The Christy O'Connor column: GAA managers now appreciate the value of an outsider's perspective

The Christy O'Connor column: GAA managers now appreciate the value of an outsider's perspective
Cork backroom staff member Doug Howlett. Picture: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

AT THE Cork-Limerick league game in the Gaelic Grounds a few weeks back, Doug Howlett was photographed looking at the match through binoculars.

In an interview in the Sunday Times last weekend, Howlett explained his reason. He said that he wasn’t looking at the ball; he wanted to look at a player when the ball had gone, assess his body language, and how had he reacted.

Had he re-set for the next ball? Howlett’s new role as high-performance lead with the Cork senior hurlers may look like a bold move considering Howlett’s esteemed rugby background but hurling has nothing to do with the appointment.

His focus will be on the players.

“Their preparation, individually assisting players in their match approach and mindset, while collectively developing a unity of purpose, passion and belief,” said Howlett.

“I’ll be looking for any opportunity where we can make slight gains.”

Micheál Donoghue said something similar recently when explaining his reasons for bringing Kieran Donaghy into the Galway backroom team as a performance coach.

“There are obviously some things he can help us with,” said Donoghue. “He’s somebody that commands massive respect and is recognised for what he has achieved.

“And his character and personality is something that can be grasped on to straight away.”

Demons' Colin O'Reilly and Kieran Donaghy of Tralee. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Demons' Colin O'Reilly and Kieran Donaghy of Tralee. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

The news also last week that Dessie Farrell will work with the Dublin senior hurling panel in 2019 was less leftfield as Farrell played underage hurling for the county.

Dublin manager Mattie Kenny said that Farrell will have “a support role” to the squad and management team.

His responsibilities are understood to be in the area of player development, assisting Kenny in attempting to establish a culture of success in the squad. The former Dublin ladies football goalkeeper, Cliodhna O’Connor, is also part of Kenny’s Dublin backroom team.

She worked with Kenny at Cuala as an S&C coach but the former Tipperary hurler, Timmy Hammersley, told a story last year which highlighted the breadth of O’Connor’s skills.

Hammersley’s nerveless free-taking late on in last year’s Tipperary county final was central to Clonoulty-Rossmore ending a 21-year spell in the wilderness. He spoke of all the hours of graft during training sessions over the year in Dublin, and how his free-taking technique had been honed through one-to-one work with O’Connor.

“Cliodhna was a big influence on me,” said Hammersley.

“I don’t know her hurling background but I just think you need to know sport and you can then coach any sport. She’s shown that anyway.

“We spent 75% of the sessions out hurling in Portmarnock, where she’s from. We would have taken 15 balls out on the pitch and away we’d go. I’d be saying are you not bringing me into the gym and she’d be saying we need to nail frees.

“She’ll be a huge asset to the Dublin hurlers. For someone who never played hurling before, she definitely helped me technically.”

O’Connor was one of the best goalkeepers in the history of ladies Gaelic football.

Donaghy was one of the most influential players of modern Gaelic football but the absence of a hurling background is immaterial to the role Donoghue has in mind for Donaghy with Galway.

It is mostly about a different viewpoint, a different perspective on elite sport from an elite sportsperson from another code.

Donaghy isn’t the first big name footballer to make that crossover as an advisor to a hurling squad. Kieran McGeeney, the former Armagh footballer, was part of the Tipperary backroom team in 2014.

Tipp lost the All-Ireland final that year after a replay. They also lost the league final to Kilkenny after extra-time but Tipp’s best player that season was Seamus Callanan, who hit 14-112 in 14 league and championship matches.

In 2015, Callanan scored 8-45 in 10 league and championship matches. When Tipp won the 2016 All-Ireland, Callanan gave one of the greatest individual performances in a final, nailing 0-13, 0-9 from play.

Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

It was a massive turnaround for Callanan, whose form had collapsed in the four seasons prior to the 2014 season, but Callanan credited McGeeney for helping him deliver on his potential.

“You’d have massive respect for someone who’s had the career that Kieran had, the experience of the man and the knowledge of the man,” said Callanan. “He was a massive benefit to me and gave me great confidence and a great sense that I could work on my own visualisation and mentality towards what’s going on.

“It was very, very helpful.”

Tipperary didn’t really use McGeeney’s services in a group setting because most of his input was with individuals, being available for one-on-one chats.

When McGeeney’s former Armagh team-mate Oisin McConville worked with the Laois hurlers a few years back, he had a similar role.

“I’m just trying to pick up on things that maybe somebody who’s a little removed from it might spot,” said McConville at the time.

It hasn’t just been Gaelic footballers though, which have become part of hurling setups in recent years, because hurling managers haven’t been slow to reach out to professional players.

Seán O’Brien had a role with Wexford under Liam Dunne. Billy Walsh, the esteemed boxing coach, was also active with the Wexford hurlers for a few years. Denis Leamy, the former Munster and Ireland flanker, was involved with Tipperary in 2016 and 2017.

Gary Keegan, the creator of Irish boxing’s high-performance unit, was heavily involved with the Cork hurlers for the last two years. His departure left Cork with a big void but Howlett will aim to fill it.

The Munster players often spoke about the new level of critical thinking Howlett brought to the squad when he arrived from New Zealand.

It may be a different sport but, with the power of another voice, and the perspective of another sport, that critical thinking is what Cork hope Howlett will now bring to their hurlers.

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