He mightn’t always have thought it – and it might surprise some to hear a former GPA chairman say it – but Dónal Óg Cusack is thankful for the fact that GAA players remain amateurs.
Along the stage, Roy Keane had relayed stories of players basking managers’ secretaries to book holidays and generally being unable to do anything for themselves after they retired. While he might make a few modifications, Cusack contrasts that with the positive aspects of GAA players having other factors in their lives.
“Looking back on my career, I think it served me well as a person, that I had a career,” he said. “You might go out in front of 50,000 people on a Sunday but, in a lot of cases, you’re back to work on a Monday. I remember one year, after playing Tipperary in Thurles, I was in on the Monday morning and there was a meeting, someone asked where one fellas was and the answer was, ‘He’s missing, he was at the match yesterday.’
“I was thinking that there was something wrong there, but overall, I think you do get a balance. If you asked me when I was 21 what I’d love to do, I’d have said it was to be a professional sportsperson, but if you ask me now, at 38, having gone through it all, I think that the amateur model is a healthy one and it’s a good one to keep, albeit maybe a bit more balanced towards the players. It keeps players grounded. Because our games aren’t professional, we have the opportunity to put really good structures in place, in terms of college courses or helping guys start businesses. These people who are leaders on the field are often leaders off the field too.
“No disrespect to teachers, but you have guys who want to play so much that they become teachers for the time off in the summer and then they get to 30 and realise that it’s not for them. That whole movement and the work being done by the GPA is of big value and will be of greater value.”
‘Winning in Business’ was the title of the Bord Gáís Energy event at the Clarion Hotel. In talking about his playing career, Cusack asked those present to imagine a business which was in a comparable position to that of the Cork senior hurling team at the end of the 2006 season.
With John Allen departing, the players favoured Ger Cunningham – already a member of the backroom team – coming in in a seamless fashion, but instead Gerald McCarthy got the job. “From our point of view, a huge gulf had emerged between the players’ reality and the administrators’ reality,” he said.
“Both groups would have loved Cork to win, but there was a huge difference in the belief as to how they should get there. In 2006, Cork were seen as being the market-leaders in having the most professional team in the game and had a serious management structure behind them. We won the All-Ireland in 2004 and ’05, Kilkenny beat us by one score in 2006 and, that winter, 15 of the 16 in the backroom team were wiped out.
“Cork had the biggest travelling support in the game, 25-30,000 people going to matches, and you had a bunch of players who were absolutely committed to being the best that they could be. If anybody ever looks back properly on the history of that whole thing, they’ll look at that winter.
“If that was business, you were the market-leader, number one in 2004 and ’05 and then slightly beaten in ’06, what kind of a board of directors would take out the entire management structure?”
Now, he is part of a management structure himself, the coach of the Clare team which has reached the league final. Doing the basic things right – and engineering a bit of conflict if required – continue to be core values.
“Whether we like it or not, most people are followers, so you have to make sure that they’re going in the right way,” Cusack said.
“It’s all about small steps. People are talking about us playing Waterford in the championship but we’re playing them in the league final too and you genuinely can’t do anything other than train for that and do the small things right.
“The lads on Newstalk were having a laugh the other night that I said there’s no magic, but there’s not. It’s about all those basic things. Of course, you must have the overall aim of winning the Liam MacCarthy and it’s always interesting to hear about the journey compared to what you want to win.
“If you put all the right steps in place, it has a better chance of coming through. Conflict is interesting, I read a book a few years ago, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and of those dysfunctions, was the fear of conflict.
“I’d encourage that, at work too. Guys would say, ‘You’re throwing in the ball there’, or ‘Don’t bring this up [at the weekly meeting] on Friday’, and I do exactly that. “Being involved in all of that, the hard work and the training, I enjoy that. Sometimes, when I was playing for Cork, I used to train 10 times a week. Recreation can be over-rated, hard work can be very enjoyable too.”
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