Turlough O’Brien: Trying to instill a winning mindset in Carlow

Manager wants his team to shake their negative self-image as they prepare to face Dublin

Wheel deal: Carlow GAA Football Manager Turlough O’Brien has just published a book, ‘Cycling South Leinster: Great Road Routes’. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

We were cycling somewhere around Borris on the edge of the river Barrow when the drug took hold.

“Yeah, this is where I get my little kick,” says Turlough O’Brien. “Escape from it all, clear the head, and think about nothing else except football.”

Since last Sunday, those thoughts have been tangled up in Dublin. Carlow’s victory over Wexford – their first win in the Leinster football championship in six years – set up a quarter-final meeting with the back-to-back All-Ireland champions. All Dublin need to do is show up next Saturday, right?

There is a good reason why O’Brien asked me down to cycle this stretch of countryside to gently suggest otherwise. A few good reasons, actually.


He’s defiantly devoted to all things Carlow, not just Carlow football, and wants to show off some of the reasons why. The path we cycle along the banks of the river Barrow, starting from Goresbridge, is so unexpectedly majestic in the broad May sunshine, we may well be hallucinating.

He's also been addicted to cycling – the word is justified – for most of his life, and has just published Cycling South Leinster, which maps out some of the most beautifully underrated routes in the country. O'Brien has cycled the Camino de Santiago and the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, and rates some of the routes in Carlow as equally serene.

There’s also a good reason to meet his wife, Mary, who, along with her sister Patricia Amond, won a pocketful of Irish women’s sprint titles in the 1980s. Back at the family house on O’Brien road in Carlow town, she pulls out a scrapbook of Amond success stories mostly written by my own father.

The road they live on is named after O’Brien’s father, Jim, the long-serving Carlow county secretary and, like his father too, even longer servant to Éire Óg, who later won five Leinster club football champions in the 1990s. It was thanks to his father O’Brien got hooked on cycling, when as a 13 year-old he bought him a bike to deliver the club notices around the county.

Trickled down

O’Brien was also raised on the philosophy that Carlow footballers, certainly at club level, may not be better than everyone else but are just as good. That occasionally trickled down to the county, yet he feels it has been lost in recent years. When he was offered the Carlow management position three years ago – having worked the previous season under Anthony Rainbow – O’Brien was determined that whatever else he did, he would at least put Carlow back on the map of Leinster football where it belongs.

“Right now we have a tradition in Carlow,” he says, “and it’s a losing tradition. And over the years that has got into players’ heads. And then they expect to lose. You can’t defeat your self-image. So first of all you’ve got to change that psyche, build a tradition of winning. Dublin players expect to win. Kilkenny players expect to win. Carlow players expect to lose. It doesn’t have to be like that.

“One of the things I’ve taken from listening to Brian Cody or Mickey Harte or Jim Gavin is the simplicity of it all. It’s about hard work. Putting in the hard miles. And doing it consistently. Perseverance is a big factor too, that players commit, and not just a seasonal thing. They commit for the long haul.

“Because no team is built on one season. There are going to be setbacks along the way and, traditionally, if we have a setback in Carlow, it’s a full-blown crisis. Sets the team back years. Instead of realising this is part of the evolution of the team. You’ve got to learn from these defeats, instead of being overwhelmed by them. So the first thing was to change that mindset, set ourselves higher expectations, and that we work, honestly, to get somewhere.

“I also think the way Carlow football is often dismissed is quite insulting, to be honest, as if we are a Third World country. Club football in Carlow is still very healthy. Our top three or four clubs are as good as most other top three of four clubs in other counties. I really believe that.”

His commitment is complete: as CEO of Carlow Voluntary Housing Association, everything about O’Brien’s daily life is devoted to the county. He turned his back garden into a small football field so his three sons – Darragh, Cian and Ronan – could also be raised in the game, and Darragh is currently on the senior panel.

Similar commitment

The first thing he asks and respects of his players is similar commitment. “That ethic of the team, the culture, is hugely important. You must have a team that trusts each other, trusts the management, and that there is the same sense of unity, and purpose.

“We don’t have to love everyone, or even like them, but you have to respect them. That’s important to any panel, of this size, that no one becomes disillusioned, or don’t want to commit to the team. I haven’t met a manager yet who doesn’t want to play his strongest team. And it’s very easy to play for Dublin, and Kerry, knowing there will be some success down the line. But to commit to Carlow, not sure of winning anything, that to me is real commitment. And we are making progress on that.”

Last Sunday’s win over Wexford – 2-17 to 2-13 – surprised a few people but certainly not O’Brien. He knew his team had already made progress this year, a little unlucky not to be promoted from Division Four, and credits a good part of their upward curve to his team coach Stephen Poacher, who he has long admired for his work with Down football. He also regularly talks tactics with John Morrison, another guru of Ulster football.

“We are coming from a low base. Three or four years ago we were bottom of Division Four. We have made some improvement, and I think could have got promoted this year, but the way the fixtures fell for us didn’t help.

“I just think something is clicking with our guys, that we realise we can compete, if we put some structure to our game. Stephen Poacher talks about it quite a bit, ‘clarity of roles, and role acceptance’. That’s the basis of any good team, and I think we’ve got that now.

Ian O’Riordan and Turlough O’Brien cycling in Milford, Co Carlow. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

“It means the roles are completely understood, and what you want from the player in that position. And role acceptance is the willingness of the player to carry it out. We’re also very fortunate as well we probably have the biggest Carlow team I’ve ever seen. And they’re all very competent footballers, and they’re all great athletes as well. Brendan Murphy, Daniel St Ledger, Darragh Foley. Paul Broderick [who scored 0-10 against Wexford] can trouble any defender on his day. And Seán Murphy, who has literally exploded onto the scene this year.

“And we feel we have everything we need, training centres of excellence, all that, and what it comes down to now is getting the best 15, 20 players in the best condition possible, in the best mental state as well.”

Lack of seating

Which brings us to next Saturday evening in Portlaoise: Carlow don’t even get home advantage, given the lack of seating at Dr Cullen Park. In the last four seasons alone, Dublin have won their opening game in Leinster by a combined total of 65 points, although whatever about the result, O’Brien is confident his team will be in a perfect state of mind. That’s what the next seven days are all about.

“I think an awful lot of players, especially in Leinster, have given up the ghost on Dublin, are beaten before they even play them. I certainly don’t buy this resources thing, the money, or facilities. Again I find it quite insulting.

“I’ve been a keen observer of the successful counties for a while now, and their managers, and what they say, and again it comes down to the simple things, working hard, the very basics. I’ve gone down to watch the Kilkenny hurlers train, and it’s nothing revolutionary. Training sessions are like championship hurling matches. They work harder than anyone else and that’s why they’re successful.

“You have to credit Jim Gavin. Looking in from the outside, Dublin not affected by the hype, they’re very, very grounded, work very, very hard. And to me are students of the game, forever trying to improve themselves, and that’s something Jim Gavin has really brought to this team, that they’re not the finished article yet, they still have more to do. And that’s in the psyche now. And look, they’ve been a phenomenal advertisement for the game, and I think the GAA should be thankful they have them. I’d just love to beat them.”

O'Brien's little jibe on The Sunday Game after the Wexford game, that Dublin would still win the All-Ireland "but through the backdoor", also laid out that jaunty ambition. At the same time he described Dublin as "the monster", and if that's what his team are facing next Saturday, what chance have they?

‘Dominating figure’

“I said ‘monster’ because Dublin are such a dominating figure in the game at the moment. And we know Dublin respect every team they play, do their homework. They probably know more about us than we do ourselves. And I admire them for that. That doesn’t take huge resources. That just takes having one person on the ground. It’s simply good management.

“I do see a few weaknesses in this Dublin team. I’m just not telling you! But I think we have some aspects of our game that could hurt them. We scored 2-17 on Sunday. And missed probably four goals. We’re playing a very mobile game, and I don’t buy this description of blanket defence. When we don’t have the ball, we’re all defenders. When we do have the ball we’re all defenders.

“And the players can’t wait. Most of them have been playing nine or 10 years now for Carlow, and it doesn’t get bigger than this. All around age 28, 30. A good age, in great shape. So we’re in the best possible place we can be at this point in time to play Dublin. And to be standing on the sideline, trying to outwit Dublin, is as good as it gets for me.

“So we’re going to find out an awful lot about ourselves. We know our limits, know Dublin bring a huge challenge, but, regardless of the outcome of this game, we still think there is a lot of football ahead of us this summer. But I think we’re in a better place than most people think.”

Cycling South Leinster: Great Road Routes, by Turlough O'Brien, is published by The Collins Press