Fergus Connolly still believing in Dublin virtues
Elite performance expert from Monaghan helped reigning All-Ireland champions to where they are now
Dublin players are commended by Fergus Connolly for not just being a fine team, but for being good people. Photograph: Inpho
On a list containing the possible sidelines Fergus Connolly could be standing on this weekend, it’s fair to say that the one he finds himself on represents the road less travelled.
He grew up in Monaghan, first in Clones where his earliest sporting memory is of watching Barry McGuigan running in the snowy hills and later in Scotstown where his neighbours and clubmates backboned the great Monaghan teams of the 1980s.
Life and work and curiosity blew him around the globe before he found himself back in Ireland around two years ago. He’d been involved with Jim Gavin’s under-21 teams on and off over the years and when Gavin took over the seniors, Connolly’s phone was always going to ring with an invitation to come and work. He only finished up with them after the league final this year.
So no, come teatime this evening, he won’t be sitting in the Hogan Stand with either a Monaghan or Dublin tracksuit top on. Chances are, he won’t even be tuning in. Instead, he and the rest of the San Francisco 49ers caravan will be making its way back west from Baltimore where they played their first pre-season game on Thursday night against the Ravens. “I might check in to The Irish Times liveblog,” he laughs.
Clearly a man of taste, so.
He started his new job as director of elite performance at the five-time Super Bowl champions eight weeks ago and since then has left his old life behind without a backward glance.
This is his first steady job in years – before now he was a consultant for a variety of sports teams ranging from Leicester Tigers and Wales in rugby to Liverpool in soccer, from the New York Knicks to the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons and more.
World’s biggestHe’d worked this way for most of his adult life, hopping from lilypad to lilypad across the sporting pond. It was going to take a big job for him to settle in any one place. But when one of the world’s biggest sporting organisations creates one for you, you don’t have a lot of choice in the matter.
“I haven’t seen a Gaelic football kicked in anger, live or otherwise since I came over here,” he says. “I just tend to focus on what it is that I’m on. I might get a text or an email of a result but that would be it. If I happen to be on the internet, I might check a scoreline or a report.
“This is a business for me and the business is winning. You have to remove emotion from it to be successful. It isn’t that I’m not interested in Monaghan-Dublin, it’s just that if I have two hours spare to watch a match, my priority is work. This is what I love doing. There’s no distinction for me between work time and down time. I haven’t worked a day in 15 years.”
Connolly’s role within and around his various teams is one of those increasingly difficult to define phenomena in modern sport.
He’s not the sports psychologist but he’s not not the sports psychologist, as one of his areas of responsibility is mental wellness. He’s not the physical fitness specialist but he’s not not that either, as he has a big hand in recovery and training schedules, in individualisation of players’ workloads and injury avoidance. It’s a job whose outer boundaries lie where he alone decides.
He has worked in professional sport, he has worked in amateur sport. He always looks for the same thing – a desire to win. If that sounds like it stands to reason – why else do teams play sport, after all – in his experience it’s less common than you would imagine.
“There’s a brutal honesty to it here,” he says. “There’s an acceptance that we’re here to win and there can be no confusion about that from top to bottom. Once that is clear, everything else is straightforward. There’s no ambiguity. It’s not about publicity, it’s not about media, it’s not about anything else only winning.
‘Prioritise winning’“Not all organisations are quite that clear on it. Everybody wants to win but not everybody is prepared to be honest about what it takes to do it. Not everybody is prepared to prioritise winning.
“They might say they want to win but it isn’t true. Really and truly they don’t. They would like to win. There’s a difference. And until you’re honest about the difference between the two, you won’t get there.”
Dublin got there. His 18 months in Gavin’s sprawling backroom team was one of his most enjoyable career experiences. A few years ago, he contacted the Monaghan County Board to offer to help the coaching officer but they didn’t return his call so he’s never had any pang of conscience about working with other county teams.
He’s been part of the Derry set-up before, the Meath one as well. But Dublin were on a different level. For Connolly, their secret isn’t overly complicated
“Hard work, humility, the right values. It’s simple stuff. They are all very good footballers, focused and driven. But – and I can say this as I was the only outsider in the backroom team – they are a very good group of people.
“Dublin and Dublin people should be very proud of them – not just as players who play the game as we believe it should be played, but as people. Like any successful team they go out to play good football – and you won’t bully them – but there is an integrity there that keeps them all honest.
“I think a lot of people spend a lot of time giving out about Dublin and the advantages they have. If they spent more time looking at their own dilemmas and solving their own problems, they would close the gap a lot quicker.”
Connolly left Monaghan when he was 17 and though home was always there and Scotstown was always who he togged out for when he could, he doesn’t cling onto any deep affinity for his home county.
He played alongside a young Darren Hughes and with Rory Beggan’s father Ben, would have sat down for chats with Dick Clerkin over the years as well. But if he has an attachment this evening, it’s to the Dubs with whom he won an All-Ireland, a Leinster and two leagues.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that. I worked with them so recently and I know the work they’ve put in. It will be interesting to find out how Monaghan set up against them. To be honest, I would fear for Monaghan a bit if Dublin get a run on them.
‘Carried away’“But I honestly don’t think Dublin have played their best game yet. Dublin have won one All-Ireland with this group. That’s it. They’re not the 2014 All-Ireland champions. People are getting carried away.
“The truth of it is that they barely won an All-Ireland final and they barely beat Kerry in the semi-final. They’re nowhere near the domination of the old Kerry teams. This is nothing like that at all. It’s far too early to talk about them in terms of being a great team or a special team.”
He should know. He’s seen enough of them.