John Morrison’s coaching innovations became football’s norm

He was an evangelist, indifferent to the mainstream, charismatic and confident

John Morrison opened the gates to alternative approaches and thinking. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

John Morrison opened the gates to alternative approaches and thinking. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

 

The tributes and salutes to John Morrison this week would have both satisfied the man and amused him greatly.

He wasn’t the kind of GAA coach who you would associate with the black-tie awards or with official conferences, or find popping up on talk shows on All-Ireland weekends.

For the owner of an exhibitionist wardrobe, he had the quality of a chameleon, blending in perfectly wherever he went.

You didn’t have to know Morrison well to get that he was an evangelist, indifferent to the mainstream and indiscriminately going about shaping and helping those players and coaches fortunate enough to cross his path in a life that was spent teaching – both others and himself. In that way, his influence on the thinking within Gaelic games is inestimable and invaluable.

One of the biggest insults in Irish life is to be accused of being “parochial”.

The GAA can be clannish and conservative, and at its worst downright suffocating

As a put-down, it has never fully made sense, because the country works on a system of parochialism: it’s why the GAA has continued to thrive; it’s how the politicians canvass for votes and it’s the system through which everything – from school buses and neighbourhood watch to “who drinks in what pub and why” – works.

The belief, however notional, that your place is somehow different to the place up the road has been the natural fuel for the fierceness of GAA rivalries: it’s the reason why, for instance, the footballers of Gaoth Dobhair and Corofin will be locked into something transcendent and uniquely their own this Saturday lunchtime.

Inevitably, that closeness can lead to a certain uniformity of thought and opinion, and a tendency towards erring on the side of conservatism out of fear as much as inclination.

The GAA can be clannish and conservative, and at its worst downright suffocating.

Charisma and confidence

Morrison’s singular gift was to have the charisma and confidence to operate on an entirely different wavelength of thought and practice without ever being perceived as a threat to the mainstream way of doing things.

He freed up individuals and groups in all kinds of ways.

The many genuine tributes expressed by former county and club players who he coached, in some cases well over a decade ago, tell the story not so much of a sports coach but of a person who had a profound influence on the way they thought about themselves as players and as human beings.

For decades there has been a strongly militaristic streak at the heart of GAA coaching. There was and remains a belief that squads need to purge themselves in winter in order to achieve the level of honesty and no-quit spirit required for summer.

Without warning, Finnerty bolted from the line and began to sprint towards the dressing room

Morrison’s way was to make the pain and tedium of those drills more interesting through the presentation and ideas that have been in circulation this week – the music, the balloons, the personal cards and messages, the outré clothing, the inspirational phrases, the positivity and, most of all, the sense that it was okay for training to be fun and enjoyable.

Anyone who spoke to Morrison for any length of time quickly gauged that he had a lively, curious mind and was both a sponge for information and a ready dispenser of it. The word “eccentric” has been used over the past few days.

But that’s only true in the confined and narrow world of the GAA.

Favourite story

Perhaps my favourite GAA story concerns innovative coaching. In 1992 Brian McDonald took charge of the Mayo senior footballers for a brief, ill-fated spell. In retrospect many of those involved in that squad came to recognise that McDonald had bright, original ideas as a coach and had never been given a proper chance to implement those.

But he was in charge of a gnarled team that had, in 1989, finished second in a hugely evocative All-Ireland final appearance, an occasion that dragged Mayo football kicking and screaming from the 1950s: it was Mayo’s reincarnation year.

One dark evening at training, McDonald asked the players to spread across the width of the field and, as they ran the length of it, to imagine a football dropping towards them and to rise and catch it at the apex of their jump.

In contemporary coaching, it’s easy to see the purpose of the drill; visualisation, timing, repetition and inclusivity are all represented.

Morrison’s legacy is to have been among the pioneers who permanently opened the gates to alternative approaches and thinking in Gaelic football coaching

But this was 1992, and that Mayo team was crowded with high-fielders confident in their expertise at claiming a football with one hand while lighting a lady’s cigarette with the other.

They couldn’t see the sense in catching footballs that weren’t even there.

Anthony “Larry” Finnerty was one of the livelier characters on the team, and as the line of jumpers approached the halfway line, grousing and grumbling, he couldn’t resist. Without warning, he bolted from the line and began to sprint towards the dressing room.

“Where the f*** are you goin’, Finnerty?” came a growl from one of the management. “I’m away in to get me gloves,” Finnerty shouted back cheerily. “The ball is wet.”

It’s a moment that has everything – an anarchic streak of wit creating laughter at nobody’s expense: the joke is on life.

Enlightened Mayo

Fourteen years later, John Morrison was coaching a Mayo team more open to alternative means of enlightenment. Along with Mickey Moran, he got to coach at the very highest level, bringing Mayo to the 2006 All-Ireland final. There they met a Kerry team who were, in the most flattering sense of the word, mean.

Jack O’Connor’s team had flamboyance in abundance but used it sparingly: their preferred mode was remorseless efficiency. The best of Morrison’s intentions and interventions couldn’t have helped Mayo that day. They met a better crew.

But it’s fitting that he was there on the sideline for one of Gaelic football’s sacred days even if you always got the feeling that he’d be just as happy on some obscure field, coaching for the pure pleasure of it.

The archetype of the Gaelic football manager will always to some extent remain rooted in the late 1970s: patrician, square-jawed, shirt-sleeves rolled and eyes missing nothing.

But Morrison’s legacy is to have been among the pioneers who permanently opened the gates to alternative approaches and thinking in Gaelic football coaching, which is now becoming standard practice. The man had sound and vision. And sometimes you don’t need statues to leave your mark.

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