Trust trumps Zoom for Terry Hyland and his Leitrim exiles
No county has their players spread far and wide quite like the Connacht underdogs
Terry Hyland is yet to see the pandemic affect his Leitrim playerbase. Photograph: Evan Logan/Inpho
Terry Hyland is, by admission and probably vocation, not a man for a Zoom meeting. The Leitrim manager makes the entirely reasonable observation during the course of our chat that sitting his panel down for a 90-minute Zoom meeting is unlikely to make his charges any more enthusiastic for the training programmes they’ve been given. He will, all going well, see them on a training pitch in Blanchardstown the week after next. It won’t take him long to work out who has been naughty and who has been nice.
“Everything in sport and in life comes down to trust,” Hyland says. “When it comes down to it, we have given the players programmes to get on with and the basic fact of the matter is that it is up to them to either do it or don’t do it. We’ll know in a fortnight when we get them together who has done it and who has half-done it. You trust them to do it because they know it will show up when they get back on the pitch whether they have or not.
“Management is about trust, really. When you send them out for a game, by giving them the jersey you’re telling them that you trust them to play to the gameplan. The same goes for the training programmes. You give them out, you tell the players what they need to do but at a certain point you have to leave them at it.
“Instead of an hour and a half of a Zoom meeting, wouldn’t it be better if he had that hour and a half to take on the responsibility for himself? Because in the end, your work shows up on the playing field. You can talk about travel, you can talk about resources, you can talk about your players being spread out all over the country. But the work each player puts in away from the pitch shows up on it.”
Hyland’s off-hand reference to his players being spread out all over the country is what we’re onto him about, funny enough. Though he is based in Cavan, he is still a great deal closer to Leitrim than virtually any of the players he will gather together when training resumes.
Nearly every county has its exiles but no team has to deal with what Leitrim face. Buried deep in the weeds of a survey of county chairmen earlier this year, Leitrim’s Enda Stenson pointed out that there was no like-for-like comparison to be made between some counties and others. That you’re talking apples and orchards.
“Dublin have a great team but they have advantages way above others,” Stenson told the Irish Independent. “Every one of their players is much less than an hour from their training pitch. There is no Leitrim player resident or working or being educated in the county at the moment.”
Though it was really a throwaway line, it fairly jumps off the page all the same. For Hyland, it doesn’t feel extraordinary at this point. It has been a fact of life for all Leitrim managers since day dot.
“The numbers might have changed slightly in the past few months with some lads working at home. But I’d say 95-to-98 per cent of the panel are away, yes. I think Conor Reynolds probably lives in Leitrim. He works at concrete and probably works away on the road a lot of the time. But in saying that, you're really only talking about one or two of the panel who live in Leitrim full-time.
“I always say to them in Leitrim that their biggest export is their people. I was over in New York a couple of years ago and I ended up going to a Cavan function and a Leitrim function on the same night. And what really struck me was that the average age of the people at the Leitrim function was, I would say, the majority of them were 30 to 45. And at the Cavan one, the majority of them were probably from 55 to 75.
“That’s probably not overly scientific but you get the idea - they’re still sending an awful lot of young people away. It’s the nature of the world and the nature of the area. People go where the work is, they follow their elder siblings, they go where they can make a life for themselves. Football is a part of that but it’s only a part of it.”
Hyland reckons that upwards of 20 of his panel are either working or studying in Dublin. There’s another half dozen in Galway, some in Limerick, some in Belfast. They’re far from the only county panel that has its issues in this regard but it’s safe to say nobody has it worse. They get up and get on regardless.
“We’ve worked around it for long enough now to know how to handle it,” Hyland says. “But it’s still a big logistical hassle. We’re used to it. We train the Dublin guys up in Blanchardstown IT. That’s the way we have always done it since I’ve had them anyway. In the early part of the year, nearly all the sessions would be in Blanch. We use Abbottstown too at times but mainly Blanchardstown. Rather than bringing the masses down the road, it’s easier to go up to them.
“It’s similar for a lot of the midlands counties and counties on the west coast. Some of the bigger places with bigger population centres are able to keep more of their lads at home but nearly all of them have this issue with travel and having to cut their cloth. It all comes down to government policy at the back of it all. So much industry is loaded onto the east coast, so much of the country is linked to it.
“And even when you look at whatever efforts their might be change that, people talk about a move back to rural Ireland but I wouldn’t be so sure that ‘rural’ is the right word there. What they are really talking about is a move back to the urban parts of rural Ireland. And when you’re looking at a place like Leitrim, the biggest town is Carrick-on-Shannon and you’re only talking about 4,000 people altogether living there.”
In time, maybe the post-Covid world of working from home will bring about the sort of shift counties like Leitrim need but so far, Hyland hasn’t seen it to any major extent. Lots of counties make it their business to entice players back from the cities - at least some part of Cavan’s success in 2020 was down to their Play Local, Stay Local programme. But as Hyland points out, football can only be part of a player’s life decisions. It can’t be the whole show.
“You try and find employment for them if at all possible closer to home to take that stress of travel out of their lives. But at the end of the day, fellas will make their own career choices. Football is a big deal in a fella’s life but even if they play intercounty for 10 years, that’s still only a quarter of their working life.
“If you’re training to be an engineer or an accountant or whatever it is, you have to look at your career prospects after you finish playing. It’s all very well for me as an intercounty manager to tell a lad he’d be better off back home but ultimately he has to make the right choice for himself. As an intercounty panel, we have to work around that as best we can. You have to be philosophical about it.”