Both sides now: Seán Stack on playing a final against the team he managed

‘Someone said to me before that Munster final, “sure you can’t lose” and my answer was, “no, I can’t win”.’

Sean Stack on the sideline for Na Piarsaigh in the 2012 All-Ireland Club SHC semi-final: he has found his loyalties divided a few times during his managerial career. Photograph: Meabh Horan/Inpho

The well publicised conundrum for Ballybay manager Jerome Johnston rang a bell at the other end of the country. Johnston’s sons and nephews are all playing for his home club, All-Ireland football champions Kilcoo, who face Ballybay this weekend.

Johnston has stepped away until it’s all over. “Coriolanus” syndrome regularly happens within the GAA but few have been so caught by it as former Clare hurler Seán Stack, a member of the famed 1970s team that won leagues but couldn’t budge the Cork three-in-a-row side of that decade.

Stack was honoured as centre back in 1984 on the Centenary Year team selected from those who hadn’t won All-Irelands. His club career extended until his 40s, which is where the trouble began.

Already making a name for his coaching, he found himself ahead of the 1993 Munster final facing the team he was managing. “You think it wouldn’t affect your performance,” he says. “Preparation is so important, isn’t it? And it’s hard to get your head around because you have an affinity with both camps. It’s like playing the tennis final against your best friend. You’re trying to be competitive but you won’t be ruthless enough.”


So he found himself bidding goodbye to his charges in Toomevara, Tipperary, the Thursday before the provincial semi-finals and heading back to training with Sixmilebridge in Clare. “In a situation like that, you’re on your own because the team that you’re managing or coaching, you’ve left them for two weeks or 10 days.

“There was no question of my loyalty. I was Sixmilebridge and I told that to the Toome lads, leaving but you can’t expect them to understand that just as you can’t expect the Sixmilebridge fellas to understand that you have two years done with a club that I was really happy with.”

He has particularly warm memories of the late Roger Ryan, the 1971 Tipp All-Ireland winner, who was then a fixture in the club as an administrator and selector. “I’d say possibly the most influential individual I have met in the GAA in my lifetime,” says Stack. “He was such a gentle giant – a John Wayne figure that was never intrusive with his own opinions but what an exceptional character with a real knowledge of hurling and a lovely man.

“To walk away in opposition to that! Someone stuck a microphone under my face straight after we had lost the match and the full realisation that you had been torn for two weeks and hadn’t been aware of the full extent of it. I just couldn’t get a word out. It broke over me and I was thinking, ‘this is not a situation to get into ever again.’”

Yet he did. Under his resumed management Toomevara reached the 1994 All-Ireland final but lost out to the great Sarsfields team, the first to win back-to-back titles but 20 years later, Stack was living in Limerick and took local club Na Piarsaigh to their first county title in 2011 and repeated the feat two years later.

After the second year, he ended up in a Munster final against Sixmilebridge, which was won convincingly. Stack said he was pleased for his adopted team but would return “home” that night “to be with his club”.

“We won Munster in 2011 with a raw team. Their ambitions weren’t as elevated as their talent. Kids started to come through, though. Shane Dowling and Kevin Downes were maturing followed by a whole flood of them: the Caseys, the Dempseys, Ronan Lynch.

“In the end I had four years done. We won two Munsters and lost two All-Ireland semi-finals narrowly, to clubs that won the All-Ireland, Loughgiel and Portumna. Against Portumna the weather was dire, monsoon conditions and for the first time in two years, we lost the toss.

Ballybay manager Jerome Johnston: has stood down rather than manage against his sons playing for Kilcoo. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

“People underestimate the toss before the match because conditions in Ireland are invariably windy and you have to be ready for a game of two halves. We needed to play against it and we weren’t able to. They got a goal after three minutes and we never fully recovered.”

After that second defeat, Stack called it a day, handing over the reins to one of his former players, Shane O’Neill, and saying, “it’s ready for you now”. Two years later, O’Neill delivered Limerick’s first All-Ireland club title, part of a confluence of events with schools and colleges success that ushered in a period of unprecedented domination by the county.

Na Piarsaigh, who play All-Ireland champions Ballygunner in next week’s Munster semi-final, are also his club, only outranked in his affections by Sixmilebridge.

Fate wasn’t quite done with him but although he guided Clonlara to the 2015 Clare final. For once the Bridge bested him as a coach. His sympathies lie with Jerome Johnston this weekend.

“That’s why I feel for this man in the North. He won’t fully realise until after the match when it fully hits him – whoever wins. If his young lads get beaten with Kilcoo, it will be a burden on him for a while and if they win it will still be a burden. He’s in a no-win situation.

“Someone said to me before that Munster final [1993]: ‘sure you can’t lose’ and my answer was, ‘no, I can’t win’. You can’t win. It’s simple as that.

“At the end of the day you might play intercounty and have big days and you play with colleges and have an affinity with those.

“But people don’t realise the importance of the club. You’ll finish up back there. They’re the guys, as Roger Ryan used to say, that were there when you were at school and they’re the guys who will carry you down the road when you pass away. That’s the truth.”

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times