GAA Football

Paddy Tally still planning to punch the hours in with Sigerson Cup winners St Mary's

Paddy Tally savours the moment when St Mary's were crowned Sigerson champions back in February of this year

YOU sit down with Paddy Tally and the first thing you tell him now is the time to ride off into the sunset with a Sigerson winner's medal in his back pocket.

"I couldn’t find the white horse to ride into the sunset," he laughs. "That horse has bolted."

With the greatest respect to the Dr McKenna Cup draw launch, slickly run as ever by the Ulster Council in Belfast’s Balmoral Hotel, the scene couldn’t be any more removed from that glorious February afternoon when St Mary’s University scaled the highest peak to claim the Sigerson Cup.

It’s a cool, dank night at the fag end of November and St Mary’s have just been drawn with Tyrone, Cavan and Antrim in the McKenna Cup group stages.

In fairness, Tally didn’t need a wet night in west Belfast to find perspective.

A Ryan Cup relegation play-off a week earlier – which they won - brought everyone at St Mary’s back down to earth with a heavy thud.

As 2018 approaches, Tyrone’s first All-Ireland winning trainer is back for his umpteenth campaign with the ‘Ranch.

His association with St Mary’s stretches back to 1999 – the year when Bill Clinton was impeached, The Sopranos made its screen debut, Slim Shady was the latest rage and Jim McGuinness raised Sigerson above his head for Tralee IT.

Since they out-gunned John Divilly’s star-studded UCD side in that epic extra-time decider at Connacht’s Centre of Excellence, Tally’s back has been patted off him.

“I think that comes with success,” he says.

“If you win something you’re in demand. If you don’t, nobody wants to see you because everyone’s looking for the winners. That’s the nature of sport. You’re only as current as your last result or your last success.

“It’s not something I look too much into. It was great at the time and we got praise and adulation for winning Sigerson.

“We’ve been hammering away at it for years and got nothing out of it but it’s important to keep your feet on the ground because this year is completely new, the challenges we’re going to face in 2018 are going to be much, much greater than we’ve faced in years.

“We might have got a bye-ball in the past because we’re a small college but that’s gone now, so we have to re-frame what success looks like for us and be ready for what’s coming down the line.”

He adds: “We’ve had a great time; the celebrations were mighty but the good thing about it was, it was last February. The players went back to their clubs and played for their counties and had their seasons.

“We got a wake-up call in the Ryan Cup – so we’re not seen as a small fish any longer in this game.”

The transient nature of university teams means that St Mary’s are without a dozen players from last year.

Matt Fitzpatrick, Conall McCann, Kevin McKernan, Kieran McGeary, Ruairi Mooney and Brian Og McGilligan are among those who have left the 'Ranch.

Tally is banking on “six or seven” of last year’s freshers to put their hand up in 2018.

“What’s crucial to us is the development of players because we don’t have big numbers, we don’t have a scholarship system, we don’t have those things; so we’ve got to make the most of what we have.”

In his quiet moments does he cast his mind back to that historic day and that seismic achievement?

“To be honest, down through the years we probably had stronger teams, stronger individuals. There are a few that got away that you look back on.

“With last year’s team, it just happened naturally. We’d some massive performances early in the season. We played DCU on their home patch and we beat them after extra-time. I think that was the moment our players thought: ‘Hold on, we can go on and win this.’

“But you’re so consumed with analysis, performance and getting things right for the next game… When we won it there was a wee bit of disbelief but a massive sense of relief that you’ve actually got across the line.”

Tally, who has worked at inter-county level with Tyrone, Derry and Down doesn’t put a time-frame on staying with St Mary’s.

As long as he’s fit to do it he will.

Like most coaches in Tally’s shoes working full-time in sport would be the “utopia”.

“The GAA is an amateur sport but the level of work is close to professional levels. We don’t have too many opportunities for professional sport here.

“My academic work allows me to dip into that in terms of sports science and the psychology. In an ideal world you’d love to be doing this full-time – in a sports environment.”

In 2004, Tally gained a secondment from work to shadow former Ulster rugby coach Mark McCall for several weeks.

On his first day, after being shown around the team’s facilities, Tally asked McCall why they didn’t have floodlights.

“We train during the day,” McCall replied.

Tally wore a rueful grin.

“So, at half-one, two o’clock those boys are finished for the day while GAA players finish work at five or six o’clock, jump into the car and are out on a field for half-seven. It’s a different environment.

“But I still feel the work that we’re doing at the highest level – at inter-county, university or club level – we don’t realise how close we are to professional standards.

“If you look at the county champions in Ulster the level of preparation at club level wouldn’t be far off county level. And if you’re not far off county level, you’re not far off professional level.”

Tally admires and is possibly slightly envious of Jim McGuinness who managed the cross-over from Gaelic football to soccer and has carved out a career at elite level in the Chinese Super League with Beijing Sinobo Guoan.

“What Jim has done is fantastic and shows you what can be done, and fair play to him. He moved across to Celtic and spent a few years there and now he’s working in the Chinese Premier League. That’s a fantastic story.

“And you look at how many GAA players plying their trade in Australia.

“Professional sport would be the utopia. You’d love to see what’s out there. I did bits and pieces with rugby and you get an insight into professional sport.”

For the time being, though, it’s the Dr McKenna Cup for Paddy Tally and St Mary's.

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