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Bull at ease in a China shop

by Tom Humphries was published in the Irish Times on Saturday the 26th of July 2003

Across the full, ominous Shannon at the long, grey bridge at Killaloe and on into Mike Mac country. Out through Tuamgraney and up the hill into Scarriff. There you find him at the dark end of the bar which has his name above the door. Black jacket and shoulders as wide as the river. The weather has etched its stories on his face. He could be the Bull McCabe.

It's a good time to be talking to him. Mike Mac is a man who looks like he is put together with steel wire and roofer's nails. He's managing a county with a reputation for discipline that would trouble a Vegas rat-pack crooner.

McNamara made his name running fellas' legs to stumps on hills and mountains in Clare. In Clare, even during the time of plenty, he was always the one to pinch the county's gut and rail against the all-too-comfortable heft of it.

And the Offaly lounge lizards? They were promising that they'd just have the one they came in for plus a packet of cheese and onion thanks, and then they'd worry about hurling.

Undeniably, he seemed like an odd choice last November. Many, many managers have breezed into Offaly in the past decade, all mouth and trousers some of them. And most have been asked to pack their certainties and theories and go home again. Because Offaly is unique. Square-bashing sergeants don't usually get the respect of louche creative geniuses and vice versa. All the more intriguing then to find Offaly and Mike Mac together on the way to Croke Park in late June.

Ask him for an explanation and he'll ask you to subtract his own mystique from the reality and vice versa. He loved the reputation as a sadistic loon which he built with the Clare players on the hill at Shannon. It got so that journalists thought that the Clare training pitch at Crusheen was a hill, got so that the lads could scent an NUJ card at 500 yards and drop the hurleys and break into a run just so the reputation would be unshrunk.

And in Offaly they never let a quiet pint turn into anything less than the last days of the Roman Empire in the public imagination. Perhaps the most talented team of the 1990s did little to disturb the impression that they stubbed out their cigarettes and put down their cocktails 10 minutes before a big game and, yawning and stretching as they did so, made their way to the pitch.

There was a germ of truth in each version. Not much more than that. Not too much.

He never wanted the Offaly job until it was dangled in front of him. He was unhappy with how his stint with Noel Lane and Galway had ended and thought perhaps he'd had a bellyfull of hassles and ulcers.

Then the phone rang one evening last winter. Offaly calling. It set him thinking, and out of politeness he drove to Portumna for a meeting, saying to himself as he drove that he wasn't getting involved. He was going to get his clubs together and play golf. He'd hear them out and say thanks but no thanks.

After the first meeting there was a follow-up phone call the next day and he got positive vibes in the place between the words.

"I don't know why I took the job is the honest answer. I've said a thousand times that it wasn't just because I wanted my own team. I always did my own thing wherever I was. I'm more low-key than people think. I never courted publicity, or snapshots or media attention. I'm a private person. Mind you, a good result this Sunday and the low-key bit is probably gone. I shy away a little bit from that.

"I suppose there is a bit of ego. That brings a few problems, too. On your bad days everything you have done well for a period of time can be blown away in 10 minutes with two goals against the run of play. Ego comes into it when the Wexford game comes to mind. For me, when a team looks a little disjointed in the second half, it would be alien to my way of thinking and preparing. That put me back. If it happened again I might be golfing full time."

He doesn't know why he does it, just that something about Offaly intrigued him and, well, he remembers his first year in Galway and all the work he'd done with the players under Noel Lane's management, and when they got to Croke Park there were new rules in place and Mike Mac and the selectors had to sit up in the stand, not even on the sideline. And after 12 months with players he found himself watching them in the company of a man who had paid 30 quid for a ticket but was offering his opinions for free.

"When the offer came from Offaly, as usual with the GAA, it wasn't direct. It was, if you were offered the job what do you think you'd say? I thought for a week. About golf. But there was something biting in there. I've always seen my best work as introducing a younger team rather than continuing on a winning team. We've nothing done yet, of course. It remains to be seen how this management team will be judged."

He knew that people looked askance at the appointment. Raised eyebrows and a few thin smiles. Faces that said, this should be fun.

He held a badly-attended squad meeting before Christmas. Offaly people were never busier. Practically everyone in the county who could hold a hurl was otherwise engaged. He didn't worry too much. He called his first training session for St Stephen's morning in Birr, a quiet day for dental appointments, job interviews, sisters' weddings, etc.

And he laid out his stall. Girlfriends on the back burner till September lads. No? Well, hands up, who here has a Leinster senior medal? The Birr boys were absent. No hands. He had some attention.

"That first day, fellas looking out at you under the eyebrows. Sceptical. Fellas peeping out from up the way. C'mon down here, what's wrong with ya? I enjoyed myself with my reputation, the madman for fitness thing, but when they saw that it wasn't fully true they were surprised. When we could hurl we were hurling. It's about the skill of the game, married to high fitness levels.

"Offaly have developed a style a little close to Kilkenny style and they retained it over the years, filtered it into club hurling. It's sweetness, movement, a little of the ground hurling which others don't do. That's stayed there. You'd be a fool to change it."

So he trained them on St Stephen's Day with the crisp air filling their lungs and the knowledge dawning that reputations in hurling are just marketing devices. And after he'd finished he walked up town and had a couple of soft pints in Whelahans.

"Listen, I knew everyone would be dubious about me. The reputation goes before the man. Living outside the county helps. The vibes in Offaly hurling? I wouldn't know what they are. They're saying, this fella is a bollox of whatever? I don't feel that. I'm in my little car driving home. I shoot in, do my business and shoot out again. If there was a feeling I wouldn't know and it wouldn't have bothered me. As a matter of fact it's often a good thing.

"You get the shout from the top of the stand, of course. At the 21 match (the provincial under-21 semi-final against Kilkenny), when everything was going wrong, there was some yokel telling me, as if I didn't know. If it was five years ago I'd have been up in the back of the stand. Some ape roaring at me. You don't have to go to Offaly to find that sort."

Contrary to popular opinion, Pad Joe Whelahan and Mike Mac go back a long way. The first Clare team to make a breakthrough was the 1989 minor All-Ireland side which Mike Mac managed. They beat an Offaly team which Pad Joe managed.

"We've been in communication ever since. We often sit down and have a chat. We did after the Wexford game this year. I met him coming up the street in Kilkenny. Arguably, they wouldn't be intimate chats. Maybe Pad Joe is perceived to be anti me, but I think he has more a problem with the board; there would be absolutely no part of him that wouldn't wish the county hurlers well. He does what he has to do for Birr, but he's an Offaly man and so are the lads. They are exceptional people."

Their exceptionality extends, of course, to their club-mates, perhaps the best club hurling team of the last few decades. Birr were tied up with winning another club championship until March, and that was followed by a week's holiday and a little recovery.

Mike Mac had them for six weeks before Offaly played Dublin, a little longer before they had to face Wexford. Not ideal. Birr had won their All-Ireland, but they were playing a different kind of game, staying fresh and sharp for matches while the rest of the panel were grinding out the stamina levels on the college pitch in Birr.

The Birr contingent married in well: the first testament, perhaps, that Mike Mac has a finer touch with these things than people would have given him credit for.

"It took understanding and patience, but they are fine hurlers and Pad Joe had been doing his work. That was one of those things. As well as the pitfalls, it brought to the fore fellas who wouldn't have been seen normally. And in Offaly the numbers aren't there.

"Without them we had to look for fellas like Conor Gath, Aidan Hanrahan, who were not part and parcel of modern Offaly hurling. And the so-called master stroke of Ger Oakley at full back was just a necessity. It wasn't ideal, but we got something out of it."

When did he know that the various mix-and-match pieces were knitting together? Well, you can measure these things by the distance from previous hurts. In March, 2002, an Offaly team with a good chunk of its Birr boys playing went to Páirc Uí Chaoimh and got an unmitigated hammering.

Fast-forward 364 days. Cork came to Birr on a Saturday afternoon, and although the local contingent weren't playing Offaly won by three points, ending Cork's unbeaten league run.

"That day we played Cork in the league. We spoke about that before the match. I brought it up and some of the players wanted to talk about it, how 12 months previously they'd had an almighty drubbing. We beat them in Birr with a youthful, gutsy sort of performance and I thought I saw a team that wanted their pride back. It's a strange thing, pride."

Mike Mac is more of a student than he lets on to be. He speaks casually of correspondence with fitness experts in centres like Cambridge and Harvard, and when he speaks of Brian Cody and his handling of certain problems which arise within hurling teams it is clear he has absorbed lessons.

Most recently, in the week before the Limerick game, the first family of Offaly hurling abdicated. Just out of the blue. He learned by phone call but didn't pick up the receiver again after he'd put it down. By the end of the week two Whelahans started against Limerick and one came on as a substitute. McNamara had said it would be so and nothing changed. In the aftermath he was generous in his praise of the Whelahan family and inclined to play down the business.

"There was something there, which I didn't handle at all really. A little hiccup. A little perception maybe that if there was a problem I'd dash in and solve it straight away. That would be the problem. Maybe the lads were expecting me to be at the door. I don't do that anymore. I go away and mull about it and maybe not talk at all about it.

"So that was the whole extent of the problem really. It's something which happens regularly with different players. Gary Hanniffy had it solved in two minutes, really. I would expect him to.

"Listen, they say being a parent is no bother provided you have no problems. Management is the same."

For precedent he cites the case of Stephen Byrne, the only Offaly player he knew well before he took the job. Through the spring he relied heavily on Byrne as his guide to the players and his liaison with the squad. The odd chat, the odd phone call. Useful stuff for a manager feeling his way.

"I gave Stephen the captain's role, in effect. Then, when Brian Mullins arrived on the scene, I had to do what was right for Offaly. It was a hard decision. Very hard for me. Brian was just shading it and they are two super 'keepers. Nobody could have argued if I'd put Stephen in, but I had to do the right thing for Offaly. That's what it comes down to."

And he stresses that he knew that the Whelahans would do the right thing for Offaly in the end. Knowing that was his trump card.

"If anyone is playing for selfish reasons they would be out the window. If they can't be prepared to play the part that's decided for them they are playing the wrong game. Subs have to wish the lads well. You don't have to be happy to be a sub, but it is a totally unselfish game. You back the players that play."

And so Offaly came out and strung together a fine performance that sent Limerick hurling back on the seat of its pants. Back where Offaly was last year.

Ah, the distance from previous failures. Speaking to a former Offaly hurler earlier this year, a prediction was demanded for the summer ahead. It came wrapped in colourful certainty: "Shite bate out of us. Twice. Again."

And last summer that's how the championship went. A good hiding from Kilkenny, a worse one from Tipperary. Offaly were gone and wouldn't be back for some time.

Yet tomorrow Tipperary will fear them. Or be fools if they don't. McNamara has made the set-piece coup something of a speciality down the years. Back in 2001, it was he who spotted the fat, happy way Kilkenny gobbled down all the compliments served to them about having the best full forward line of all time. And Mike Mac went away and every time he drove from Galway to Scarriff and back he thought about Kilkenny's Achilles' heel.

"Planning for that game, I prepared really well for that one. It was decided that we wouldn't let them hurl. We'd run them off the park, harassing them. Arguably, it wasn't something they were expecting. It wasn't a Galway type of thing to do. They'd see it coming maybe from Clare or from Limerick or even Tipp. That's the game of hurling."

He relishes the memory, but time passes more quickly the older you get and everything that got poured into that coup counted for naught come September.

"That's why you look at Kilkenny. The standard they play at, the standard they maintain. You look at what happened to them against Galway a couple of years ago, and what did they do? They didn't go back into their shell and accept that that was how things were, they changed.

"They stepped up physically. Their standard of preparation is the benchmark. Their touch is the benchmark. The standard of play is matched by the excellence of preparation."

He looks at Kilkenny and looks at his own side. He knows the work that remains to be done. The game against Wexford still haunts him, the sight of the side losing their shape, going hunting in packs, crowding Gary Hannify out under dropping balls.

"We stepped it up against Limerick. Fellas get to this time of the year hurling and I just think they are happier. We were better against Limerick and if we bring it up some more we can perform against Tipperary. Let it down a little and we'll be hammered."

And if that happens, has this season been enough to cure the sceptics in Offaly?

"Listen," he says with a smile, "I think it was

George Bernard Shaw

near the end of his life

who was asked about his greatest regret and he said

it was worrying about things which never happened."

Nice touch. Shaw. Not the Bull McCabe at all.

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