On Monday morning I sat down for breakfast in Beijing and suddenly realised that it was about one o’clock in the morning in Roscommon Town. And I started laughing to myself because I could just picture the scenes.
Roscommon’s win was a turn up for the books and a perfect answer by Kevin McStay to the criticism he was subjected to throughout the league.
What must have been deeply satisfying for Kevin and Liam McHale was that this was no smash-and-grab raid. Everything about the manner in which the team set about dethroning Galway spoke of attention to detail and training ground practice, from the sweeping first goal to the constant movement of Conor Devaney and David Murray to the incessant pressure on Galway’s kick-outs.
We disembarked the plane and the airport was just like any big, international airport. But then the doors opened and there was a big media presence waiting
Then, the sight of McHale greeting each player at half-time and, later, the sense of togetherness on the sideline in the minute before the final whistle spoke of Roscommon’s fierce sense of unity. Outside opinion was rendered meaningless.
Everybody took their lead from the league performance in assessing where Roscommon were at. But Kevin McStay and Roscommon had their own ideas about that.
The result got me thinking about what coaching can achieve in a relatively short space of time and, by extension, what we are trying to achieve here in Beijing. The past ten days have absolutely flown by and the entire experience started Saturday week ago at the airport in Frankfurt.
I met up with Roger Schmidt and the other coaching staff there and I remember sitting in my seat on the runway and everything was just swirling around in my head: where you are going and what you are leaving behind – family, friends and the unique experience of being at Celtic. And there was probably trepidation too about what was ahead of me.
Obviously, Scotland is a village in comparison to China. The Irish influence is really strong in Glasgow and it’s a short hop by plane back to Donegal. It was home from home. Leaving aside the vast distance between China and home, it has been a step into the unknown.
We disembarked the plane and the airport was just like any big, international airport. But then the doors opened and there was a big media presence waiting. That was the first surprise and indication of the intensity of interest in the team in Beijing.
We got outside and this wall of heat hit us and when we were being driven to the hotel, the sheer scale of the city began to register. That old Harp advert about frying an egg on the stones came into my mind. I couldn’t find a pint of Harp and wouldn’t have had time anyhow because we were at the club at 7am on Monday morning for a medical. Then Roger Schmidt got down to work.
The training pitch is in the Workers Stadium and there has been a big fan presence there before and after training. The weird thing about Beijing is that you can be driving for 40 minutes without feeling as if you have left the city centre.
It is like New York multiplied by four but everything seems new and pristine. So you have this vague sense of being somewhere in the midst of an endless city but most of our waking hours have been spent on the training field or in meeting rooms.
We met the players and tried to identify where they were at. They had been through a tough period and we were trying to get to know them and understand their mindset. And then the process of being out on the pitch started. That has been fantastic.
Having been there myself as a manager with Donegal, you have a vision of how you want to operate and put your culture and system in place. So to be able to watch Roger do this at close quarters with Beijing is a daily privilege, really.
I was able to watch him go from his first hour and build to the first game. Everything he did and said was about putting his philosophy in place. You get a feel for that very quickly.
What struck me was that every single thing we did was associated 100 per cent to how he wants his team to play. I would suggest few managers in any sport do this. Every single second is channelled through what will happen in the game and every drill and message revolves around that.
Are you working on how we will tackle in the game in a particular phase of play? Or is it just an exercise? How does this exercise link to the next? It means that every message is reinforced and that there is a rigorous use of time.
What becomes crucial is how he passes that message on. He has to make sure the players understand why he wants it that way. To me, that’s what coaching is all about. So you have a bunch of strangers, basically, together on a Monday morning. How can they become a cohesive group ready to do battle for one another by Saturday night?
I think it is a really special thing that we stand for our anthem and it's the same here across the league in every stadium
The language barrier at the club is really interesting. In fact, it’s not really a barrier: just a different means of communication. There are three or four Chinese interpreters at the club and they are always at hand. But there is also a Portuguese for the two Brazilian players, a Spanish translator and a Turkish translator for the others.
So you have a lot of voices at team meetings and even in the dressing room. But it becomes the norm really quickly. Nobody blinks. Then you have German and English being spoken also. So Roger will say something and then everyone else will begin to chat away in translation.
It’s a bit like being in a wake house and somebody starts a decade of the rosary and then the other voices start up. But what fascinated me is how quickly everyone settled into that way of communicating. This is just the way things are done.
But, of course, Roger is a new manager putting in place his vision. And the crucial question became: how much can they absorb in a week? He was conscious of this. Every single day was 8am to 10pm – if not later.
We walked out onto the pitch to get set up for the game on Saturday evening. We were playing Guangzhou, the league leaders. And that was the first time I actually saw the playing pitch or the Workers Stadium. Until then, we had been moving between the training ground and the office.
One of the things that struck me is the Beijing squad are deeply into the collective. For instance, the players not in the squad gave amazing support to the players on the field. It was the same with the substitutes at half-time. I felt that was special– every single person was fully engaged. There was no guy sitting back texting or on to his agent because he wasn’t playing.
And I assume that is a cultural thing with the Chinese. The manager asked the players for everything. The Chinese anthem was played before the game. What that did to me was bring me right back to Croke Park in the blink of an eye.
I think it is a really special thing that we stand for our anthem and it’s the same here across the league in every stadium. So the match began and first 25 minutes was incredible.....it was like a release of pressure or energy and the Beijing players created a deluge of chances and the energy was reflected by the atmosphere in the crowd.
The final score was 2-0 so it was a terrific start. But what was astonishing for me was how much information was retained by the team. In just a week, Roger Schmidt had them playing the game he wanted to play.
People talk about Barcelona spending 20 years to implement their system and philosophy and I get that. But it is amazing what can be implemented in such a short period of time. They executed the game plan to the letter of the law. This is a big part of what coaching is about and why people get involved in sport.
It is the exact same thing in Gaelic games. That is the idea behind the training camps. It is not this stop-start thing of you train on Tuesday and Thursday and then meet up on Sunday morning. It is a continuous thing. You are immersed in it.
From my experience with Donegal, I knew intuitively based on conversations and listening to the players and what they were experiencing and I knew that everybody was living in the same space. And that is a beautiful thing and it is very far removed from the reality of daily life.
And it was very clear Roscommon had managed to enter that space since the end of the league. They understood what they had to do and how to stay on task. It was interesting to read Kevin McStay saying they had challenged Enda Smith to release the potential they knew he had in the weeks before this game.
They were planting ideas and backing him and enabling him, really, to give the towering display he ultimately gave in Salthill. To me, that’s good coaching. It might seem simple in retrospect but it was hugely important.
You can be sure they were doing the same with other players. They had a clear game plan and even if they wobbled a bit after going 1-6 ahead, the execution at the end of their time in training was the last piece of the jigsaw. I’m sure how they used the criticism and the hurt emanating from that was crucial too. You have to be able to channel negative emotions for your own use. Sometimes you can do that by asking questions. Have they the right to say that about us? Is that who we are?
And it all came together for them on Sunday afternoon.
So I went to bed on Sunday night feeling really good after an absolutely manic week. You know that real feeling of warmth and satisfaction inside you even though you are shattered?
I got up on Monday looking forward to training and thinking about the various GAA results over the weekend and how the next few weeks would pan out. And for some reason when I checked my watch, I had that vision of down town Roscommon on a warm July night and probably a few hundred straw hats knocking about and the pub doors still open and the guards turning a blind eye and a real buzz throughout the county. That sense of accomplishment that belongs to the entire county, that thing of: ‘We did it. We got there’.
That’s what Kevin McStay and Roscommon managed to create over the past few weeks.