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'That first three years were tough. Anyone else would have walked away, wouldn't have had the stomach for it'

Carlow player Daniel St Ledger on the impact of Turlough O’Brien’s spell in charge and life under lockdown away from Gaelic football.

Updated Jun 8th 2020, 8:17 PM

daniel-st-ledger-is-congratulated-by-team-mates-at-the-end-of-the-game Carlow players celebrating after their victory over Kildare in 2018. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

IF THE TIMING was a jolt to the system, the news on reflection could have been expected.

The Carlow footballers did not get much of an advance warning that Turlough O’Brien was moving on from being their figurehead on Saturday afternoon after six years.

Still the decision was grounded in reason. Early June departures may ordinarily spark alarm but this is not an ordinary GAA season and Friday’s confirmation that there will not be an inter-county ball kicked in anger until mid October, has changed the outlook.

“Last year it was actually Stevie Poacher convinced him to come back for another year, to give it one last push,” says Daniel St Ledger, who has spent just under half of his county senior life under the guidance of O’Brien.

“But then Stevie’s circumstances changed so Turlough, it was too late at that stage, he nearly had to do another year. We kind of knew this was probably his last go at it.

“The announcement was a shock but when you thought about it, it made sense. This season’s championship is like a pre-season for next year. It’s a good opportunity for a new manager to come in and get a handle on things.

“If it happened a couple of years ago or there was no pandemic, you’d think it was a huge deal but it puts it into perspective.”

To focus solely on Carlow’s recent results may not be kind. They won one from five league ties this spring and lose their only two championship games in 2019.

But that does a disservice to the scale of the change O’Brien oversaw, the metoric rise the county’s football profile enjoyed and the deep impression he made on the players.

carlow-players-celebrate-with-turlough-obrien Turlough O'Brien celebrating a qualifier victory with his players. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

When O’Brien took over Carlow had lost to Westmeath by 11 points and Laois by ten in the previous year’s championship. In 2014 they edged past Waterford in a qualifier in his opening campaign but that sandwiched a couple of desperate beatings as Meath rifled home 7-13 and Clare piled on the pain when scoring 4-26.

“I’ve seen a lot of stuff online saying it was a wonderful six years,” says St Ledger.

“But that first three years were tough. I think anyone else would have walked away, wouldn’t have had the stomach for it.

“When he took over in 2014, I can’t even begin to describe how bad things were. It really was as bad as I’ve ever experienced. It wasn’t easy, there was some horribly dark days over the six years but the couple of flickers of light just make it all worthwhile. To come from where we did to where it was left was a feat in itself.”

O’Brien’s drive was sustained by his unwavering belief in Carlow’s latent football ability.

“He always thought we had the makings of a panel,” says St Ledger.

“Our minor team in 2007 we would have got to a Leinster final and a good few lads would have stayed playing senior, he would have always referenced that. He always believed we should have been doing something more and in fairness he turned out to be right.”

The acquisition of Down native Steven Poacher is identified as the catalyst for change. O’Brien’s ability to think creatively helped him find solutions for Carlow’s problems.

“That was probably the biggest thing he did for Carlow, bringing Stevie in. He would have known the character that Stevie is, nobody else gets the chance to talk!

“Another manager might not have brought someone in like Stevie who is all encompassing. That was a turning point, Turlough was finding it hard to juggle being a manager, a coach, dealing with the county, all the admin stuff. You know some managers on the cycle around Division 3 and 4, it’d be very hard for them to step back I’d imagine like Turlough had to, to let Stevie do his thing.

“Turlough was happy enough with that, that’s a huge sign of his love for Carlow. I know it rejuvenated my career anyway and a lot of others as well.”

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carlow-management-turlough-oconnor-and-steven-poacher Steven Poacher and Turlough O'Brien during a Carlow Leinster championship tie. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

At this remove St Ledger can appreciate the intelligence of O’Brien’s methods in forming a squad even if they jarred initially

“I would have had a lot of disagreements with Turlough over the years but it all came back to trying to make the whole show more successful. It was definitely tricky. In my younger years we’d a group of 10 or 12 lads who were totally committed, then a group of about 10 who were floating and changing year on year. Turlough had a different way of dealing with it, he knew you couldn’t be cut-throat with our setup. We needed everybody possible.

“Sometimes he had to make allowances for that. I’d be thinking, ‘Why not just drop this lad if he’s not making an effort?’ But he had to coax lads in order to keep the whole thing going with the bigger picture in mind. He played a fairly delicate checks and balances game but it kind of worked out. For 2017 and 2018, we practically had everybody on the panel that we’d have wanted. 

“He’s been complimentary to us in things he’s talked but I think we were a tricky enough group to deal with. He played a really good game that I don’t think someone from outside of Carlow could actually have done.”

Pick a highlight from his tenure and the tempation may be to suggest stunning Kildare in Tullamore, rubbing shoulders with the elite in Dublin and Monaghan, or one of the trips to Croke Park.

But for St Ledger it is the March weekend in 2018 when a blanket of snow enveloped the country and Carlow got their league job done in Belfast.

“He always thought Carlow were better than Division 4, to finally achieve that was a massive thing, it really was. The bread and butter was winning promotion up in Corrigan Park. That’s a bus journey home I’ll never forget, it was just the team and management. It was a special couple of hours on the way back from Antrim.”

This is a strange time for the GAA county player. St Ledger had grown accustomed to a certain way of life, teaching in St David’s in Artane and trekking to Carlow for football commitments. Before lockdown took hold, himself and his fiancee Laura moved down to Doonbeg. He grew up in Clare and is friendly with the local Banner hero, David Tubridy.

“We managed to get out golfing before (lockdown), just around Paddy’s Day, we got out for a round. We pass each other on the roads sometimes, he’d be going a bit quicker than I am now. That’s about the height of it.

“It’s funny this is the longest period I’ve had off since 2008. I know it’s contrary to a lot of opinion but I’m not actually missing it an awful lot as of yet. I’ve enjoyed the break to be honest. I’m fortunate not to have too many worries with health or family, we’re lucky we’re both in good jobs.

“It’s a good thing and a bad thing, the break could finish me! I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about retirement and how I’d manage without that routine. This had been a nice look into it and I’ve seen I can actually survive without it. 

“I know since Turlough made the announcement, it would get you a little excited to see what the next step is going to be. I’ll be 31 when next year’s championship starts so I’m wondering starting with a whole new setup again, trying to prove yourself with a trial with 90 lads. There’s lots to think about.

“From the GAA, I don’t think they can do much more than put protocols in place and at last give people a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. There’s definitely been an improved mood since the roadmap, the club (Kildavin-Clonegal) Whats App group is up and running again. I think it’s the best you can do in the current scenario but I still think it’s a live situation, I think things could change.”

daniel-st-ledger Carlow footballer Daniel St Ledger Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Whenever the action for Carlow does resume, it will be different without that familiar presence on the sideline. Still O’Brien’s legacy is secure in the eyes of those who played for him.

“My career was probably going into a spiral of nothing, I’d have retired at 28 or 29, only for him coming in, settling things, getting a regular panel together and setting a standard, bringing in Stevie after, they’re just days I probably couldn’t have imagined when he came in first in 2014.

“I think everyone in Carlow knows how much Turlough means to the players and this group. We’d have a fairly tight bond. It’s the end of this chapter but I’ve no doubt he’s going to be back involved in Carlow GAA in some capacity. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster but I definitely wouldn’t change anything.”

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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