Cen­tral Coun­cil tackle foot­ball rules

Port­laoise coach Malachy McNulty on tak­ing reins at the club and the im­por­tance of a bal­anced team

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Seán Mo­ran:

Malachy McNulty won’t have any trou­ble find­ing his way to Par­nell Park to­mor­row. For sev­eral years, the Port­laoise man made a daily round trip to the cap­i­tal when work­ing as a teacher in Glas­nevin. It was a time that gave him good friend­ships and a ring­side seat at Dublin club cham­pi­onship games.

He main­tained that habit even af­ter he be­came prin­ci­pal of St Fran­cis’s Spe­cial School in Port­laoise, both out of in­ter­est and, be­cause as man­ager of the town’s GAA team, you can’t see enough games. The Dublin matches he at­tended this year clar­i­fied the ex­u­ber­ant health of the sport in the me­trop­o­lis. “There is a phys­i­cal­ity and in­ten­sity about their teams across the board. In Laois you might get four or five re­ally well-con­di­tioned teams, and the oth­ers might be catch­ing up a lit­tle bit. They all seem to be ex­tremely con­di­tioned and ath­letic and well able to run hard for 60 or 70 min­utes up there. The games are tough. And that tough­ness stands to teams com­ing out of their county.”

None of th­ese ob­ser­va­tions are de­signed to un­der­play Port­laoise’s qual­i­ties when they face Dublin cham­pi­ons Kil­macud Crokes to­mor­row. McNulty’s en­tire adult life in Gaelic foot­ball has re­volved around vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess with the club. He made it to the se­nior team aged just 18, de­scrib­ing him­self as a full-hearted and at­ten­tive half-back: “Maybe not a player with the silki­est of skills but I’d do the hard work.”

It was a pe­riod when Port­laoise dom­i­nated the lo­cal land­scape. From 2007-2015, they won nine se­nior Laois ti­tles in suc­ces­sion. Some­times they steam­rolled the op­po­si­tion in fi­nals but those sea­sons were never ef­fort­less: they were in­formed by se­ri­ous am­bi­tion. The pe­cu­liar thing was that as the ti­tles racked up, so did the pres­sure.

Chal­lenge

Imag­in­ing new ways to meet the same chal­lenge be­came more dif­fi­cult. Af­ter 2014, the se­nior team needed a new man­ager. McNulty was one of the se­nior play­ers in­volved in iden­ti­fy­ing suitable re­place­ments. They heard the phrase “train hard and of­ten” more than once. That of­ten trans­lated to three or four train­ing ses­sions a week – and the ex­penses that went with those ses­sions. Grad­u­ally, it be­gan to dawn on peo­ple within the club they needed some­one fa­mil­iar with their val­ues.

McNulty was 33 then and en­joy­ing the player’s life. He trained teams at ju­ve­nile level but when he was ap­proached to take on the se­nior team, it came com­pletely from left field. It was a dilemma. He felt he could do some­thing. The team was steam­ing to­wards some­thing spe­cial: even if it wasn’t voiced, it was ob­vi­ous they were clos­ing in on 10 ti­tles in a row. But the con­se­quence of tak­ing the job was that McNulty wouldn’t be on the field if that mo­ment ar­rived.

“If it was all about me, I’d be still play­ing,” he con­fesses. “I’m 36 and the body is fresh as hell be­cause I haven’t put it un­der too much stress . . . I’ve been too busy with work and with manag­ing the team and all of that. There is no bet­ter feel­ing com­ing off the pitch . . . it is a fab­u­lous feel­ing.

“First of all, I didn’t go look­ing to man­age. We were at a point where we had com­pleted eight in a row. And to an ex­tent, it had be­come a poi­soned chal­ice: who would want to be man­ager when it stops? My mo­ti­va­tion has al­ways been that I be­lieve this team and the tra­di­tion in the club mean we have what it takes to com­pete at the top level. The dream is to bring this team all the way. So my name came up and it was brought to me. I took a step back and I thought, yeah. This is prob­a­bly the right choice and time.”

It re­quired an in­stant re­set­ting of his habits and val­ues: a nec­es­sary dis­tance be­tween the guys who had been his team-mates and friends and the im­po­si­tion of his vi­sion and be­lief of how the team should play. In his first sea­son, he leaned on se­nior play­ers who were think­ing of step­ping away, pre­vail­ing on them to hang about and they se­cured a ninth ti­tle al­most on mus­cle mem­ory.

But in his se­cond year, in the county fi­nal against Strad­bally, the in­con­stant and un­govern­able heart of sport de­cided things. Sixty-two min­utes gone and 1-10 to 1-12 ahead, Port­laoise were all but home as Strad­bally worked their way up the pitch with nine hand­passes, each of which seemed mil­lime­tres away from an in­ter­cep­tion. A more cyn­i­cal team would have fouled and set them­selves. Port­laoise kept try­ing to win the ball cleanly un­til all of a sud­den it was squared to Jody Dil­lon who thumped a once-in-a-life­time goal past Graeme Brody. It pro­voked pan­de­mo­nium around the county.

“Iron­i­cally I hap­pened to be that man who was there when it came to an end,” McNulty says. “Ten in a row . . . it’s a feat I think isn’t achieved very of­ten. It didn’t force our hand but it did cre­ate a sense we had to step back and re­flect on where we wanted to go for the next five or 10 years.”

Re­sponse

The Port­laoise re­sponse has been to win two ti­tles. The club game is be­gin­ning to mir­ror the county scene in a more fluid turnover of play­ers. McNulty feels that get­ting the team bal­ance right is crit­i­cal. A team has to have what he refers to as its “lo­co­mo­tive play­ers”: the co­hort in their prime. Each year, they try to have one or two play­ers com­ing out of the ju­ve­nile set-up.

This year, Barry Saun­ders was the big suc­cess. They brought him into the se­nior squad last year as a red-shirt: they’d no in­ten­tion of play­ing him but wanted him to get used to train­ing and play­ing at adult level. He broke into the team on merit this sea­son. At the other end of the spec­trum, McNulty in­stances Ricky Ma­her, who scored Port­laoise’s two goals in the se­nior fi­nal vic­tory against O’Dempsey’s and fin­ished as man of the match. McNulty has a vivid rec­ol­lec­tion of Ma­her’s first year with the team in 2009 when he was just 18. The team had been in mur­der­ous form in Le­in­ster, crush­ing all com­ers on their way to the pro­vin­cial ti­tle.

Full-for­ward line

But for Ma­her, it never re­ally hap­pened. Through form and in­jury, he never fully nailed down a start­ing place. His ap­pli­ca­tion didn’t al­ways bal­ance with his tal­ent. This year, Bruno McCor­mack was in­jured and a gap opened in the full-for­ward line. Ma­her, as cap­tain Paul Cahillane de­tailed af­ter the fi­nal, “is 10 years try­ing to break into that team. He gets a sniff of it this year and changes his life to­tally off the field. I’ve never seen a man work as hard as he has this year.” For McNulty, coach­ing Ma­her to reach that level is one of the con­so­la­tions of no longer play­ing.

In or­der to win in Par­nell Park, Port­laoise will have to de­liver a spe­cial per­for­mance. McNulty has pub­licly em­braced the idea of play­ing in Don­ny­car­ney. He is en­thu­si­as­tic about the play­ing games at this time of year, ir­re­spec­tive of the some­times wild con­di­tions: one of his favourite days with the club was a Le­in­ster derby game against Of­faly cham­pi­ons Clara, a fix­ture orig­i­nally aban­doned be­cause of fog and com­pleted six days later dur­ing “the tail end of a hur­ri­cane”. It felt like they were the only peo­ple out of doors that day.

A cav­al­cade of buses will travel to Dublin. Port­laoise is a grow­ing town: the club’s dom­i­nance has led to calls for the for­ma­tion of a se­cond club in the town. “We have one club,” McNulty says. “We are a very proud club and we don’t have the big­gest sup­port be­cause there is such a big draw to­wards other sports in the town. But the sup­port­ers we do have are diehard and they are great when we are on the road – and we get great sup­port from Laois in gen­eral.”

My name came up and it was brought to me. I took a step back and I thought, yeah. This is prob­a­bly the right choice and time

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: INPHO

Port­laoise’s Brian McCor­mack bat­tles for pos­ses­sion with Liam Healy of Moore­field dur­ing the Le­in­ster quar­ter-fi­nal at St Con­leth’s Park, New­bridge, Co Kil­dare; Port­laoise man­ager Malachy McNulty.

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