The Kieran Shannon interview: Jason Sherlock on becoming the mentor he once needed

Sporting fame allowed him to belong. But despite enjoying a varied career full of celebrity and success, Jason Sherlock retired feeling a failure. A deep thinker, his views on Gaelic football left him frustrated by his and Dublin’s underachievement. But now, as Jim Gavin’s coach, everything has come together and finally makes sense

Jason is a deep thinker and a student of the game. He’s a problem-solver and has a great eye for detail. He thinks outside the box and is very articulate in getting his coaching point across to the players… Jason’s contribution to the performance of the Dublin senior football team has been immense.”

— Jim Gavin, foreword to Jayo: My Autobiography

He was always a coach in the making, he just didn’t know it. As Steve Jobs once put it, you don’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.

Jason Sherlock’s brilliant new autobiography may be primarily the story of someone who felt like an outsider until he won an All-Ireland, then felt like a failure because he never won a second, until, finally, he learned to accept himself. But in a way, it’s also about the education and formation of a coach.

It was easy to forget, before his book reminded us, just how important a figure Sherlock has been, one who propelled the GAA into the world of celebrity and corporate endorsements as much as he himself was propelled into that same sphere.

But his significance now goes beyond being the man who made the GAA realise that not just white people played their games and that some players could even benefit commercially from helping fill Croker and making the Hill go boom, boom, boom. These days he’s helping bring coaching into the 21st century.

Because understand this: although his role in the current Dublin football team is underplayed — even in his own book — Sherlock is one of the most impactful and best coaches in the GAA right now.

Since Jim Gavin asked him to come on board this month three years ago, the
Dublin footballers have yet to lose a single championship match. All three seasons they’ve ended up with Sam Maguire. In fact, since losing two of their first three league games as Sherlock was getting his feet under the table, Dublin have been beaten only once in 43 competitive games with him on the line.

Sherlock’s autobiography does not detail how those wins were achieved: what he said when he ran in to Stephen Cluxton during the first half of this year’s All-Ireland final; what he says to Philly McMahon and Diarmuid Connolly on the training ground or what the two of them may roar to one another well away from the eyes of Croke Park and the nation. He doesn’t take us into the inner sanctum of the Dublin dressing room the way Jackie Tyrrell has brought us into Kilkenny’s. At least not the one Jim Gavin patrols.

And yet it’s still all there. The philosophy that underpins all they do both under and away from the lights and how it was formed from his own experiences such as when he was shouting at Connolly on the training ground as a frustrated veteran in his final year in blue.

He has been just as heavily involved in the Dublin development squads for the past four years. And now in his professional career, he’s started a business in corporate and personal coaching.

Jayo Authentic Mentorship, he calls it. Which is ironic, or in another way, entirely fitting. Because there are passages during his autobiography where he’s floundering, with no direction or purpose in his life, and as a reader, you’re thinking: God, this lad needed a mentor, a coach.

For so long, he was searching for a
mentor and a coach like the one he is now.

Or, quite possibly, for a coach just like the one he had starting out.

THE POINT GUARD AND JOEY

Dublin selector Jason Sherlock with manager Jim Gavin observe proceedings during this year’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final win over Monaghan. Picture: Inpho/James Crombie

“Joey greeted me warmly with a big toothy grin that shone through a jungle of beard that hadn’t seen a pair of scissors in ages. And after quenching a cigarette butt, he shook hands and got straight down to the business at hand.”

“I played point guard. Point guards have probably the most specific role in [basketball]; they are expected to run the offence by controlling the ball and making sure it gets to the right players at the right time. Above all, the point guard must totally understand and accept the coach’s game plan.”

— Jayo: My Autobiography

KS: In the opening pages of the book, you talk about when Jim Gavin asked you on board. “I knew the first thing I had to do was mirror Joey and win the trust of the players.”

As in Joey Boylan, your old basketball coach in St Vincent’s. How did you do that?

JS: Well, I think the biggest thing about Joey was that he cared for his players. I think that’s where it starts.

KS: So how did he care?

JS: By just being there. By showing up and being there every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, taking the sessions, mopping and sweeping the courts, jotting down the stats of how many shots we made in training.

KS: But other coaches can be diligent without being necessarily caring. As your MBA would phrase it: task-centred rather than person-centred?

JS: True, but with Joey it was both.

KS: In the book you talk about losing a national schools cup semi-final and Joey staying on in the dressing room with you for half an hour afterwards.

JS: And he didn’t say a word. I had gone into the game with a dead leg but was just so determined to play, it was my last year in school, and I was distraught. But I still remember Joey just sitting there. Just being there.

I think as well, without having a father, I probably have a greater appreciation of coaches along the way. Because maybe I missed out on having that kind of support. Yeah, I had uncles that were there but I probably valued a mentor father figure like Joey all the more.

KS: So you mirrored Joey when you went in with Dublin by…

JS: Just being there. I was a former player who had been involved in the media so I had to earn their trust. And I did that by being there at indoor gym sessions and S&C sessions that I didn’t have to be at. Just to show that you were there for them, that you were one of them.

KS: There’s a fascinating passage in the book where a fortnight out from the 1995 All-Ireland final, you’re struck by the form a fringe player [Robbie Boyle] is showing and at half-time in a trial game you suggest to [manager] Pat O’Neill that maybe he should try Robbie at full-forward with the As instead of you. Pat flies off the handle — “We pick the team!” — and pretty much blanks you for the next two weeks. But is that something you would have been able to do with Joey? “Look, I think we could move David Donnelly to here…”

KS: Yeah, that was the culture I was used to from basketball, in terms of sharing ideas. I never felt inhibited, there was never a case of “Don’t talk! I’m talking now!” I would have seen Joey with the senior teams and the likes of Karl Donnelly and how they worked the same way. But that wasn’t typical of GAA at the time!

Then again, I wasn’t a typical GAA player. I mention in the book how there were times I felt a bit sick and not sure if I should train but management would tell me I was 90% fit to train, so in spite I’d decide to ease up at the end of runs. So you could say I was disruptive in a lot of ways. I wanted to get across in the book that I came with challenges as well. And how I should be grateful to Pat O’Neill that he had me involved at all.

KS: He went with you at 19…

JS: He did. I don’t know what it was about me. I was very strong-minded. And when I saw a player that was going really well, in my head it made sense to see what he would be like with the A team. Now you could probably understand why it wasn’t received well by Pat, but for me…

KS: Can a player feel free to come up to you with a suggestion like that now? Would you welcome that?

JS: Oh absolutely. That’s how leadership is changing. It’s moving away from that more traditional, dictatorial approach towards a more collaborative approach. And definitely that’s the way. I think the most sustainable teams are the ones that empower everyone to make decisions.

KS: So Joey Boylan was ahead of his time?

JS: Oh, Joey was way ahead of his time.

LOST

‘If you feel that Dublin now are very well-coached, well, a lot of the credit has to go to the players because they’re willing to adapt and accept coaching,’ says Jason Sherlock. Picture: Inpho/James Crombie

“I was all over the shop… One night in January 1998 I was out drinking with a friend… As he left to return home to his family, I felt suddenly envious and rudderless. I had no such stability in my life.
Nothing but chaos seemed to follow me.”

— Jayo: My Autobiography

KS: Reading that passage in the book, the overriding thought I had was how this guy so needed a mentor. And that’s what you are now.

JS: True. And certainly going back to that time, there was no support or structure as such. I played with Dublin until they were beaten and then I’d go and play [soccer] with UCD. There was no cross-communication — it was one or the other. I didn’t have a good lifestyle, I was on a part-time college course, so while the rest of the Dublin players were working, I was at home, sleeping late.

KS: There was also an instability about Dublin football at the time. It went from Pat O’Neill to Mickey Whelan, then into Tommy Carr, and it was easy for a player like you to fall between the cracks.

That more holistic approach that the current setup would have, with someone like [lifestyle performance coach] Bernard [Dunne] there or yourself, that a player could meet up with and have a chat about how things are, did ye have anything like that back then? Would you have met any of those managers outside Parnell Park and have had those kind of conversations?

JS: No, I wouldn’t have. And there was no S&C or mindset or lifestyle coach to bounce things off. Could I have done with that support? Looking back on it, absolutely.

KS: You’re familiar with [former NBA coach] Pat Riley?

JS: Yeah. The Disease of Me.

KS: Well, with all the endorsements and red-carpet events, did Jason Sherlock after ’95 become inflicted with The Disease of Me?

JS: I don’t think I did. I just didn’t have an understanding of what impact it could have on the team or on my sporting career. There was definitely an element of just being happy to no longer be the fella that looks Chinese. This warming feeling of being accepted. And when [then agent] Kevin [Moran] would ring and say “I want you to do this, I want you to do that” — which was his role, to look after the commercial side. I just went with it.

From a team point of view, Dublin had been on the cusp of winning an All-Ireland since the early ‘90s and once they had achieved their goal, understandably their motivation was neutralised in some ways. There wasn’t a real focus to go back-to-back or for three in a row. And from an individual point of view, I suppose my own motivation changed as well. Once we won the All-Ireland, the focus or motivation to excel waned because the motivation had been to be accepted.

KS: So were you comfortable in your own skin in the late ‘90s?

JS: I wouldn’t say I was comfortable in my own skin. I was comfortable that I was now accepted and able to do certain commercial gigs that let me survive financially.

But I knew I was probably underperforming, I just didn’t know why or I didn’t want to address it and be honest with myself. Like, I was playing with UCD and I wasn’t even fit. I remember The Doc [the late Dr Tony O’Neill] always saying, “Oh, you’re naturally fit!” And so in my head I used to go, “Well, then, I’ll be grand.” Yet I’d be out three or four nights a week and then expect to play.

KS: Ten years later you’d be challenging a lot of younger teammates about their approach, such as Diarmuid [Connolly]. Did you need to be challenged at that point?

JS: I don’t even know if ‘challenged’ is the right word. I’d say ‘mentored’ would be better. “Right, what do you want to achieve?” But maybe that was the problem for all the managers— because I was going from sport, I was never [pinned down].

I do remember Mickey Whelan and Keith Barr one year saying to me, “We’re going to need more commitment because it’s not happening.” But that was probably the first time that questions were ever asked. I had no plan as such which meant I kind of coasted along without any foresight or thought of what the future held.

KS: In 2000 though things changed. Your now wife Louise became pregnant with Caoimhe and it bucked you up a lot. And then after you were sent off in a league game against Roscommon, Dessie Farrell challenged you.

JS: Yeah, I was getting to the point where my motivation to become the best footballer — as in Gaelic footballer — was kicking in. And a key conversation was when Dessie said to me, “When are you going to take responsibility for your

actions?”

I, KEANO? THE FRUSTRATED LEADER

“Did I want to be Niall Quinn, a very good player who was liked by everybody, or Roy Keane, not liked by everyone but respected by all? I decided I wanted to be like Keane… It didn’t matter a f*** any more whether people liked me.”

“Soon after my playing days ended, I was keeping myself to myself, walking down a street in Dublin, when a man coming the other way stopped me…. I was embarrassed to meet people… The possibility of being recognised and associated with Jayo, the Dublin footballer, because, in my eyes, that meant a link to 14 years of failure… But he offered his hand. ‘Thank you,’ he said, shaking my hand firmly and looking me in the eye. ‘Thanks for all your effort over the years.’”

— Jayo: My Autobiography

KS: One of the most startling features of the book is just how poorly you viewed yourself and your playing career until that encounter with the man on the street started to alter your perspective.

So during years like 2005, 2006, 2007, when you’re winning Leinsters, are you at the end of a season thinking, “Right, we’re getting closer” or “F***n’ disaster”?

JS: Well after every year I would say “We’ll improve and we’ll get better.” There was an obsession there to win. You could go through every year and highlight either a technical or tactical thing that had been the difference.

KS: Right, but you know the way this current Dublin team always talks about the process — even when you’ve won the last few All-Irelands, you still felt like ye hadn’t quite hit it in the final…

JS: Yeah.

KS: And Paul O’Connell talked in his book about how he’d learn to take satisfaction and enjoyment out of getting better, even in years where Munster or Ireland didn’t win any silverware, whereas earlier in his career, it was heaven or hell. Were you enjoying the process at all in those years?

JS: No. I was more about enjoying it when we’d win. My thinking was “Yeah, this will all make sense and it’ll all be right when we win.” And then trying to work out how we were going to do that. There was nothing enjoyable about every year when we lost.

KS: An interesting line in the book is that it was you who suggested to Pillar [Paul Caffrey] the idea of the team going down to the Hill. It’s now viewed as a symptom of all that was wrong with Dublin before Gilroy and Gavin and the antithesis of the humility they’ve preached. But now as a member of the current management, can you say, “Actually, there was a decent rationale to it”?

JS: Absolutely. When Tommy [Lyons] left, there was a serious disconnect between the team and the supporters. Largely out of our performances but also the way things finished with Tommy. So in my head it was just a way of winning the hearts of the supporters again, to show them that they were part of this, that we didn’t take them for them granted, that we needed them. Now, was there a point in time where we could have decided not to do it? Could we have decided when Mayo went down to the Hill end [in 2006] that we’d do things differently? Yeah, but starting out, that was the rationale.

KS: What’s telling is Pillar took your view on board. He valued your input and saw you as a leader. You were one of the vets and you wanted to get this thing done. Desperately. You write in the book about how after Pillar stepped down, you could either be a Niall Quinn or a Roy Keane. You opted to be like Keane.

And so in 2009 you flare up on Diarmuid Connolly who you feel lacks focus and intensity. You even walk off the field in an A v B game out of pure frustration with him.

In the book you mention how you now have a good player-coach relationship with Diarmuid and a meeting you had before the 2016 All-Ireland final. And you’re big into reflection. Towards the end of the book, you look back on your communication as a team leader in the 2014 final of Ireland’s Fittest Family, how you felt you let down your team by being too emotive, shouting for the sake of it, that instead you should have been calmer and more concise in offering them feedback. So similarly looking back on your communication, what would you have done differently in your exchanges with Diarmuid in 2009? What would you nearly say now to the Jason Sherlock of 2009? Were you ever catching a Connolly doing anything right?

JS: No. Exactly. I was just waiting for the faults. So if I could talk to me at who I was at that stage I’d have said, “Okay, define success. What does it look like to you? It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to win an All-Ireland. Look at other ways of how you’re becoming successful —improving yourself as a player, your resilience. Whenever you finish, you’ll be able to say, ‘Well, that was a success, because they’re the things I did.’ They’re in your control.”

KS: Okay, so being so outcome-driven was adding to your crankiness, but you could nearly see you were going to lose as a team because certain processes were off.

JS: Well, it comes back to the other part of your question there: how would I have approached it differently with a Diarmuid? And what I’ve learned is that you cannot judge other people solely from my perspective and experiences and feelings. You have to respect their development. His perspective of where someone is in his sports career is totally different to mine. And I can’t tell him how he should feel or what he should be doing; he needs to come to understand that himself.

And I suppose the challenge is being able to build up a rapport and relationship where he is the one asking questions, or at least you’re asking him questions, instead of you telling him the answers.

I was looking at the Roy Keanes and Ronan O’Garas and felt, ‘Well, I have their drive, I have to lead like that.’ But that [style] probably wasn’t true to me. The work I’m doing now is built on authentic mentorship. So it’s not about someone aspiring to be Jim Gavin or Brian Cody or Ronan O’Gara, because if they’re trying to be something that they’re not, I don’t think they’ll fulfil their potential.

KS: One thing that was authentic to you in those years was reading a game. Without labouring it or lambasting anyone in the book, you regularly have a par or two reflecting on nearly every major championship defeat and how, as you put it, “we lacked in the tactical department”.

These days that Dublin team that you help coach are the best-coached and most tactically astute team in the game. But were you always a bit of a frustrated coach in the old days, thinking that tactically we could be doing so much more to help ourselves?

JS: Well, ultimately you’re at the mercy of the CEO or the manager. And with every manager, they were strong in some areas and weaker in other areas. Tommy [Carr] was a military man, instilled hard work, discipline and definitely developed our character. But did we have the tactical nuance to understand what to do when we were six points up or what to do when we were a few points down? We probably didn’t.

KS: While you were practising all those kind of scenarios with Joey in the basketball when you’re 15.

JS: Yeah. So if you feel that Dublin now are very well-coached, well, a lot of the credit has to go to the players because they’re willing to adapt and accept coaching. And it also goes to Jim that he’s created an environment where players tactically as well as technically, mentally and physically are well prepared.

KS: So the same way you could tell [Jim] McGuinness and his coaching was driven by the pain of losing to Armagh and Tyrone teams that weren’t a lot more talented than the Donegal teams he played on, but were just more tactically cute, you were like that as well?

JS: I think what we felt going into those games was probably more emotional based than logical based. The fact we hadn’t won and we wanted to win so much.

To be fair to Pat [Gilroy], one of the first sessions himself and Mickey [Whelan] took, they spoke for 30 minutes tactically about what Tyrone had done [in the 2008 All-Ireland quarter-final] and I remember talking to a few of the lads afterwards and saying, “If we’d had have had that chat an hour before we played Tyrone we’d have been so much better prepared.” I’ve watched quite a few of those games back and some of our play in the mid-noughties was very individualistic. A lot of Dublin’s performances were based on individual talent and I’d like to think the last few years we’ve become better as a team and not to be so dependent on certain individuals.

KS: So how do you think the Dublin team of the noughties should be remembered, especially the Pillar team?

JS: It’s funny, I was talking to one of the players that was involved back then and he said he’d recently found one of his old notebooks from Pillar’s time and he said, “You know, there’s loads of that that Dublin are doing now.” And he thought that was amazing because the perception out there is that the current team is great — and rightly so, because they are — but that the team of the noughties was the total contrast and everything that was wrong with Dublin football. And I can understand why that’s the case, because we didn’t get to an All-Ireland final. But I do think it’s so wrong that that is how it’s judged.

Obviously there were things we might have done differently but we were a group of guys who just wanted to win. And we tried things. Some things worked and some things didn’t. And I would hate for us to be judged as ‘Ah, they were a bunch of losers. They were no good.’ What I find interesting is that when you look at the key guys who are involved in the development of Dublin GAA — Jim [Gavin], Declan Darcy, Dessie, Collie Moran, Ciaran Whelan, Stephen [O’Shaughnessy], Coman Goggins — they had little playing success. And yet they’re the ones putting in the foundations of coaching and development in the county.

KS: And Jason Sherlock.

JS: I remember being on a panel on Newstalk with Billy Walsh and he spoke about his career and how he didn’t perform at the Seoul Olympics and then didn’t get to Barcelona. And Nicolas Cruz said to him, “The medals that you think you should have around your neck will always be in your head as a coach.” And that resonated with me. It was the first time I could think of my own playing career and go, “Now it makes sense.” Because no matter what I do as a coach, I will always be grounded in my failures, and yet the fact that they didn’t break me, I kept coming back, and now I’m still able to coach.

NOW

KS: Was it the MBA or did it take being asked in by Jim for you to be more at peace with your playing career, that you hadn’t been a failure?

JS: No, I think it was the MBA because after it, I got involved with Dublin development squads and committed to this book project. I had been asked to write one before, during my playing career and again after it just ended, but I could never see the value in it, particularly because I felt like a loser. But after the MBA, I started to see how I could add value [with a book] and people could identify with it, before Jim ever called.

KS: Why do you think Jim called you? What do you think it is he saw in you?

JS: Well it showed a remarkable leap of faith in me for him to do that. But as you say, I suppose I was always a bit of a coach when I played. I thought deeply about the game. I didn’t play it because of my physical gifts. I wasn’t the tallest, I wasn’t the strongest, I wasn’t necessarily the fastest. I played the game based on what was between my ears. And Jim probably had an appreciation for that.

KS: Because at the time it seemed an odd appointment. Dublin had just been beaten by Donegal after being ambushed for three goals and everyone else was thinking it was more of a defensive-oriented coach they needed, not you. When you were teammates would the two of you have talked tactics in the car back from training? Would ye have kept in touch over the last 15 years?

JS: We would have had those chats but not hugely. When he stopped playing, obviously we would have lost contact. But maybe, not that he reads the papers, but maybe he had heard what my philosophy was. I don’t know.

And I wouldn’t be thinking at all, “Oh, it’s because of me it changed.” Yes, I’d like to think I’ve added to it and had an impact. But ultimately it comes down to the players.

And the beauty of those lads is from a performance point of view they certainly haven’t got to the level they potentially could.

That’s the exciting part of it.

Jason Sherlock will be signing copies of Jayo: My Autobiography (written with Damian Lawlor, published by Simon & Schuster) today at 1.30pm in Eason’s Blanchardstown Shopping Centre, and Sunday, December 3, at 5 pm at Ballyhea GAA Club, Cork.

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