The Coach’s couch

Bravest coaching call, any sport?

“Aidan O’Brien putting his son Joseph up instead of Johnny Murtagh. Johnny would be a very good friend of mine and is an absolutely outstanding sportsman, an incredible fella. This was a huge call to make, especially by a father and putting his son ahead of someone else. The eyes of the world were on it.”

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

“Oh, Peter Canavan. Coolness personified.”

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

“Brian Stafford in 1988 — the first day against Cork. There was all the controversy about the free but if you look at the way he just stroked the ball over, it was as if he was doing it on a back field. He was such an unassuming man. To me, that free showed the steel in the man. In hurling, Johnny Dooley’s one when they came back against Limerick in 1994 is the one that sticks out.”

The best ref around? Why?

“Barry Kelly. He has his moments but there’s a consistency about him that I love. He wouldn’t come from what would be termed a huge hurling county but there’s a massive tradition of hurling in Westmeath. It’s engrained in them. The famous hurling club in Buenos Aires is all thanks to Westmeath people. Westmeath hurling people don’t mind a mix of the physical but there’s a huge fairness there and that’s typical of how Kelly allows the game to flow. When rules were introduced to the GAA first, they always spoke about the spirit of the rule. Law by its very nature is double-edged and there are different interpretations and I think Kelly epitomises that.”

Keane and McCarthy in Saipan. Who was right?

“If I was Mick McCarthy, I would have said to Roy that things weren’t right but I would sort it and allowed him to go home for a few days and do a bit of training by himself. He would have then joined us with the main camp. Whether it comes to right or wrong, you never ask a team to make a decision for you. I would have huge regard for Mick McCarthy but the last thing you would ever do is jeopardise the team and that’s what happened.

Who’s the most underrated sportsman in Ireland?

“He’s injured at the moment but I’d say Dónal Óg Cusack. His leadership, his awareness, his astuteness, his presence, his bravery. I put himself and Noel Hickey as my top two.”

The ugliest moment in sport?

“What happened to Trevor Brennan in 2007 (Toulouse v Ulster). I would know Trevor very well, I would know Gareth Thomas well. When I saw Gareth Thomas going up into the stand in Toulouse that day, I knew somebody had said something terrible. Was it the right thing for Trevor to do? No, it wasn’t. But when something hits your soul, it’s a different thing.”

An extra ticket falls into your lap for your favourite sports event — what sportsperson tags along?

“Shane Horgan. He played minor for me and would love to have played senior. He took a different road but he would have such an affinity with Gaelic football.”

The biggest sports tearjerker of all time? Why?

“For me, it had to be Meath’s victory over Dublin in 1991. Those gladiators from either side, nobody deserved to lose after four titanic battles. It was incredible. Every fibre in you was just drained yet it was a game that qualified you to play Wicklow in the first round of the Leinster Championship. There were so many twists and turns. You take Tommy Carr, having got injured that day and having to go off. Was I glad to win? Of course I was but I was able to see it from both sides. There was such incredible emotion. It was amazing.”

The worst choke of all time?

“Derek Daly in Monaco when he ran out of juice in 1982. He was going on to win the race when it happened. To be in contention was such an amazing achievement for a lad who had to sell t-shirts at the Grand Prix in ‘79 when James Hunt won it just to keep himself going. It was such a cruel moment. It mightn’t be everybody’s choice but there are certain events that are just major.”

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

“Brian O’Driscoll. I love somebody who relishes the challenge and the way he would have worked on his game as rugby changed appeals to me. Whatever was put in front of him he rose to it all because of his extraordinary mentality. He’s just a competitor.”

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

“Mick O’Dwyer. Here’s a guy that in 11 seasons won eight All-Irelands. I saw him break his two legs. I saw him win an All-Ireland at wing-back and getting player of the year at corner-forward, the highest scorer of the year. Never mind the extraordinary talent he had with him as Kerry coach — with the exception of one year he had new personnel every year on the team. From Timmy O’Dowd to Willie Maher, there was always a new guy. To be able to have players so mentally right, having won all that they had won in an amateur sport where they were absolute icons — how could you coach or train somebody like that? This is something the man was born with. I would just feel inadequate.

Your dream selector, not counting your current ones?

“Kevin Heffernan. Even going to soccer matches with him, you would recognise his insight. I remember Ireland playing Spain and Billy Morgan and his son saw the two of us and Billy said: “What are ye two hoors doing together?!” I’ll always remember Kevin saying, “Seán, if they got rid of this offside shite it would be a great game, wouldn’t it?” There was a great point in it.”

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

“I would have to say the All-Ireland final in 1996, for many reasons. One of them was through thick and thin, Kepak had supported us. Noel Keating, Lord rest him, wasn’t around to see it but I’ll never forget standing on the pitch in ‘95 when Clare won and he was a Clare man. We’d been beaten that year by 10 points and a lot of people thought we would be gone for a long, long time. This wasn’t a grudge thing but with fair reason because some of the extraordinary players like Bernie (Bernard Flynn) and Staff (Brian Stafford), PJ and Rourkey (Colm O’Rourke) and Liam Harnan were retiring. If ever you wanted to see a mantle passed on, it was in ‘96. For the likes of Mick Lyons, Gerry McEntee and so on, it meant a lot that these six young lads who had come on with the older boys and fitted in seamlessly. The older generation didn’t have to wait so long to be followed. I remember getting as far back as Kepak the next day and crying like a child. I felt we had kept the flame going and we hadn’t thrown in the towel. The tradition has passed on. It was a survival thing and a competitive thing. I’ll never forget that moment.

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

“The last time Senna won in Monaco (1993). RTÉ’s Michael O’Carroll gave me a press pass and I was fortunate enough to be the first person in a tent Senna came into after achieving that. The humility of the man, you’d swear I had been racing. It was an iconic moment for me, I’ll never forget it.”

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

“This might seem controversial but everybody talks about the 1977 All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Kerry. I think it was because it ended up so close in the long run and there were so many defining moments in it. But I felt there were a lot of fouls in the match, which was so unlike both teams. I felt it demeaned the quality of what they had brought before and after that game.”


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