He was only 19 and a non-drinker when he pitched up in the English northwest relying on his personality and a touch of ingenuity to bed in. He did it by planting the seeds for the University of Manchester’s first Gaelic football team.
A local bar sponsored the kit after he promised that the team would do their drinking there after games on a Sunday and the university officially recognised his contribution to Gaelic games which was practically unheard of in the UK at the time.
Between that then and Carlow now he’d been immersed with football in Down.
He coached at schools, club along with underage inter-county levels before turning for a second time towards faraway horizons, his thinking being his work wasn’t being appreciated by the county board and his relationships with some administrators had soured.
He’d met O’Brien and his selector Tommy Wogan at a coaching conference he had started at his school, St Columban’s College in Kilkeel, and the Carlow man followed up by inviting him down for a guest session with the county seniors.
Poacher jokes that his wife is fit to kill him he’s away there so often now but he was drawn there by three things: The chemistry and ethos of the management team, the superb facilities in Fenagh and Carlow IT, and the barrage of welcoming texts from the players.
As a squad, they still seem enamoured with him.
“It’s the energy and enthusiasm and the communication,” says forward Paul Broderick.
“He primarily does a lot of the coaching but it is the way he gets a message across.
“I’m a teacher myself and sometimes you say the wrong things to someone the wrong way.
“Like, ‘you shouldn’t have done that’. But he always seems to say it the right way for the right person and I don’t think it’s by chance. And that’s aside from the coaching.
“Like, if I was going up to Down, two or three nights a week... I don’t know how he’s managed to fit in like he has in such a short space of time but he knows most lads’ families.
“He knows seven or eight of my family and it takes very little effort. Or maybe it does.
“But he does it and it adds to the whole thing. He was down in Carpenters (Bar in Carlow) after the Kildare game and he must have shaken 1,000 hands, knowing people by name. When he and Turlo met they must have been similar minds.” Poacher references many of the same points when critiquing himself. John Wooden, the legendary American basketball coach, used to say that industry and enthusiasm were the two most important tools in his bag so he certainly has the basics.
This sort of positivity has rippled far beyond the walls of the dressing room in last year’s championship, promotion from Division Four in the spring and a landmark defeat of Kildare in last month’s Leinster quarter-final.
Poacher thinks back to their first home league game in 2017, when they lost to London and there was “10 men and a dog” looking on.
Twelve months later and the main stand in Netwatch Cullen Park was rocking when they kicked off against Leitrim.
It reminded him of 2010 when Down swept to an All-Ireland final under James McCartan and how so much of the momentum was generated on what he called ‘Saturday Night Lights in Newry’ where they were virtually unbeatable for a two-year stint.
But Carlow have drawn brickbats as well as bouquets.
The first time the wider public paid them heed was last summer’s Leinster quarter-final when they parked the bus in Portlaoise against a Dublin side whose frustrations were evidenced by Diarmuid Connolly’s ill-judged incident with a linesman.
No-one Barrowside has been of a mind to apologise. Then or now. Poacher compares the act of constructing this Carlow project to building a house. Foundations came first and that meant defence. Same as in any team sport.
Carlow had conceded 120 points in the 2016 league campaigns but they had the third best defensive stats regardless of division a year later.
Base laid, they have moved the project on to the attacking chapter and it is reading well.
O’Brien’s side has recorded 4-31 in their first two provincial games, against Louth and Kildare. Their achievement in registering zero wides in the latter game, though a freak, speaks for the fact that 100% of their work in training is done with the ball.
“People have latched onto this word ‘transition’ that I might have used at one of the coaching courses and it’s very funny because transition is not a modern word. Transition has existed in every sport in the history of this earth.
“Transition is moving from one place to another so when you’re a defender and you win the ball you automatically become an attacker. That’s just how the game has evolved. When you lose the ball you become a defender. When you win the ball you become an attacker.” Nothing showcased Carlow’s evolution so much as the manner in which they put Kildare to bed. They didn’t fall over the line, they kicked harder for it in the last 10 minutes.
It was all so different to the scene against Monaghan in last year’s qualifiers.
The scores were tied at nine points apiece with nine minutes to go in that round three All-Ireland Qualifier but just a handful of mental lapses allowed the Ulster side to kick the late scores that decided the day. It was one Carlow knew had gotten away.
“It is what it is. Without that, you mightn’t have had this year because we’ve learned from it.
“I’m not an American football (fan) but I love that guy Tom Brady and you can talk about the TCUP: Think Clearly Under Pressure.
“When the shit hits the fan, that’s when your top men stand up and they are coolness personified.
“I showed a few clips of him one day to the lads. When he really needed a cool head, when everybody was losing their head around him, he kept his cool.” He sees beauty in that and, while he admits at one point that he was asked in to bring some of that “attritional Ulster warfare” to the project, he despairs at the one-eyed negativity of critics whom he claims can’t, or won’t, see that the game’s poster boys do the same.
Poacher went to a host of Dublin games last year and took what he reckons to be a hundred pictures on his phone. A good many of them show clearly that Jim Gavin’s side had 14 or 15 players funnelled behind the ball.
That’s not a criticism, mind. Just a fact he’s keen to share.
He jokes that Carlow will play a high line and concede 10 goals against them in the Leinster final if they can see a way past Laois tomorrow but he genuinely cannot understand the doom and gloom that emanates from so many over a game that is clearly evolving.
“There’s a lot of negativity because the people doing the analysis are poor. I’m just going to be honest. We don’t have any real, decent, strong analytical views on the game. I look at Aidan O’Rourke there and he’s started to write a few articles for RTÉ.
“They’re brilliant because he’s coming from a coach’s mind and he’s thinking about the game. The game is better than ever. The keepers are getting the ball away a lot quicker, the ball is in play a lot more.
“There are more scores, players are in better condition, it’s faster.” No doubt some will be pained to hear that, too.
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