When Niall Moran hurled for Limerick he thought about the game too much, crippling himself with so much pressure he never reached the heights he feels he should. He still thinks a lot about the game and fears Limerick and everyone else is producing identikit players who are not working enough on the skills of the game.
Niall Moran thinks a lot about things. You have no idea of the private, crippling anguish that caused him during his playing days but it’s a quality that makes him engaging company as well as one of the brightest young coaches on the Limerick and colleges scene in recent years.
We’re in a café around the corner from Ardscoil Rís where he teaches, and just down the road from the Gaelic Grounds that at the weekend hosts the opening game of a Munster championship like none the storied old competition has never known before.
The setting prompts a flood of memories and musings. It was actually around the time of the Tipp-Limerick trilogy in 2007 that Moran applied for the teaching job in his alma mater, and he’ll freely admit his involvement in those games would have done his prospects no harm. After his five points from play in the third game ensured the county of its first Munster final appearance in six years, the local council could have surrendered to the moment and granted him the freedom of the city. Now another generation of Limerick hurlers, several of whom he taught and coached in Ardscoil, face off with Tipp once more, while he wonders how the county is bringing through the generation after that.
“In the GAA we mirror everything we see, especially in rugby. I think we’ve got to take a step back. The keyword you hear these days is Academy. Academy this, Academy that. But if you look at Munster rugby, the academy system is breaking down. Players have been brought in at a young age but unfortunately the en d product at 19, 20, isn’t what’s needed. And in rugby they’re on the verge of realising that they need to reclaim and return to the old club system.
“In the GAA now we have players that are basically being subcontracted to the academies and not sufficiently exposed to club level and what you’re going to find is that the product at the end of those four or five years will not be what’s needed.
“What traditionally has been very strong in the GAA? The clubs. We’ve got a massive volume of players out of the club. But what county manager now is going to look at this year’s senior club championship and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to pick that fella up’? Who’s going to be the raw guy that was missed out upon? No one. We’re developing a more generic output and unfortunately, probably a less skilful player.”
He looks at Kilkenny, home to St Kieran’s College that pipped an Ardscoil team he coached in an All-Ireland colleges final a couple of years ago, and sees how even the players that have come through there still have so much scope for growth. Like Jackie Tyrrell, a raw recruit that Cody then turned into a winning machine. Like the players Cody blooded and honed on the way to another league title this spring.
“In Kilkenny they seem to have a more holistic way of developing players because the club has a huge role there. In another county you might have a 20-year-old who has been through the county system for five years. In Kilkenny they’ll have a 20-year-old with maybe only a training age of one, because they’ve been allowed to develop in a more natural environment. So then when they do go into a top setup, they tend to dramatically improve from the ages of 21 to 24.”
He’s not averse to a county rolling out some sort of development underage system. He’d just roll out in a different way, cast the net out wider. In Limerick they have four divisions. What if they were to tap into that and take 25 players in each division? That’s a hundred players right away getting some exposure to high-level coaching.
“Say an academy system is engaged for nine months, once a week. That’s basically 36 sessions. In economics we talk about the equilibrium benefit. When do you pass the equilibrium benefit? Do we really need to have a 14-year-old being coached 36 times at a very high level or could we not have a situation where we have four groups of players each getting nine of those sessions? The cost is still the same.”
The benefits of equilibrium is something Moran has come to learn the hard way. As a player he had little sense of balance or perspective. The game consumed him, so much so, it nearly ate him up.
“The one thing I take out of my career is that I overthought everything,” he smiles ruefully. “I genuinely never reached [the levels] that I should have.”
There was once an innocence to his love of the game. His brothers James and Ollie both played for the county and as a kid he’d hop into Sean Murray’s taxi that brought them to training where he’d retrieve and puck back out every sliotar he could for his heroes. Across the county bounds then there were his two cousins, Eoin and Paul Kelly. That was the level he wanted to get to and so he tried to do everything he could to do so.
“I remember at about 14 years of age and making a conscientious decision that I wasn’t going to take any butter,” he says, nibbling at a scone that is buttered. “I was only going to take a small bit of milk. I wasn’t going to eat any chocolate. I analysed every single bit of my game. I lived my life by goals.”
It didn’t work. Instead of guiding him, goals stifled him, probably because instead of thinking in terms of little processes, he was thinking of and chasing numbers.
“It got to the point where I was playing Mickey Mouse challenge games and I’d be putting pressure on myself to score so many points, block or hook so many times, be Man of the Match. And what that meant was number one, I wasn’t doing what was needed for the team, while individually, I wasn’t hitting a lot of those goals anyway, so when it came to the next game, I was putting even more pressure on myself.”
It even happened in 2007, that summer that started out with him lighting it up against Tipp, scoring 10 points from play over the three-game series, and finished with the county’s sole September appearance the past 21 years. In the intervening period while the team soared, he sank.
“In the Munster final I was on Tony Browne — a phenomenal player — and couldn’t get anything off him, so going into the All-Ireland quarter-final against Clare, I had it in my head that I had to replicate everything in my preparation and performance that I did against Tipp. And I remember on the train up, the trolley came down and lads were eating Pringles. They were so laidback, it nearly got to me: Why aren’t they tuned in the way I’m tuned in?
“Sure I went out to play the match and I was so wound up with nerves, I couldn’t feel my legs when the game started. My legs were completely gone from me. Three or four balls came my way and I couldn’t rise them, I couldn’t catch them.
“I came home that night on the train and I didn’t talk to anyone, I was so upset that I hadn’t got to the level that I should have for the team. I didn’t come out of my bed for a week with the exception of going to training. I didn’t talk to anyone.
“When I look at it now, there was clearly an element of depression. There’s no point in saying otherwise.”
The mood improved when he was dropped for the All-Ireland semi-final. “To be honest, it was such a relief.”
By the time of the final he was back flying it because he had taken the pressure off himself. “I had nearly written the year off, as in what I could give to it, which looking back was crazy, given we were going into an All-Ireland final.”
In his last couple of years he came to learn something he wish he had realised a lot earlier: relax, don’t sweat the small stuff so much, enjoy it more.
“If there was craic to be had, I had the craic. I stopped putting this pressure on myself that everything had to be perfect. Because it didn’t have to be perfect in order to perform.
“When I went back in before the 2014 Munster final we underwent a dexa scan and my body fat after being out of the setup for nearly a year was 7.5%. Our nutritionist Catherine Norton said to me, ‘Niall, can I see your programme? A lad at your age to be at that percentage body fat…’
“And I said, ‘Catherine, if cake was put in front of me, I didn’t just eat a slice of cake, I ate the whole cake!’”
That’s something he likes about the current Limerick setup under John Kiely: he’s very player-centred and understands that players need release valves. They need to let their hair down every now and then, have their few beers if they want. But there are other ways that Moran feels players could become less automated. He read Paul Galvin last weekend and couldn’t agree more with his thesis: these days there’s too much training and not enough practise. Because they’re spending so much time with the collective, they don’t have enough time or energy for themselves, to work on their own game.
“I spoke to a guy involved in the Limerick setup recently, just a normal general chat, and the Kilkenny [qualifier] game in Nowlan Park last year came up. Ultimately when it came down to the last 10 minutes of that game, Limerick couldn’t win primary possession to launch an attack: when it boiled down to the season being on the line, we couldn’t win primary possession. And that has long been the case with Limerick hurling.
“Now, that game was on July 1. I assume Limerick went back at some time in October and were all put on some programme like three nights a week in the gym and fitness and everything else. But I said to this player, ‘Could there possibly have been a situation where you have 32 guys, working in eight pods of four, and for two nights a week focus in on improving at winning primary possession and do just the one night of fitness maintenance?’
“Management wouldn’t have needed to be there. It’s not that they’d be inefficient at coaching it, it would just help keep them fresh for when they’re needed. You could get maybe eight guys in Limerick who have been good in the air and willing to help — a Ger Hegarty, Brian Begley — and then when the lads came back in January, they’d have added a layer of skill to their game.
“I always use the example of Podge Collins. In 2013 he out of the blue became a scoring machine for Clare. Why? Because when he was down below on placement in Cork he didn’t have to make all of Davy’s sessions and his time was spent with a bag of balls down in a club field or the ball alley in Rochestown. He added a tool to his game that he never previously had.
“So go back to Limerick. They have all this training done. I just ask: what skillset do you now have extra than what you had last year? And that won’t become apparent until you’re in the pressure cooker with a season on the line.
“The more we’ve moved to professionalism, the more we have to revert to what was done before. Grab a bag of balls and work on your skills. At the moment the train is moving and at such a pace that nobody is able to say ‘stop’. Players are becoming generic skillswise because everybody is conforming to the same template and there’s no real period for players to reflect and work on what they’re weak at. The more counties are striving to try to want and win something, the more they’re going with the generic. How much are we developing these teams with the amount of money that’s being spent on them?
“The more time goes on, the more you realise the likes of Richie Bennis and Justin McCarthy, old school as they may have been, weren’t far wrong. If a team has a wing-forward who can catch eight out of ten balls, I don’t think it’s that important if he’s outrageously fit.”
He’s taken a break from coaching this year. As well as the day job teaching business studies in Ardscoil, he basically works full-time in the dairy farming business he took over from his father. By throwing himself into it, it will free up him more down the line, but for now something had to give and it wasn’t going to be playing with the club, Ahane.
“The more I’ve coached, the more I love playing. There’ll be time enough to coach again. But as long as you can play, play for as long as you can.”
In a way he’s the same way as a coach as he was a player. “Unfortunately, I can’t stop thinking about it,” he says, but the flipside of that is he’s learned from his playing days how to help a player get out of his own way.
“The biggest thing I’d take from my playing career is empathy. Empathy is everything. Richie Bennis was as old school as the day is long but he knew hurling, it grew out of his fingernails, and he knew hurlers, what made them tick. John Allen was the other guy, just his ability to pick you up when you need a pickup and when to bring you back down to earth.”
He’s been that man in the arena, knowing just how wildly fortunes can vary and fluctuate in there. He was part of that all-conquering, all-promising bunch of U21s at the start of the millennium; then booed off the pitch in an All-Ireland quarter-final in Thurles “because I was trying to carry out exactly what the coach wanted though I knew it wasn’t right and it made me uncomfortable”, only for some of those same supporters to lift him shoulder high around the Gaelic Grounds on that joyous July afternoon in 2013.
The game became kinder to him when he started being kinder to himself.
The benefits of equilibrium.
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