Mickey Whelan, with then Louth County Board chairman Jim Lennon, at the time of his appointment as Wee County manager in 1985. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
Name the man who coached Louth footballers, Clan na Gael on their way to a senior championship title and a league title-winning Dundalk FC outfit. And all in the space of a decade.
He’s another of the sporting genius variety, a person who, even though well into his retirement years, continues to train teams and offer guidance through webinars and summits. A very good friend of another local mastermind, Mickey Heeney.
Anyone got it yet?
Mickey Whelan, of course. Indeed, it’s two years since your writer first made contact with the legendary St. Vincent’s clubman regarding an interview. Amid The Democrat’s series with former Wee County bosses, the timing of the call was all wrong. Whelan, at the time, was preparing for a bus journey to Waterford with the Dublin senior hurlers he was coaching under Pat Gilroy.
Not averse to the proposition either, he said to get back in touch another time and so his name cropped up in a conversation about a month ago, which led to a 40-minute discussion on his time in the north-east.
The intention, typically, was to merely touch upon the Dubliner’s roles within the three aforementioned sides, but the most compelling element related to his “philosophy”, a word which popped up several times over the course of the piece.
Your writer recalls Heeney saying “Louth weren’t ready” for Whelan, his revolutionary structures and methods of training, ideas that have since become core principles in the training of teams across all disciplines.
Ultimately, his term at the helm of The Reds, which began in 1985 and lasted until the championship exit of ’87, is pale in terms of success when compared to what Whelan would achieve thereafter. He found it difficult to convince people of his outlook. Not that this county was unique in its scepticism either.
“It was nothing new to me because when I went to Dublin first they objected; gave out hell and I walked away from them,” Whelan says.
“I started to think about what the differences were between top teams and the more I read and studied it the more I realised what the differences were; making the right choices and the right passes at the right time, and reading the game well.
“But what I was doing was something different and that’s what was wrong. The concepts I look at, at the top-level, the fitness levels are very similar and every senior inter-county team is very, very fit and they have a lot of talented players.
“My coaching is to get the best out of them. I believe that decision-making is the biggest difference between winning and losing. At the top-level they’re all training really, really hard, are really fit and have good skills, but it’s about using the skills at the right time and reading the game. I wanted players to become smarter, not fitter.
“I use a lot of the ball in training and I pose problems for players that they have to find the solutions to themselves. That was something that they’d never come up against.”
Immediately, having accepted the Louth post, he set about implementing his beliefs. And following a good National League, which finished in early 1986 with five wins from seven outings, The Reds moved into the championship sensing progress was possible, particularly after disposing of Longford in round one.
But a convincing loss to Offaly in the quarter-final preceded a disappointing points campaign over winter and into the spring of ’87. Longford, again, provided the preliminary opposition and another victory set-up an enticing last eight showdown away to Wicklow. Disaster struck, however, as a 1-7 to eight-point loss had supporters sharpening the knives for Whelan, whose tenure quickly drew to a close.
“It was my job to make them better and I just didn’t succeed,” the Marino man, who’s won every honour in the game as both a player and coach, adds.
Danny Nugent, Jim Thornton and Danny Culligan provided assistance in selectorship capacities and the trio remain friends of Whelan. Indeed, contrary to what some may believe, squad members and related parties received the new methods well.
“Instead of telling them what to do, I was challenging them to find solutions. They’d great players, fabulous players and a fine team, but they just weren’t connecting. Each player was kind of doing it on his own and I tried to keep the fitness levels at the right level, but by using the ball and the games and making them think.
“They were playing more with the ball in training, whereas nine out of 10 counties were running more, thinking they had the football ability. My philosophy suggests that it’s not the fitness or the skill, the actual kicking of the ball, that’s the difference. The difference is, the smarter you are; how you run in, how you create situations...
“It was no big deal, but it was a big deal to them because it was new to them.
“The management team really bought into what I was doing and saw what it was; they were excellent guys and all very good players who did their job for the county at different times.
“They would question me, but they were really supportive of what I was doing, and I was only concerned by the management team and players. I couldn’t influence the guys outside and the supporters.”
In the end, though, it was external criticism - along with results - which saw the alliance come to a close.
“There was too much… one particular guy was moaning all the time, I think he was a member of the County Board. He was always bitching and moaning about everybody so I just said, ‘I don’t need that’.”
CLAN NA GAEL
Heeney, Clans supremo in the championship final defeats by Cooley Kickhams and Stabannon Parnells in 1990 and 12 months later, asked Whelan in during the ’92 campaign.
“Mickey’s a bright guy and he has a very good grip on the game,” the latter says of his long-term ally. “I’d have a very good relationship with Mickey; he’s a very good guy and was very decent to me. I’ll tell you this, he’s smart and understands the game really well. We were quite comfortable in each other’s company and I think he was undervalued in Louth.”
The Ecco Road charges were primed, but seemingly in need of topping up by a couple of percent to get across the line. Especially between the drawn final against Dundalk Gaels and the replay. Harsh words were spoken.
“They were all moaning after the drawn game and I had a cut at them. They were talking about positions - I’d moved a couple of players into different positions and it worked, because we won the championship - but they were reluctant and asking why we were doing that.
“I said, ‘listen, fellas, who’s the best team you’ve ever seen playing?’
“They looked at me, ‘Kerry’.
“‘Well, dya know, if you go through that Kerry team, nearly every one of them played at midfield, half-forward or half-back at some stage’. They’d guys playing full-back who’d won an All-Ireland as a midfielder. Centre-half-backs who were midfielders and half-backs who had been forwards…
“With their own clubs they were all either midfield, centre-forward or centre-back and I made the point that it was about us having the balls to do it. I knew then that we were either going to win this or ‘get outta town’. We’d a good win in the replay.
“I don’t know whether it was me rearing up at them or what... they’d too many things in their head before the first day. All they had to do was go out and f**king win the game. They were good enough and first of all, Gaels, I had to take their minds off them because Gaels were in their head and that was a problem. I needed me to be in their heads, not Dundalk (Gaels).
“Plus, the guys that weren’t getting their place were always bitching in the background and for the replayed final, I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen. We didn’t train that hard that week at all. It was all about talking to them and working with them and getting them to get the opposition out of their mind.
“I knew if they continued on that slant they could achieve, because they’d the talent to do it. And I figured that having won the county championship that they would have gone on (in Leinster), but as well as that, when I left, a few of them gave out about Mickey...
“I attacked them before the replay. ‘Fellas, you have the talent, but you’re not doing it and this is the way it’s going’. I put a forward back to half-back and he had a great game.”
Whelan, it’s well-known, has soccer pedigree as well and having asked Tommy Connolly to make-up his management ticket for the Irish team he was leading to the World University Games, a side which included many League of Ireland pros, there was a relationship struck which led to him taking a role with Dundalk under Turlough O’Connor and subsequently Dermot Keely.
He rates Connolly as “a lovely, lovely guy” and has a high opinion of O’Connor and Keely, particularly the latter, who he intends to visit at his pub in Spain when Covid-19 restrictions allow.
A story emanates from this particular line of conversation that must be given some context. Part of Whelan’s decision to take the Louth job 10 years earlier was in a bid to free himself from the running to potentially succeed Kevin Heffernan as Dublin boss at the time. He wanted his revered clubmate to remain at the helm and by removing his name from the situation, his wish was granted.
The predicament was so different in 1995, as Dundalk chased down Derry City and Shelbourne for the title coming down the home stretch.
“Dermot came to me after a training session, with about four weeks to go, and said, ‘we’ve a very good chance here, we’re going to train really hard’.
“I said, ‘no. Fine, if’s that’s what you want, but I suggest you don’t go that way’.
“‘Why?’ he asks.
“‘We’re after having a great pre-season, we’re fit and playing very well. All the other coaches are thinking like that’.
“‘Of course they are’.
“‘But it’s still the wrong thing to do. We’re almost at the end of a very hard-working season, with three or four games to play. We should work on speed and the ball. Keeping our level of fitness, of course, but we’ll be better on the ball’.
“He put his two hands to his head. ‘Jesus,’ he said, ‘I hate coaches!’
“The two of us laughed. ‘Okay,’ he says, pointing at me, ‘but if we don’t win this, I’m blaming you’.
“We went on and won it. I actually wasn’t there the day Dundalk won it though. The reason being that I had been given the Dublin job a few weeks before and didn’t tell anybody. I was up at a game in Dundalk the week previously where we’d got over the line in a game and the photographer (Ray McManus, Sportsfile) was sitting on the bench beside me.
“He took a photograph of me on the sideline and I asked him a favour, to not put the photograph in the ’paper.
“‘Why not, Mickey?’
“‘I just can’t tell you. Just don’t put the photograph in the ’paper.’
“‘Okay,’ he says, ‘but you got the job’, pointing at me.
“He knew I got the job and that it was the reason why.”
A LOT DONE, MORE TO DO
His tenure as Dublin boss was swift, ending in 1997, but Whelan, who turned 81 on the day of our chat, Saturday, enjoyed enormous success thereafter, leading St. Vincent’s to All-Ireland club glory and then standing as Gilroy’s right-hand man as the boys in blue captured Sam Maguire for the first time in 16 years nine seasons ago.
And yet he’s still going, formatting novel ways to keep ‘Vinnies’ senior camogs sharp during the lockdown, hosting digital seminars and talking sport to anyone and everyone who either asks or is willing to listen.
Few have been around the block as many times as Whelan, even less have enjoyed his level of success and nobody can match his credentials as a coach. Simply the best. Better than all the rest!