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For Charlie, who has taught me so much already about never giving up and never giving in.

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

Abraham Lincoln


‘A simple game made complicated by the coaches’ was how some former managers put it. Learn to lift, strike, block, catch, throw in a bit of instinct and character and there you have it, your secret sauce to the ‘art of hurling’. Sure, if you simply stick to your position, are first to the ball and have enough determination about you, you’ll win the game.

But is it really as simple as that? Are modern-day coaches complicating things for the sake of it, throwing in drills, science, stats and game plans where they’re not needed? 

The game is neither as simple as sepia-tinted memories would have it, nor as complicated as PhD statistics graduates want to make it. Instead, the reality is somewhere in between the two ends of this spectrum.

But we also have to accept that the ‘modern’ techniques being decried, such as statistics, possession and changing formations, have all been used in one form or another down through the decades. It’s just that they have become more developed, increasingly codified and, with more information and knowledge around them, they’ve become studies in themselves. Such developments don’t make these techniques wrong, just more advanced.

You don’t throw the baby out with the bath water because something is more ‘advanced’, and the new solutions being offered are not the be all and end all. They are not, in and of themselves, the answer or the key to winning matches.

Having worked in the media in all its forms in the last fifteen years, I think of the times when new types of media were developed and introduced and how people were quick to declare each one of them the new and only way media would be consumed, pronouncing the death of whatever had come before it. Radio would spell the end of newspapers; TV would be the end of radio; the Internet would be the end of everything.

Likewise, when increased fitness and science were being introduced to the championship in hurling and football in the late 1980s/early 1990s, we were told that this would finally level the playing field. Indeed, the breakthrough of Ulster teams in Gaelic football and the ‘revolution years’ in hurling in the 1990s did offer a glimpse of a possible new order being established in both codes. But in truth it was only a brief hiatus before the traditionally dominant counties reasserted themselves, as they caught up with whatever new coaching/science/system was in vogue, applied it to their own supremely talented numbers and watched the positive results follow.

It wasn’t as simple as that, of course, but evolutions in both codes occur in cycles as new thinking, new influences and new information come on stream. Kilkenny legend Fr Tommy Maher, ‘the godfather of modern hurling’, learned about training techniques from English soccer; Down’s Joe Lennon and Dublin’s Kevin Heffernan in Gaelic football were likewise bringing in lessons learned from ‘foreign games’.

The 1960s were the tipping point in the GAA’s coaching evolution. Previously it was sporadic and haphazard, based on individuals and what they brought to a team at any given time. Now, for the first time, figures such as Maher, Donie Nealon of Tipperary and others were codifying and instructing how Gaelic games should be coached. They were also organising residential, week-long ‘instructional’ courses in Gormanston, Co. Meath during the 1960s, where the next generation of hurling and football coaches would be created.

My first interviewee, Diarmuid Healy, learned at Gormanston and was also taught directly by Tommy Maher at St Kieran’s College in Kilkenny, that famous nursery of hurling for secondary-school students. He was one of the first pupils to come out of the modern school of hurling coaching in Gormanston. He emphasised skills over physique, finesse over brute force, and his results with St Kieran’s, the Kilkenny minors and then Offaly showed that this approach worked. Offaly, a county with no Leinster or All-Ireland titles to its name, was to win provincial and national titles for the first time in its history under Healy’s influence.

Cyril Farrell was another thirty-something-year-old who learned about the art of management from outside sources. In his case, he absorbed information from the New Zealand rugby team and Shamrock Rovers soccer team on his way to ending Galway’s fifty-seven-year hurling famine.

Although neither Farrell nor Healy ever reached inter-county standard themselves as players, both men were avid students of sport. They were sponges, soaking up any new information from all sporting codes and then applying it to hurling.

But former inter-county stars were also just as likely to make it as All-Ireland-winning managers – Justin McCarthy, Ger Loughnane, Anthony Daly and Brian Cody to name but a few. They were as hungry for sports management tips and techniques as the others, except they probably had it a little easier. They could walk into a dressing room and command respect from players who knew who they were and what they had achieved.

As I sought out some of hurling’s most successful managers for this book, what I wanted were their insights into and philosophies about how they achieved what they achieved. In most instances the effect they had on a team was immediate, or it became apparent within a season or two.

Longevity is not a common trait amongst the majority of successful managers. After shining so brightly so quickly, they were almost certainly gone within a few years. And for those who go back a second time after an absence of ten or more years, the advice is clear: don’t do it. Rarely does it work out. Time passes, generations and society move on, and what worked twenty years ago now needs updating with new methods and new techniques and a new voice to make it relevant and have an impact.

It’s no coincidence that many of the managers who made the most impact were in their thirties, just old enough to be the senior of most players, but still close enough to be able to relate to whatever was preoccupying their lives and hurling styles.

New methods have been brought to bear by the newer generation of coaches interviewed for this book. New ways of training, new playing styles and new coaching techniques introduced to the hurling field can be either accepted or ridiculed. One sure-fire way of these methods gaining acceptance in any group, however, is by winning. Success breeds confidence and surety, and, all of a sudden, sceptical voices in a dressing room become the methods’ biggest evangelists.

Just as Mike Brearley, in his book The Art of Captaincy, brings us insights into being a captain in cricket and signals the importance of a captain’s decision-making, these hurling managers reveal what it was like to hold the flame for a few seasons in their beloved sport.

If you were to pick one singular trait that stands out throughout each of the interviews in this book, it is that of a strong mentality and mindset. An increasingly popular refrain in the modern workplace is that you hire on attitude because skills can be learned afterwards. So too in the dressing room. It’s a trait that managers have long known about and looked for. When counties make the breakthrough after losing for so many years, they point to mindset and belief as being the determining factor.

Skill sets at third level, we’re told throughout the book, are on a par between players from top-tier and weaker counties. They’re playing against each other on a regular basis in colleges, with little discernible difference. But when they go to play for their counties, where tradition, history and the jersey itself count for so much, something in the mentality can change. Circumstances, players and the pitch can all be the same, but the belief within the players from the weaker counties just dissipates when they’re on the county scene.

Since belief can be such a fickle thing, the importance of the managers’ role as psychologists and leaders is clear. They have to be able to connect with the players they have chosen to bring success to the team; they have to know what makes them tick, what’s going on in their lives, what will inspire them to get out of the trenches and push themselves to the limit.

But it also has to come from within – which is why the choice of players is so important. It’s something that Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton alludes to when discussing his latest stint as Antrim manager. The county doesn’t have the resources or playing numbers to compete as they once used to. Instead, he has to find players who want it that much more, players who desperately want to avoid the bitter taste of defeat, because, as Cyril Farrell said after Galway’s 1979 All-Ireland final defeat, ‘it hurts so bad they don’t want to go through that feeling ever again’.

Character looms large for former Clare and Galway manager Ger Loughnane. ‘Men needed now’ should be on his calling card. He didn’t want the most skilful or silkiest hurlers. He wanted the ones who would do what it took, no matter what. Loughnane’s method for choosing his inter-county players was akin in many ways to the likes of the induction courses for the elite Navy Seals special ops groups. The gruelling, punishing ordeal he put recruits through was not about the physical torture; instead the mental strength of every individual was being tested. Could they put themselves through this much hurt and still not give up, no matter what?

Not many can at that level. Though, of course, you can get through numerous boot camps and still not be good enough. Just because you can climb Carrantuohill in your bare feet in the middle of winter with a 40lb pack on your back and nothing but rain and cold for company for twenty-four hours, doesn’t mean you will win an All-Ireland.

People are increasingly asking, however, is this not pushing it too far? Is this what we’re saying is needed now to win in an amateur sport? Ice baths are no longer seen as cutting edge or advanced. If you’re not doing them there are questions asked. They’re now as normal as stretching your hamstrings in the warm-up.

Then, just when you think the body can’t be pushed any more, new ways and methods are found and implemented, and if a county wins an All-Ireland using them, well then you can be sure the other counties will be doing something similar for the following season.

The Internet has brought increased access to information from all sports, which is shared amongst coaches and clubs across the sporting landscape. Rather than going to Ajax to study their Total Football system, they can instead download it in seconds from the web, and the same information is available to every other coach out there looking for it.

For how much longer can a one per cent edge be found? The days of other sporting influences bringing something different are no more, and the limits of physical endurance have been pushed to the extreme, which leaves the mind as the last frontier left to develop. That’s why you hear coaches around the world in different sports from New Zealand to America to Ireland talking about character. It’s that X factor, that unquantifiable element that makes a person push and drive themselves on. It comes from within, it comes from having lived, fallen down and gotten up again. It comes from learning about life and wanting to succeed when everyone else gives up.

To paraphrase the self-help gurus’ mantra: when you discover the ‘why’ of life (or sport), then the ‘how’ doesn’t even matter. But in an amateur sport such as hurling, accepting why you persevere in the sport, especially later in life, can become more difficult as it begins to interfere with family, career and kids. After all, you win a few All-Irelands and then what? In ten years’ time will anyone really care if you’ve given up your future prospects to focus on hurling?

The counter to that, as many of the managers in this book note, is that the same attitude, purpose and drive you bring to your hurling career should also be reflected in your life outside of that. And if you bring the same drive to your job or business or family, then life will fall into place.

But what if the huge dedication and time commitments required for training, strength and conditioning, diet and playing are causing inter-county players to miss out on what life can actually teach them? Is modern sport creating automatons on the field, only able to carry out instructions but little else besides? What can they bring to life, career and family in such circumstances?

All of the managers featured in this book come from generations where they switched on for hurling but also knew when to switch off. Pints could be had, days afterwards lost in a fog. The craic, mistakes, highs and lows were all part of it. Team life ebbed and flowed, up and down, up and down. Now it’s all tightly controlled, driven by the minute, the schedule and the goals. It’s militaristic. To succeed, the mindset of an army cadet is a better fit than ever before.

Is it any wonder that perhaps the most successful Gaelic football side of all time, the current Dublin side, is managed by Jim Gavin, a former Air Corps pilot? He has said his military background has been instrumental to his leadership in the dressing room. ‘Service not self. In the military there’s people above you and below but you’re there to serve.’ Tellingly, however, Gavin also said they don’t want players as robots on the field. ‘We give them a framework in a tactical sense, we don’t want fifteen robots playing for Dublin. We have a structure, sometimes we get it wrong but once they express themselves that’s the key.’ Maybe that piece of understanding is the one per cent difference for the Dubs at the moment.

It comes back to the balance. Not being too systems-driven, but on the other hand, not being too much of a keep-it-simple merchant either. If Gavin has got it right for Dublin in Gaelic football, then Brian Cody has been the undoubted master in hurling terms. With his longevity and success, he is the Alex Ferguson of the GAA, and the worry for Kilkenny, with the rising dominance of other sides, is: what happens when Cody is gone?

Time and again, the managers in this book cited Kilkenny and Cody as the exemplars which every other county has to follow. If Fr Tommy Maher was the original godfather of hurling, then Cody has been his successor for the twenty-first century. His influence, his success, his ability to mould and shape not only the players but a culture of success breeding success is what stands out for every hurling manager past, present and future.

Tellingly, Cody wouldn’t be interviewed for this book. While he’s still managing, a former manager told me, he won’t talk. ‘He’s not going to want to talk to you about his methods and how he made Kilkenny so successful, certainly not while he’s still in the game.’

I had to accept this and I’m sure when Cody does step down he’ll have another book ready for the shelves. As with Ferguson in retirement, it is likely that most people will be most interested in his nuggets of advice about management and leadership. Who knows, maybe the Cody Book of Leadership will be the next book to come?

In the meantime, all everyone else can do is sit back and respect what has been achieved in his nearly twenty years with Kilkenny. As it was with Ferguson, so too will it be with Cody. We will likely never see a managerial career like that in Gaelic games again. The intensity, the pressure, the commitments are all too much and by the end of the third season most, if not all, managers are ready to jump ship.

This book is not trying to be an all-encompassing or definitive work on hurling managers. Such a book would need to run to numerous volumes to include the many, many managers not interviewed here, from counties to clubs, and it would, of course, need to include Cody himself.

Besides, there are plenty of other books already published that profile the game’s top managers. What The Art of Hurling tries to do is offer insights into the philosophies and methodologies of some of the game’s most successful managers. They are the ones who not only won All-Irelands or provincial titles, but did so in unique circumstances, often ending decades-long losing streaks and most times bringing success within a season or two of taking over.

How were they able to take losing teams and turn them into champions in such a short space of time? What was it about their philosophies and beliefs on the game and the dressing room that made them unique and successful? And finally, in the midst of such a period of reflection about the game and its development, what are their thoughts on the future of hurling?

It was with these themes in mind that the managers were approached for interview, although a geographical spread was also a factor, as was inter-county success. There’s another volume in club managers alone, and another for those whose lights shone brightly with smaller counties.

Each chapter then is a study about the manager, their philosophy and the implementation of that philosophy during their managerial career. Their successes (or otherwise) are the anchor points along their journey (and the teams’). Can one word sum up their lifetime commitment to the sport? Perhaps not, but each chapter is meant as a stand-alone essay reflecting an overall belief or theme, so that readers can pick up and dip into it as they so desire.

There is also a roughly chronological path, from Diarmuid Healy, who began his inter-county managerial career in 1979, to Eamon O’Shea, who ended his tenure as Tipperary manager in 2015. One can trace the changing landscape in hurling coaching in general as one reads about the successes of the 1980s into the 1990s and the twenty-first century.

Looking to the future, there are some who are fearful for the game, while others see only improved facilities, fitness and skills.

It is fascinating, however, to trace the increased influence of player power in later years, and the expectancy that managers should treat players, if not quite as equals, then certainly as important voices in the make-up of a team’s approach.

One also sees managers trying to bring a sense of balance and expression to players’ sporting lives. There is an awareness that, with demands on players at an all-time high, they need to be introduced positively to other outlets, to other areas beyond the pitch. However, it still ultimately comes down to a love of the game, pride of community, club and county for the players, and for the managers, it is clear that their love of hurling remains undiminished.

They are more than just managers, they are also the guardians of how the game should be played, shining examples of how success and All-Irelands can be brought to a county, so their philosophies and approach should be seen in that context. If they’re lucky, their legacy in these counties will live on and count for the generations to come. And that is the true art of hurling.