Perhaps there was a bit of innocence in it all 14 years ago. But when the media turned up at Fermanagh’s press briefing in advance of their Ulster Championship meeting with Monaghan in 2008, they got a glimpse behind the curtain of contemporary intercounty preparation under Malachy O’Rourke.
The interviews were being conducted in a mobile hut. Alongside it was a galvanised shed. Inside, Mike McGurn was putting players through a prehab weighs session before they stepped on to the pitch. McGurn’s work was out of loyalty to his roots; the rest of the week he was employed by Ospreys, spending most of his time trying to convince Gavin Henson with the 3 per cent body fat that he was fit to play come the weekends, lifting in the mornings with him in the basement while Charlotte Church boiled multiple eggs for the boys upstairs.
After the press conference, some journalists ambled up the ramp to get a look at the training session and were politely ushered away. Somewhere in the background, but out of sight on the night, was sports psychologist Kieran Shannon.
County board officers had never seen the like of it. How O’Rourke would arrive over an hour before the session, along with trainers and selectors. Afterwards, once they had a bite to eat, they would sit for nights in the changing rooms, some nights until midnight, strategising.
Nowadays O’Rourke has an enormous body of work behind him. He already has an Ulster club title from 19 years ago with the Loup in Derry, but he is chasing a second this Sunday when he brings Glen to the Ulster final, looking to wrestle the Seamus McFerran Cup from Kilcoo.
How much does this job take? He puts it on a par with what he was doing with Fermanagh and Monaghan at the start.
“I would say the top clubs now are on a par with that county football was 10 or 15 years ago,” he maintains.
“The one big thing you notice now ... when I went in with Glen, all the boys are already conditioned. There are very few lads you are looking at and thinking, ‘we need to get a stone off him’.
“They all take great pride in their physique and I suppose it is a change in society of how they live their lives. A lot of the boys are already in good condition, spending a lot of time in the gym and that has become the culture.
“It is more about working on the football and the team where you don’t have to slog boys. It has moved on and there is no sign of it stopping.”
In terms of time involved, it is an open book.
“A lot of it,” he states, “is that I think my biggest problem is that I get too consumed by these jobs.
“There is no doubt, there is a serious amount of time going into it. From preparing for matches and training. It is Ryan [Porter] that does all the on-field coaching, but you are still preparing for different things at training, before matches and after matches, looking at tapes and there is a lot that goes into it.
“It is very enjoyable and when you see the results and when you see the boys really enjoying that end of it, it makes it all worthwhile.”
When he was a student in St Mary’s College, his degree thesis was on the Vo2 Max capacity of intercounty footballers, strapping them up with breathing apparatus while they ran on a treadmill.
As much as he craved a higher understanding of the game, he is delighted to see that has filtered down into playing personnel.
“More younger lads than ever are going on to third-level education, they are seeing different coaching set-ups there, schools have progressed.
“They are probably coming in with a lot of that behind them. Then it is a matter of seeing what is there and trying to tweak things. [There are] a number of aspects you have to try to get to get the complete package and I suppose that’s what you are searching for.”
Wherever he has gone, he has smashed glass ceilings. In his first job with Tyholland, he brought them to senior football for the first time in their history. When he went on to Loup, they won their first Derry title in 68 years. They didn’t stop there either, and just look at the clubs they beat on the way to the Ulster title: Bryansford, Crossmaglen and St Gall’s.
Unsurprisingly, he is linked with every county job going, since stepping away from Monaghan after the 2019 season.
Donegal sources confirmed that a serious play was made for O’Rourke after Declan Bonner stepped down. But if he re-enters the county management arena, it will have to be a fresh challenge. What motivates him is not being at ‘The Big Dance’, but rather the nuts and bolts of what is done far away from the bright lights.
“In any of these jobs you take on there’s a great challenge and I love working with teams who are ambitious and players who are ambitious,” he says.
“At the same time you do what you think is right at the time and I’m just delighted to be with Glen at the minute. The boys are putting in a massive effort and it’s an ambitious club, a really well-run club and they’re enjoying it at the minute so I am happy enough with where I am.”