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'Coaching is no more a f*cking science, but it is an art'

Keith Ricken and Andy Moran are vastly different stages of their careers, but both have been appointed senior inter-county managers for the first time.

Updated Oct 17th 2021, 3:24 PM

OVER THE LAST week, Andy Moran was ratified as the new Leitrim senior football boss and Keith Ricken was named as the next manager in Cork.

pjimage Leitrim manager Andy Moran and incoming Cork boss Keith Ricken. Source: Inpho

At 37, Moran is still fresh to management. He only stepped off the inter-county hamster wheel at the end of 2019 and took his first step into coaching as joint-manager with his native Ballaghaderreen in January. 

Like Moran, Ricken, 51, is taking up a managerial position at the elite end of the game for the first time.

While the former goalkeeper didn’t have an illustrious playing career to rival Moran’s, the St Vincent’s clubman has spent a lifetime coaching across club, college and underage grades. 

Both men are at vastly different stages of their lives, yet when 2022 rolls around they’ll be breaking new ground when they pull on the bainisteoir bib for the first time. 

It’s difficult to look ahead to next season in great detail until the structure of the football championship is decided at Special Congress on Saturday. 

Either way, Moran’s priority will be winning games in Division 4, whether that’s in a spring league or summer championship. 

He’ll draw on the relentless competitiveness that served him well through his 17-year Mayo career that drew eight Connacht medals, Footballer of the Year and five trips to the All-Ireland final. 

His ability to command a room, his hunger, decency and professional approach will serve him well as he embarks on his new role. 

Ricken is tasked with restoring the pride in Cork football, turning them into a competitive force once again and bringing some form of consistency to their performances. If they can adopt some of the fearlessness his recent Rebels U20 sides embodied, then all the better. 

Through various interviews on TG4 during Cork’s runs to the 2019 and 2021 All-Ireland U20 finals, Ricken gave an insight into his coaching philosophy. It boils down to his belief that the person must be developed first, then the player. 

At last year’s GAA Coaching Conference, Ricken spoke about his desire not to overcomplicate his U20 set-up after taking charge.

“I got the (Cork U20s) job and I was told I’d have to have a sports psychologist, nutritionist, strength and conditioning (coach), GPS – I was overwhelmed,” he admitted.

“I genuinely nearly had a panic attack, genuinely now. I was overwhelmed with the amount of stuff that I was to do.  

“Eventually after a few days, I copped myself on. I said to myself, ‘I’ve been dealing with people for over 30 years. It’s 30 years I’ve been dealing with kids this age. If I f*cking don’t know them, well no-one knows them.’”

Jumping from U20 to senior, the size of the operation increases tenfold.

Some observers have questioned whether Ricken’s ‘Dead Poets Society’ style of management will transfer to the cut and thrust world of senior inter-county.

Yet at the heart of management is the ability to deal with people. It’s a skill that Ricken has in abundance.

“We can absolutely be overwhelmed and distracted with the amount of stuff and we forget the one thing that’s important – that we’re dealing with people,” he continued at the Croke Park conference.

“And the one thing that we have in common with them is that we’re a person ourselves. 

keith-ricken Cork manager Keith Ricken being interviewed before the Munster U20 final. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“When you’re dealing with a team (it’s important) that you know and they know that you’re as imperfect as they are. That is the most important thing, you’re human. That you’re dealing with human beings.  

“They talk that coaching is a science – coaching is no more a f*cking science. The scientists latch onto it, the different type of weights and everything else, and that helps. Of course science helps.

“But coaching is an art. And we all have that art because we have survived to this age. So therefore we’ve had to interact with different people and work with them.”

That philosophy shouldn’t take away from his tactical acumen. It’s difficult to win a Sigerson Cup, two Munsters and an All-Ireland at U20 grade, plus two Cork premier intermediate county titles without it.

Ricken has surrounded himself with an impressive backroom team that will allow him do what he does best: maximise the uniqueness of every player, the commitment to a nurturing environment that allows people to be themselves while still being accountable to the team. 

Leitrim are worlds apart in terms of finance, expectation and the pick of players available to them. Moran’s first battle will be getting the best players in the county to tog out. Like Ricken, he’s an infectious character and understands the psyche of the modern player. 

“I’m a young coach and inexperienced but I’m getting a team that is willing to do whatever it takes to improve and so am I,” he said this week on Off The Ball

“I’m sure there’ll be plenty of mistakes along the way but the main thing is that you’re learning and having fun.”

Moran knows what it’s like to deal with crushing disappointment, serious injury, big victories and internal doubts. His enthusiasm and reputation as a Mayo great will only take him so far. 

The Leitrim players will judge Moran on his ability to teach, to motivate, analyse opponents and to set them up in a way that puts them in position to win games. Like Ricken, he’ll rely heavily on the backroom team he puts in place. 

Both Ricken and Moran would agree that the younger generation have a different mindset. Harnessing that requires careful management. 

andy-moran-after-the-game Andy Moran has plenty of big game experience as a player. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I do think, in the 21st century, that the greatest risk to our society at this moment is not artificial intelligence, it’s young people’s lack of identity and character,” Ricken said at the conference. 

“They’re not a snowflake generation. I don’t believe that the next generation are not resilient. You become resilient with the environment you’re put into.

“You have to change your outlook on how you’re dealing with people. But you must know yourself first. And then you must know them, and where they’re coming from.” 

It’s natural for each generation to change and require a different type of coaching. Things have greatly changed in the last 25 years.

Right before the start of the halcyon days of Clare hurling in 1995, the Banner were regarded as a mentally weak bunch that couldn’t perform on the big day. 

Ger Loughnane’s torturous training sessions in Crusheen strengthened the minds as much as the bodies. 

“Ger Loughane was powerful to drive fellas in training,” reflected Anthony Daly in Hurling: The Revolution Years.

“He would really get the best out of you. He was exceptional, there’s no doubt about it. He drove us demented in training. You’d be in the middle of a line doing a drill for a minute or 90 seconds and he’d keep roaring at you: ‘You’re too fucking slow! That’s why you were fucking destroyed! That’s why they were all laughing at you last year!’

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“And you’re there getting thick with yourself and you’re getting thick with Loughnane and your first touch is getting better. He drove everyone like that. He’d be half-insulting you but in a kind of way that was right at the time. We had matches then that were a hundred miles an hour.

“He’d be roaring. ‘That’s the stuff, give it to him, break it off his back.’ I’d be marking Jamesie O’Connor and I’d be tipping away at him, pulling him and kicking him – anything to stop him when he was in full flight. You could have a yard of his jersey and there’s no way he’d blow for a free.

“And Jamesie would be breaking hurleys off me and I’m saying, ‘This isn’t you Jamesie, this is him. You’re a nice fella, Jamesie, you’re not supposed to be doing this.’

“If he thought you were down then and you were sick he’d shout over: ‘You’re being fucking cleaned.’ Jesus Christ, you’d win a puck-out then or something and he’d lift you up again. He was a lunatic, but he had a way of doing it, there was no doubt about that.”

In his own autobiography Raising the Banner, Loughnane admitted: “I never let anybody watch us train. If I had they’d be going home with stories about what I said to players.

“If you took what I said to players literally on the training field, not alone would all the players be offended but all their relatives would never speak to me either.”

Moran and Ricken would never use a similar approach to Loughnane’s. Plus, that sort of stuff simply wouldn’t fly with the current generation.

ger-loughnane-1995 Ger Loughnane's style of coaching in the 90s wouldn't fly in the modern game. Source: ©INPHO

Even by the time Daly was himself in charge of Clare in the 2000s, things had changed.

They trained hard but he recognised the importance of keeping players happy away from the field in a way Loughnane wouldn’t have countenanced a decade earlier. 

Choosing to keep his distance from players, Daly used Fr Harry Bohan as part of his backroom team for the players to confide in. He’d be known as a performance or lifestyle coach nowadays.

“When it came to people, The Preist was perceptive and sharp, a physician of the soul,” wrote 2006 All-Star Tony Griffin in his autobiography. “He understood the complexities of human nature and his addition was essential because every player goes through moments of crisis. 

“I could confide in The Priest in a way that I couldn’t confide in Daly, and something he sad to me that evening really registered. ‘I know that nobody likes to doubt themselves or have anxiety or nerves,’ he said, ‘because you don’t think anybody else suffers from this. But I know they do.’”

Griffin added: “When your manager wonders if you’re going through a rough patch you will do everything to plaster over the cracks. No player will admit a loss of playing form to his manager for fear his position on the staring team will be threatened. 

“It was different with The Priest, and Daly’s intuition also came into play here. If he heard a player was having girlfriend problems or experiencing other difficulties outside hurling, he would send The Priest to seek them out, sit down with them and chat over a pot of tea.”

Fast forward to 2021, and a presence like Bohan’s is almost essential in every inter-county dressing room. 

They are inter-county rookies at managerial level, but Ricken and Moran will rely heavily on similar intuition — learned from years of coaching and playing — in the months and years ahead. 

Above all else, their ability to work with people will guide them along the journey. 

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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