Why it’s stupid to say Mayo will not win an All-Ireland

Fergus Connolly, performance director at Michigan football, needs to rethink his stance

Mayo before their recent championship match against Sligo. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Mayo before their recent championship match against Sligo. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

While I was reading a highly entertaining interview between Paul Kimmage of the Sunday Independent and Fergus Connolly, the Irish man who is performance director at Michigan football, a yarn that Michael Jordan told at his Hall of Fame address came to mind. Losing patience with how the Chicago Bulls coaching staff and players were conducting the narrative of a particular game, Jordan simply took over and devoured the opposition with a scoring rampage that flipped a losing evening into another win dominated by his persona. He ripped up the playbook, in other words. Afterwards, Chicago’s assistant coach Tex Winter, who is essentially the Terrence Malick of basketball thinking, gently chided the superstar by reminding him: “Michael, there is no ‘i’ in team.” Jordan’s eyes sparkled as he recounted his reply for his audience.

“I said, Tex, yeah, there’s no ‘i’ in team. But there’s an ‘i’ in win.”

Jordan stands as a lone Mount Everest of repudiation and rebuke to the army of performance directors and theoreticians and positive thinkers and sports scientists who have, in the past two decades, reshaped the language and thinking of professional and elite-amateur sport.

When Jordan gave that speech five years ago, he was criticised for its curmudgeonly and ungenerous spirit. But that criticism missed the point. For a start, it was sardonic in tone. More interestingly, it was a strikingly honest revelation into the bonfire of slights and perceived antagonisms and a furious inner need to compete that made Jordan the performer and the insatiable winner he became.

Every loose word or off-handed dismissal was remembered in sharp detail: even Dean Smith, his college coach at North Carolina and a man Jordan has openly adored, was rebuked for not picking him on a first-five selection for some Sports Illustrated cover or other. “That burned me up,” proclaimed the man who has featured on more magazine covers than any athlete alive.

I didn’t know much about Fergus Connolly prior to the Sunday Independent interview, but like most people I was fascinated to learn how he had made the leap from being a woodwork teacher in Navan to a performance director in one of the most storied and pressurised teams in American sport: the University of Michigan’s men’s football team. The trouble was that an observation Connolly made early in the interview proved a distraction from his personal journey. “Put it in block capitals,” he suggested to Kimmage, who was happy to oblige. “AS LONG AS I’M ALIVE MAYO WILL NEVER WIN AN ALL-IRELAND.”

Stupid thing to say

With or without context, it seemed like a staggeringly stupid thing to say, and the reason for his conviction didn’t do anything to substantiate the prediction. It turned out that when Connolly was working with Dublin, they played Mayo in a league game in which they trailed at half-time. Racing from the lift to make their way to the dressing room area in the dungeons of Croke Park, the Dublin game analysts met some of the Mayo back-room team. A Dublin clipboard was dropped, prompting a Mayo reply: “How are your stats looking now, boys?” Dublin won the match. Connolly clearly took the slight to heart and interpreted in it a fundamental flaw of attitude applicable to an entire county.

In one way, predicting Mayo won’t win is pretty safe in the realm of big, bold claims. They haven’t done so for the past 65 years. But for a guy who emerged from Monaghan’s GAA school of hard truths to blaze a trail through the world of performance to do so is significant. Connolly is a young man: touch wood he has a good half-century and change to look forward to. But he is stating that because the Mayo clipboard guy insulted the Dublin clipboard guy in a league game in 2012, then Mayo footballer possibly yet to be born are destined not to win an All-Ireland title. If I were a Michigan football fan I would be worried by that kind of fatalistic certainty.

The exchange convinced Connolly that Mayo didn’t have the right stuff, and in the interview he elaborated on what he saw as a fault in the Mayo attitude. And it wasn’t convincing.

Still, the leap from a verbal skirmish in a Croke Park elevator to the inner sanctum of Michigan’s football programme in the space of five years is stunning. Even after Connolly tells his story, it’s hard to figure quite how that happened other than that he must be very good at what he does. In a podcast interview with Strength of Science that was broadcast last week, Connolly lays out his manifesto thus: “I’m not interested in S&C, I’m not interested in sports science. I’m interested in winning. How is it going to affect the scoreboard?”

That question is a preoccupation of most high-level coaching staffs, and there’s no shortage of cats claiming to have the answer. One of Connolly’s key concepts is the importance of communication, and he points out the contradiction in the contemporary fashion for vast back-room teams.

Liverpool boot room

One of Connolly’s missions was to try to distinguish between information and fraud: to differentiate between “what’s nonsense and what isn’t”. He used the fabled Liverpool boot room as an example of effective communication: just three or four guys sitting down, yapping in seclusion, figuring it out. The demands and fashions of modern sport have moved away from that. The Anfield way came up this week in an Off the Ball live show, which featured two of Liverpool’s 1980s folk heroes, Mark Lawrenson and Ronnie Whelan. Lawrenson was half-joking when he described Bob Paisley, Liverpool’s serial-winner manager, as “the master of the half-finished sentence”. Whelan added: “I look back and think how did we win anything . . . he couldn’t speak.”

On one level, these are throwaway lines for a live audience up for laughs. But they raise a fascinating question. That Liverpool team were serial winners, and consequently their managers were lionised. But how and why did they win so much? The boot-room culture was the envy of football – until the day that it wasn’t. Things change. In 20 years time, the thinking on how to best prepare sports teams and to generate the best results most frequently will have undergone another revolution that will make today’s pronouncements and thinking appear simple. Contrarily, there is also a fair chance that plenty of people will still be quoting John Wooden: when it comes down to it, everything has been said before.

Michael Jordan harbours no doubt about the main reasons teams win. In that same speech, he laid waste to the contention of Bulls owner Gerry Kraus that “the organisation wins championships”. “I didn’t see the organisation play with the flu in Utah. I didn’t see em playin’ with the bad ankle. Granted, I think organisations put together teams. But at the end of the day the teams gotta go out and play. So in essence I think the players win championships. And the organisations have something to do with it. But don’t try and put the organisation above the players.”

That is the bottom line. The players must deliver after the game starts. Mayo’s agonising closeness to delivering – to winning the big, elusive game – has become one of the enduring themes of Irish sport. For one of Ireland’s premier sports performance exports to casually and flagrantly dismiss their potential to win for decades to come is bizarre.

How can he be so sure? And what if they get the right performance director in? What if, for example, Mayo gets Fergus Connolly on board for a couple of seasons? Would he still be convinced then that it was impossible for them to win?

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