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Managing to create momentum

by Tom Humphries was published in the Irish Times on Friday the 23rd of May 2003

So, Sunday rises to greet Paul O'Kelly. A championship Sunday, large and daunting. A derby Sunday. Stretching out his hand Paul O'Kelly notices Sunday's friend has already arrived and made himself at home. Mick O'Dwyer is already mingling casually. An old friend of Sunday, a man who has forgotten more about championship Sunday than most of us will ever know.

Still there are reasons to be cheerful. O'Kelly is steeped in the tricolours of Offaly, he has a memory bank filled with moments which keep him informed of what it means to be an Offaly man, an Offaly football man.

When he was a kid he dodged in and out between the knees of giants. O'Kelly's parents ran a pleasant hostelry in Edenderry and the Offaly side of the 1960s would eat there often after training.

"I learned early their need for me was as great as my need for them, because I was one of the people serving their food but part of my growing up would have been matching the faces to the stories, being around those guys who were all heroes in Offaly, just absorbing that atmosphere and the sense these fellas were larger than life."

O'Kelly grew up in football and the line of the game ran through the path of his life. He speaks fondly of being part of a large group who went everywhere during the summer of 1982 as Offaly's inch-by-inch progress to the finish line eventually ended.

"There was a group of about 10 of us including a man who is now a parish priest in the Curragh. We were in the Canal End, our combined intelligence was the equivalent of Con Houlihan's at the other end but we enjoyed every moment."

So the love story went on. He played with, coached or worked with so many sons of that 1960s team. He plugged away as a player for Edenderry and then went about learning the coaching trade, first with a badminton team in Edenderry and then with underage sides in schools and colleges around Dundalk. He returned to Offaly, then some work with Round Towers in Dublin and when Tommy Lyons rolled into Offaly, O'Kelly was asked if he would serve in the backroom. No need to ask twice.

They had good years but the joy was frontloaded. In 1996 they began training in August for a Division Four league campaign that began in October. They cherry-picked the right challenge games and tiptoed through the early championship games while Meath tripped the light fantastic. And then in August 1997, a year after their first baby steps, Offaly came to Croke Park and took Meath apart. Eight points to spare and a hat-trick of gorgeous goals.

And after that it tapered off, oddly. An All-Ireland semi-final where Offaly seemed curiously flat. Encounters with Meath in the following two summers proved chastening.

The dispensation changed. Padraig Nolan, as bright a young manager as there is in the country, took charge and suffered summers filled with glimpses of what might have been. Two exits to Kildare in replays. A one-point beating at the hands of Louth.

Nolan moved on. Paul O'Kelly's family were urging that after three years of hard work at his management consulting business he should get involved with a football team again. He was coming around to the idea when the county board called. He mulled it over for two seconds before deciding he wanted the job. What was the state of Offaly's football nation when O'Kelly was sworn in.

"Well it has to be said that a lucky break with Offaly during the three years Padraig was in charge would have allowed the team to go quite a lot further. We knew we were working off a decent base.

"We did two things, well they are parts of the same thing really. We ran a scan of the county looking at every player from 17 upwards and decided to invite anyone we believed had the potential to make a contribution this season or who with development and nurturing could contribute in the long term. Our absolute priority was long term. If we had a choice of an older or a younger player we went for the young person. A third of our players are under-21 or new to the panel."

Through the winter with a group as large as 60 players they had an itinerant schedule training here, there and everywhere in Offaly but doing the hardest work in Craughan on the pitch and on the Hill. From the top players struggling for breath could see every part of Offaly's football territory. O'Kelly liked that.

"I think part of what is important about the game and the way we play it and feel about it is the sense of family and community. What I try to look for in my working life and in sport is the intrinsic motivation in things, the motivation that is coming from within the people themselves. Every part has to have its own energy and drive and get on with it. The objective is to end up with the leadership on the pitch. There's no big genius statement you can make beforehand that wins games - you have to create an environment for the genius in players to come out."

He's seen it done. He's done it. His work in strategic management consultancy keeps him on the road and busy and constantly marvelling at the overlaps between the two sides of his life.

"The experiences on both sides can be applied to the other, sometimes the comparison is quite dramatic, working with a group of people, a management team and a group of players, in order to get the best result people have to become very, very clear on what is going to be achieved, what the goals hanging from that are. All the steps to achieve that have to operate in a way that gets momentum into the process."

When O'Kelly and his selectors experimented wantonly during the league campaign they could hardly have been unaware of the hubbub next door where Mick O'Dwyer was cleaning up Laois's act with the vigour of a fire and brimstone preacher.

Offaly have several footballing relationships which provide derby fodder, where O'Kelly grew up Kildare were always the enemy but for resonance, for recent history for a county that rubs up against the footballing heart of Offaly you need look no further than Laois.

This is the third meeting in three championships between the two sides. It means a lot in Offaly to beat Laois. Means more to beat them when they are riding high. Offaly's planning for the future has had to be less full-on with this in mind. Vinny Claffey and Finbarr Cullen are back tomorrow to push up the average age of a relatively fresh-faced side. Offaly have beaten Laois in each of the last two years and ostensibly the fixture holds out the days best chance of a shock win. O'Dwyer's Kildare adventure began with a run to the league final of 1991 and ended in a Leinster first-round defeat to Louth. O'Dwyer's barnstorming hasn't been a distraction.

"I think it's great. Offaly got used to playing Micko's Kildare teams. What he is doing in Leinster and for Leinster football is fantastic. Good luck to him. It hasn't changed the way we look at things in Offaly or the way we plan."

O'Kelly has continued with the business of looking to the future. Offaly are getting into the world of development squads and nourishing potential. Championship is one part of the overall plan. For that he has other sources of inspiration as well.

"The entire experience with Tommy Lyons was interesting. To see a team which had been under-performing for a number of years being brought together and gathering momentum, quickly. The things I learned from Tommy were his focus, the clarity of his communication. He was effective in putting together simple and practical plans. My business is strategic management consulting. I work with the best managers in the country a lot. A lot of what is learned is learned subconsciously and is applied subconsciously. He was energised, he had a passion for what he was doing."

And the Lyons' nostrum that the first year is always your best?

"I don't believe that. It may be true in a city environment but ask Eugene Magee. His fifth year with Offaly was his best. In business I'm always searching for a breakthrough strategy in football. I may have to go for an incremental strategy!"

Sunday stretches out its hand. Paul O'Kelly grasps it firmly. Ready to go.

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