GAA coaches must understand the culture in a club to make a real impact

GAA coaches must understand the culture in a club to make a real impact
Ballincollig's Luke Fahy breaks from Clonakilty's Martin Scally during the Bon Secours Cork PSFC at Enniskeane last weekend. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

EVERY week, there’s a blitz of interviews with managers around the county and the names jump out from the past.

Podsie O’Mahony, managing the Ballincollig footballers, is just one glimpse of the pattern of ex-players who are now in charge.

If there was a preference for outside coaches for a time, most clubs in Cork have fallen back into using their own personnel again, whether through necessity or design.

Podsie O'Mahony in action for Cork in 1999. Picture: INPHO\Patrick Bolger
Podsie O'Mahony in action for Cork in 1999. Picture: INPHO\Patrick Bolger

Some of the most successful clubs in Cork have promoted from inside, more often than not. That’s the traditional model.

James McCarthy is the Castlehaven manager and has been involved in various county-winning sides over the years, while other former players, like Jim Nolan, John Cleary, and Liam Collins, have all taken over at different times in a club in which former players get involved right through underage and up to senior level.

There’s a self-fulfilling element to this as much as a strategy: The loop of ex-players carries on the spirit and methods that have always worked anyway. That’s the momentum.

Castlehaven manager James McCarthy. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Castlehaven manager James McCarthy. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Nemo have their own natural brains trust, which supplies people like Ephie Fitzgerald, who was in charge of the dominant team of the 2000s, and has had the likes of Larry Kavanagh, Steven O’Brien, and now Paul O’Donovan, take them to county titles also over the last decade.

It’s hard to find a more classic example of a club with a very definite sense of their DNA, right from underage (we’ve told the story here before of underage coaches who’ve gone against the developmental aspect in pursuit of wins, only to be told that it wasn’t how things are done) through to senior level.

Again, it’s a culture that has developed by being repeated over and over, rather than being a defined philosophy. Nemo (and Castlehaven) have a very definite idea of what they’re about and that hasn’t changed an awful lot over the last 25 or more years.

The coaches come through with similar ideas and from the same background and mindset (even if there are variations in how to play the game from individual leanings). That’s part of this process.

Are they the most successful clubs in the county, because they have this built-up knowledge and philosophy from years of practice, or do they have this mentality because it’s worked for them?

The notion of fresh, outside ideas can still be tempting and successful, an argument that there is something missing that is stopping a club/county from fulfilling its talent and that this unknown ingredient can be imported by a manager, or coach, or player.

It can work.

Take Ray Keane, from Kerry, who guided St Finbarr’s to their first county title, after many, many years of underperforming and losing finals.

Or Ronan McCarthy, who went west to Carbery Rangers and took them over that last hurdle to win their first-ever senior county title, about six or seven years into a run when it seemed possible that they would.

There’s a common link here: Clubs that were on the brink with a certain group of players, but which maybe needed that last push.

The Barrs needed the confidence from Keane’s detailed focus to bring together a batch of young talent and make them believe that they could go toe-to-toe with the best of the county. 

Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Ross needed something of the absolute assurance of McCarthy to go again and make it happen.

Would either team have gotten over the line without the confirmation from outside?

There are nuances to this and the two more traditional clubs mentioned above have benefitted, on and off the field, from new energy and abilities at various times.

One of the most influential players in Cork football history was an import. Larry Tompkins’ arrival in Castlehaven brought their first two county titles and he was an Eric Cantona-type figure for Cork, exposing a group eager to win to the type of preparation and training necessary to get to that next level, just showing them the difference between what they were doing individually and what the very best did.

Cork took something from Tompkins’ influence, adapted, improved, won. When Tomas O’Sé went into the Nemo dressing-room a few years back, he probably got a few bonus years from the end of his career with the new challenge.

But every single Nemo player who was involved will say they learned something from his time there, just in the way he carried himself, in the decision-making on the ball, dictating the tempo of games, and what needed to be done in certain situations.

Some ideas don’t always transfer. One club coach springs to mind who was very successful around his own area, was brought into another club with the very specific purpose of changing their style of play, and just never managed to convince the new players of his methods.

Some clubs have ways of playing built into them that are part of what they’re about and are hard to shift.

There was a very notable pattern of thought, a few years back, that Cork needed an outside coach to learn the ways of modern football, a Jim McGuinness-type or a Tony McEntee-type, who might transfer another county’s style of play down here (Jack O’Connor was often mentioned, as well, for a trip across the border), and there’s a reasonable theory that Cork haven’t always been the most progressive in bringing the game forward at either club or inter-county level.

It seemed a stretch, sometimes, though, almost calling for an outside manager just to expose the limitations on offer here, and there’s a more natural pathway now for coaches to become involved at club, and then inter-county, and to move through teams as required.

Local managers and coaches will have their part to play and work done in maintaining the traditions of how the clubs operate, and have always played, will filter into how a county team plays as well.

It’ll be interesting to see which direction this leads.

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