The coach’s couch

What was the bravest coaching call, any sport?

“Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints, calling an onside kick for the start of the second half of Superbowl 44.

“That’s when the team kicks the ball off sideways and tries to retrieve it, which is high risk in any game but particularly in a huge game like a Superbowl. It’d be like a fella trying a short puck-out in an All-Ireland final with an opponent within a yard of his target. You might do it in a challenge game, but in a high-stakes game it’s a big risk. The Saints retrieved it, which gives a team a huge boost, and they got a score out of it.”

One free to win it, one player to take it (not one of your own players)?

“Henry Shefflin. If you went back far enough and you needed a goal to win a game from a 21-yard free, then you’d ask Christy Ring. In the modern game you’d want a fella who has done it all, and I’ve never seen Henry Shefflin’s nerve let him down. He’s the guy I’d want.

“He got the penalty in 2009 in the All-Ireland final that turned the game for Kilkenny, and last year in the championship with Ballyhale he had to land a free to draw the game with James Stephens, on a wet, dirty day, a free right out on the sideline, and nailed it.

“Also, one thing I’ve always liked about him, he’s never been one to go back 20 yards into his own half to take a free, which is a measure of the man. He knows what he can do and doesn’t try to take frees that are too far out just to boost his own confidence.”

Greatest pressure free you’ve seen, hurling and football?

“Larry Tompkins kicked a free in the 1987 All-Ireland football semi-final to equalise against Galway which was a hugely pressurised kick. Cork were expected to win easily but it came down to that free, 55 yards out, and he put it over, a measure of the man.

“You could maybe talk about Ronan O’Gara’s late drop-goals this season, which were outstanding, but Tompkins’ kick always stayed with me — if he didn’t put it over, they were gone. I was thinking, ‘that’s a huge free’ when they put the ball down.

Stephen Cluxton’s free last September was a great kick, but that was to win the game — if he missed they’d have had another day, while Tompkins’ was to stay alive in the competition.”

The best ref around? Why?

“Alain Rolland, based largely on sending off Sam Warburton in the World Cup. His job is to protect the players and run the game as fairly as possible, not to worry about ‘the game is ruined because there’s a man gone’ or whatever people were saying.

“What impressed me was that it was a huge game and refs are aware of the pressures of the occasion — but he still made the decision, and made it in a split-second.

“Another guy who impressed me was Alan Lewis, another rugby referee who retired recently. I think it was a Heineken Cup game he was doing and when someone cribbed over a penalty for a collapsed scrum, he said, ‘if I see it I’ll call it, but I’m not going to guess it’. That’s a rule of thumb for referees in all codes.”

Managerial challenges: Keane and McCarthy in Saipan. Who was right?

“I think you’d have to have been there from the start to call that. I wouldn’t have brought Roy Keane to Saipan, I’d have left him at home to recuperate, or told him go to Dubai for a holiday and acclimatisation.

I don’t know what went on between them from day to day, so I don’t know if I could call that one.”

Who’s the most underrated sportsman in Ireland?

“Niall McCarthy is one player who doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the superb job he’s done for Cork down the years. In the 2002 All-Ireland final DJ Carey got the ball and balanced it on the bas before putting it over the bar, to massive kudos. In 2004, Niall did the same but was going down the wing at fierce pace with the game in the melting pot, under huge pressure, and stuck the ball over the bar.

“That’s no slight on DJ either, by the way, it’s just I felt Niall hasn’t got the accolades he deserved.”

The ugliest moment in sport?

“Any serious injury — those are never nice to see.”

An extra ticket falls into your lap for your favourite sports event — what sports person would you bring along?

“Jose Mourinho if it was a soccer game. I’d like his insights into how the game is played, what changes he’d make and so on. It’d be informative. Obviously he’d pay for the day out. There might be a few tailoring tips involved, too.”

The biggest sports tearjerker of all time? Why?

“The Munich air disaster. It’s not that I’m a Man United fan, but to be in the throes of building a team that was likely to dominate, and then see them killed... it’s created a mystique about the club and I suppose there were Irish people involved, and there’d be close links to the club from Ireland over the years.”

The worst choke of all time?

“Greg Norman at the Masters in 1996. Six ahead and beaten by Faldo... I think it was just a personal disaster. Golf’s a game with no teammates or whatever — you probably have goalkeepers who feel the spotlight is on them if they make a mistake, but that must have been torture for Norman for the three and a half hours or whatever. Nobody would wish that on a person. Rory McIlroy had a similar experience at the 2011 Masters but he came back to win the US Open at Congressional a few weeks later, he was younger and people felt he’d recover anyway. With Norman... I think a lot of sports people wake up at times and think ‘if only I’d caught that ball or gotten that score’ or whatever, and I’d say it must still haunt Norman to this day.”

The one player in any sport you’d love to coach?

“Richie McCaw. I think anyone who’s interested in coaching wants to do so at the highest level, to coach a good team to see what they can achieve. The All Blacks haven’t always been world champions but they’re generally viewed as the best in the world. I don’t know Richie McCaw but the beauty of the situation might be that you wouldn’t need to do much coaching.

I remember when Leinster won their first Heineken Cup, a reporter said to Michael Cheika that he’d had great influence over Rocky Elsom, who was very good for Leinster that season. Cheika said he had no coaching influence over Elsom, he didn’t need any.”

The one player in any sport you’d hate to coach?

“Chris Ashton, but to be honest I was struggling for someone here. There just seems to be a lot going on there with him. The diving with the ball... I’d always think ‘why be flamboyant when you can be practical?’. You could dive in if you were getting the try to win the World Cup final with 10 seconds to go.”

Your dream selector, not counting your current ones?

“Sean O’Leary. He has a lot of experience, a great thinker about the game, he’s very level-headed, a good judge. He’d say, ‘let them play away there awhile’ without rushing into a switch.

“He’s got a very good understanding of players — I was at a game with him down the Páirc one day and when someone commented on a player, he said, ‘you’ve got to understand the level the player is at’. A very good judge of the game.”

The one sports moment you wouldn’t wipe from the VCR?

“Dónal Óg Cusack’s save from Henry Shefflin in 2004, and Cork working the ball downfield just afterwards.

“It was a major point in the game. It was a tight game and a goal at any stage would have blown it open.

“Cusack saved it but didn’t panic — he gave it to Wayne Sherlock, who carried it on and gave it to Niall McCarthy, who caught it and moved it further up the field.

“Our idea that time was that every ball you got you’d use constructively; in an All-Ireland final it would have been easy for someone to lash the ball 90 yards down the field but instead they worked it downfield.

“It would have resulted in a goal if Kilkenny hadn’t committed a professional foul, if you like, on Joe Deane as he was going through. Of course we’d have done the same at the other end.”

The one sports moment you’d visit if you had a time machine?

“Brazil in the 1970 World Cup. We’d never seen anything like that. The touches from Pele were something we’d never seen anyone do. It didn’t hurt that they beat England either, of course.”

The one sports moment that’s more overrated than any other?

“The FA Cup final — I’ve seldom seen a top class game, they might be pressurised by the build-up or expectations, and in the last few years they’ve lost their gloss generally. But even before that they tended to be dull enough affairs, the odd 1-0. I remember the 1979 final between Arsenal and Man United was good, Arsenal were two up, United came back and Arsenal eventually won 3-2 with an Alan Sunderland winner. But the fact that you’ve to go that far back for a decent one probably tells you everything you need to know.”


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