KIERAN SHANNON: Mickey Whelan has had a huge impact on Dublin GAA
Always learning, even at 78. The godfather of Dublin coaching, Mickey Whelan, has left an enormous and lasting legacy on the current Dublin set-up, one those involved are more than happy to acknowledge, writes Kieran Shannon
‘THE Americans have a saying: “If you want to run fast, you’ve got to run fast.” In other words, you can’t train to be a sprinter unless you sprint. You can’t train to be a footballer, unless you train to play football. We’ve produced athletes here in Dublin the last 20 years that will jump over the moon, but we’re not winning All-Irelands. We’ve been falling down in the skills of the game, whereas Kerry don’t. If they get 30-to-40% of the ball, they’ll get enough scores to win a game. It comes down to playing, making decisions on the ball under pressure, instead of running the sugar out of fellas. People are only buying into that now.’
— Mickey Whelan, November 2007
They all get it in Dublin, now. They all get him, now.
There was a time when they considered Whelan a relic, a heretic, a Luddite, not some sort of visionary or prophet.
However, in time they’d learn, which is why he forgives them; hey, he’s still learning too.
Professor Niall Moyna says there’s not a week that goes by that Whelan won’t call into his office up in DCU and ask for a book or an academic paper to read, which he’ll then copy and thoroughly underline. Moyna was one of the keynote speakers at this year’s GAA Coaching Conference and early on in his presentation he had a slide with a quote.
“Ancora Imparo.” (Always learning).
It was credited to an 85-year-old Michelangelo, but it could just as easily have been a 78-year-old Whelan.
Whelan would appear a few slides later, with Moyna referring to him as “the godfather of coaching in this country”. It’s a description and compliment that Whelan himself would probably baulk at; for one thing, when this writer interviewed him back in 2007, he described Kevin Heffernan as “The Don — when he calls, it’s an offer you can’t refuse”.
Those in the know will vouch, though, that if Heffo had a consigliere, it was Whelan, who shortly after helping Heffernan and Dublin win the 1963 All-Ireland as a player, uprooted his family to pursue his PE and coaching studies and then discreetly help design much of the training programme that would revolutionise football in the 1970s.
Decades later, he’d be the right-hand-man to another head of the St Vincent’s and Dublin family, Pat Gilroy. Even since he departed upon the county’s 2011 All Ireland breakthrough, he’s remained the coach’s coach, in more ways than one.
As a coach himself, Moyna is in awe of the job Jim Gavin has done and continues to do, but ask him about Whelan’s legacy and influence on the current Dublin team and he can only describe it as “enormous”.
“The people in the know in Dublin know Mickey’s fingers are all over that team. I remember early in 2010, DCU played UCD in the first round of the Sigerson. Rory O’Carroll was playing for UCD. So was Michael Fitzsimmons, Cian O’Sullivan, Michael Savage. We had James McCarthy, Philly McMahon, Dean Rock, Paul Flynn, Johnny Cooper, Paddy Andrews, as well as established players, like Bryan Cullen and Kevin Nolan. The following day, Mickey said to me: ‘There’s the nucleus of a team that can win an All Ireland.’ In the following year’s All Ireland final, five of the six backs were players who had played in that Sigerson game.”
It had been a similar story with the club a few years earlier. Heffernan had made that call he couldn’t refuse, so Whelan duly took the Vincent’s senior team. The club hadn’t won a senior county title since 1984, when Whelan had previously coached them, but after taking in an U21 game featuring the likes of Michael Savage, Cameron Diamond, and one Diarmuid Connolly, he told Moyna he had seen the core of a side that would win a senior championship. Later that year, they’d reach the senior county final. The following season they’d win it, and Leinster, and the All-Ireland.
“I remember talking to Kevin Heffernan in the clubhouse during that run and he told me that Mickey Whelan could see more on a football field, both in relation to an individual player and the game itself, more than any coach or manager he’d ever known. He has a brilliant eye for the game and a player,” said Moyna.
“A day or two after the ‘Startled Earwigs’ game against Kerry [in 2009], a few of us would have met up, Pat, Mickey, myself, the other selectors, and Mickey right away identified a few players that he felt had to come into the panel. Eoghan O’Gara was one. Michael Darragh Macauley was another. At the time, they’d have been perceived to be too rough around the edges, but Mickey could see they had something.
“You ask any of those players who have won their four All Irelands and they will tell you of the phenomenal job Pat and Mickey did before Jim brought it to a whole other level again.”
Whelan had gone in as Gilroy’s coach less than a year after winning the All-Ireland with Vincent’s and given that interview in which he’d spoken about how Dublin had to focus on producing better footballers, not just great athletes. From the get-go, he’d practise what he’d preached. They all did.
“From the very start with Mickey, it wasn’t about drills. It was all about games and challenging them all as players. He’d maybe set up an 8 v 8 in a small-sized area with certain conditions and, all of a, sudden you were getting hit on the ball by two men and you had to make a decision. There was nowhere to hide. You had to make decisions and you had to work and, if you didn’t, it wouldn’t be tolerated by Mickey or Pat.
“There were times early on, when guys were told to leave the pitch because they weren’t putting in the required effort. Eighty percent of the sessions were games, so that they became really good decision-makers.”
FOR Whelan that’s what it boils down to and, more and more, he finds, it’s catching on.
“I do think there is a growing awareness of decision-making,” he says, finding a lecture room. “The real difference between the top-class players and the merely good players is that intuitively, under pressure, the top-class players make very good decisions. When you’re on the ball, you have two or three options and the really top players have mental schemas built in so they automatically just go to the right one, because they’ve seen it a thousand times. They don’t have time to be consciously saying: ‘Look, he’s not the guy to go to, [the best option] is over there.’ They have a scope of options from which to choose from and the only way you can build these schemas is by playing the game.
“If you want to play the piano, you’ve got to play the piano. When the pianist is playing the piano, he’s not looking down to see where his fingers are. He’s just playing, he’s on autopilot.” It’s the same principle in any sport. Take soccer: Shortly after winning his All-Ireland in ’63, he headed to America on a soccer scholarship at Westchester College, taking Irene and the kids with him. When he’d return to Ireland, he’d be involved as a coach to various successful Dundalk teams, working under the likes of Jim McLoughlin and Dermot Keely. Back in those days, soccer was infested with drills and straight lines. Dundalk were more into skills, decisions, games. Playing the piano.
“Say you wanted to work on better passing, keeping control of the ball under pressure. You might say to the players: ‘Look, before we get into the opposition half or before we score, we have to make at least four passes.’ So, they’re now going into a game of 4 v 4 or 5 v 5, high intensity, no-one can be idle, they all have to offer support. They’re going from defending and tackling to supporting the man on the ball… You’re creating these real-game situations, at a high intensity, getting in their conditioning, instead of them just running without a ball.”
It’s the same with kids. That’s what he did for his doctorate, one which would inform the Go Games model that the GAA have since rolled out as best practice. For far too long, he had seen adult values and regulations imposed on kids: 10-year-olds playing 15-a-side, where the kid at corner-back was getting pneumonia.
In his study, the kids again first played 15-a-side. Once more, as he’s put it, “the corner-back was deprived of the chance to play and learn, because his own team was on top at midfield”. Then they played seven-a-side on a smaller pitch. The video showed that every kid, corner-back included, got to touch the ball a lot more, solo it, pass it, tackle back, go forward, shoot. The heart monitors showed they ran much more. The questionnaires showed they enjoyed it way more, and they improved.
The way he and Moyna see it, the Go Games can be improved, tweaked even further. Hardly anyone coaching under-10s now plays 15-a-side, but they might still play 11-a-side. That’s still too many. They’d work more by the guideline that Dr Melissa Parker, an international expert in physical education, recommended at the 2014 Coaching Ireland forum: However many years the kid has been in school, plus two is the most number of players that should be on their team. So, say a first-class kid, in their third year in school, should be playing about five-a-side.
“If you have a ball in a 5 v 5 game, that means there’s four players looking for a pass, so you’re conscious of them, and then you have five people trying to take it off you or to break it down, so that’s about nine choices,” says Whelan. “If you have 9 v 9, that’s 17 choices, which is far beyond an U8 or U9. If you were teaching them maths, you’d be teaching them addition and subtraction at that age, wouldn’t you? Not multiplication and division!
“There’s a case for U8s, 9s, 10s playing 4 v 4, because they’re getting more physical activity in, they’ll be involved in the play, they’re engaged. Unknown to themselves, they’re implicitly learning the nuances of the game. You and I can’t teach that. The game will teach them that and, then over time, their default mechanism will be to make the right choice all the time.”
Sounds simple. So where did it go wrong? When Whelan hears Eamon Dunphy and John Giles bemoan the death of street football, he doesn’t hear any two old-timers yearning for a Dublin that will never return. He hears pragmatism, coaching, the principles that inform the current senior Dublin football team, not just nostalgia. Just like them, he was a product of 1950s Dublin, someone who grew up and went to school in the shadow of Dalymount Park. Out on the streets was where they learned to play, to make decisions. Then, adults, coaches, took that away from them, with too much interference, too much instruction, too many drills.
“On the streets, if one team was too strong for another, what would happen? The kids would stop the match and balance the team because they’d cop: ‘This is too easy, these sides aren’t fair.’ You go to an U10 game and you’ll have a manager going ballistic on the line when his team are 20 points up, instead of putting the subs in earlier against a weaker team, because he thinks he’s Mickey Harte or Brian Cody coaching adults, not kids. Who cares whether you’re winning an U10 game?
“The same mistake was made in English soccer. They wouldn’t let players be creative and take a chance. A kid might lose possession and the others might score, but so what? Who should give a shit if they make a mistake at that age? Let them acquire all their tricks.”
It’s the way he’s coached the likes of Diarmuid Connolly and it was the way he was coached himself. In primary school, he had a teacher called Mossy O’Connell who would take them to the Phoenix Park and let them play. You could say he was the referee or even the coach, but more than anything he was just a guide.
“Occasionally, he might come up to you as the game was still going on and say: ‘Mickey, did you see John there on your right side that time?’
‘That’s okay, just look up. You have more time on the ball than you think.’ He wouldn’t stop the rest of the game to give a lecture. He wasn’t filling my head with noise, that I have to kick this way or that because he knew not even the best players have the same technique.
“I had a conversation one time with Kevin Heffernan about this. He said: ‘You know, the teachers did great work with us.’ I said: ‘Yeah, but what work did they do? Did they show you how to kick the ball?’ He looked at me and said: ‘God, I don’t remember them telling me how to kick it.’
I said: ‘Exactly. They facilitated you, Kevin. They let you off.’”
He tried to do something similar when he managed Dublin himself, but Dublin and football wasn’t ready for it. In one paper at the time, it was reported that before a league game against Mayo, Keith Barr took a training session. It was seen as a sign that the players were taking over the show, when that’s what Whelan wanted, just as future Dublin teams he’d coach would have the players take the warm-up. His crime and mistake was to implement change rapidly. Dublin had grinded their way to the 1995 All-Ireland the hard way, the old way, through hills and drills, not skills and games. For the players, there was a comfort in the old, hard way. Why was this Whelan fella fixing what wasn’t’ broken?
It could have broken him. He’ll admit the whole experience of managing Dublin those years was “terrible, terrible” and “very hurtful”. After a league defeat to Offaly early into his third season over the team, a section of the Parnell Park crowd chanted: “Out, Out, Out!” Walking off the pitch, he was met by a 12-year-old girl yelling at him: “You should be ashamed of yourself.” Whelan felt sorry for her and her parents more than he did for himself, but more so, he felt for young players like Ciaran Whelan who were being crushed by the pressure and negativity hovering over their manager. He resigned that day.
Certain things helped him get by. Whenever he’d look at his wife Irene and their children, he’d find himself saying: “I can’t be a bad fella, to have a phenomenal woman and five kids like that.” Over the years, various Dublin players from that time would privately admit they now realised he was a man ahead of the times instead of behind them. When this reporter met up with him on the eve of St Vincent’s 2007 Leinster final triumph, he admitted their run that autumn had “probably been an exorcism for me”.
The last 10 years have compounded that sense of redemption and vindication. Somewhere, out there, that girl from Parnell Park is now thirtysomething, roaring on the Dubs, maybe oblivious to how proud the man she once felt should be ashamed now helps make her feel.
Whelan surveys the Dublin coaching scene and likes what he sees. The vision of John Costello. The work on the ground by the likes of Stephen O’Shaughnessy. The brilliance of Jim Gavin.
“I’ve great admiration for Jim. We only started the thing and he’s taken it onto another level. Throughout the county there’s great work being done. What Dublin have put in place is not all about money. It’s the coaching mindset. Kids are coming through at 15, 16, with a better understanding of the nuances of the game.”
And for him, what’s Whelan at these days? He misses Irene; it’s four years ago this month she passed away. “She was the best thing that ever happened to me. I loved being around her. She gave me confidence. She was a gentle person, but when it came to making a decision, she’d make it. We had a great life together.”
But some loved ones will always be there, like Vincent’s; he’s their new senior hurling team coach. DCU as well; he’s an adjunct lecturer with the college, coaching the coaches and taking them from the lecture room to the practice ground.
So that they’ll be like him.