"Winning. Just winning." - Paddy Tally wants current Down crop to forge their own tradition
IT was a Sigerson Cup game back when he was playing for St Mary’s that first opened Paddy Tally’s eyes to what coaching really was.
They were playing Queen’s and Kieran McGeeney was centre-back. He wanted to drop off and protect the space in which Paddy McGuinness was trying to deal with a young Peter Canavan.
Jim McKeever knew this would happen. In his usual understated manner, he told Tally to line up on McGeeney and then drift off him.
‘Come deep, go wide, wherever. Find the space. Be the link. They’ll have to come and mark you eventually, and that’ll give Canavan the space we want him to have.’
He kicked two points and eventually, it happened. McGeeney had to go and mark him. The space opened up for Canavan. St Mary’s won the game.
That was coaching in a nutshell. Identify the problem, find the solution, implement it.
A fringe member of the Tyrone squad that reached the All-Ireland final in 1995, he was a long-serving forward for Galbally Pearses, a thriving young senior club four mile from Dungannon.
He built beside his parents’ home place and lives there with his wife Lynn and their two children. The spire of the chapel pokes into their eyeline at the front door, with the community centre and GAA club a mile in the road, decked head-to-toe in red and white.
There isn’t a village to speak of, but a huge sprawling townland that stretches nearly from Pomeroy to Carrickmore, and provides over 200 children to the primary school just yards away.
The two-tone blue of Galbally is temporarily replaced by the county coat of arms. In his days, Tally lived for big wins with Galbally. An intermediate league in 1991, reaching a second ever senior championship final six years later. Big wins with Tyrone, too.
The sideline is a cage in one way, and a doorway in another.
“Nothing ever replaces playing. It’s the greatest thing you’ll ever do. The enjoyment of it.
“What you play football for is that buzz after a big win, that feeling of satisfaction and even relief when you’ve won a big game of football. If you’ve played well on top of that, all the better.
“That feeling of winning is the greatest thing you’ll ever have. It’ll carry you for days, and then you go back to training.
“The closest thing you can do is coaching. It’s the satisfaction of seeing players enjoying winning games. You understand how they feel, and that’s a great buzz for them.
“You know they’ve been rewarded for the work they’ve put in. That’s where I get my kick out of, is seeing players experiencing those wins.
“You don’t get the same buzz when you’re coaching or managing. You’re there to do a job, to ensure that the players are successful.
“But it is very satisfying if you’ve a team that does well, and they get a kick out of it.”
IT is as a coach that Tally has gone on to make his name nationally.
Naturally, he dipped his toe with the club. He had been bitten by the bug at St Mary’s and travailed south of Lough Neagh midweek to help take Galbally’s under-14s when he was just 20 himself.
Within a decade, he was training Tyrone to their first All-Ireland title. And now here he is, 15 years on, only just sure that he’s ready to take his first step into inter-county management.
It had always been said that he’d like to be a number one someday. He served under Mickey Harte, under James McCartan, under Brian McIver, under Kevin Walsh.
The Sigerson Cup gave him his own freedom of expression, taking St Mary’s teams and seeing how far he could push the boundaries. They were seldom strong on paper, but they were far more seldom easily beaten.
Guiding them to a second-ever triumph just shy of a year-and-a-half ago sent his stock rocketing. It wasn’t long until he was called into the Galway setup by Kevin Walsh.
The rewards were swift, but the demands were punishing. On a Sunday morning, he could take the Cavan road. There’d be nobody on it, and it shaved half an hour. The rest of the time, even from Galbally, he’d drive to Dublin and then across the country. Three-and-a-half, four hours each way. Too much.
“I met Kevin down there on Tuesday and by that stage I’d made up my mind that I was unable to continue with the Galway work, it was just too demanding time-wise and travel wise.
“It just wasn’t possible to go another year, as much as I enjoyed the year and got an awful lot out of it. You have to get a balance with your work and family life.
“By that stage I’d been approached by Down, and I was prepared to sit down and talk about it.”
The talking didn’t take long. Most of the other candidates stepped aside when they recognised Tally’s interest. Not only would they struggle to outrank him, but most felt that he’s just the right man for this.
He will bring across Gavin McGilly and Stephen Beattie, who are former Ulster Council coaches and had a major impact in that St Mary’s success, as well as Down attacking legend Benny Coulter. All three have had a taste of it around the club scene.
Before McGilly and Beattie came on board, Tally was used to doing everything. Not forgetting that he had the actual day job as a senior lecturer, the football offered him the experience of every part of management, because there weren’t many around to delegate to.
In itself, it’s been a good thing, but he’s aware that his role as manager is very different from what is now a former life as coach.
DOWN are coming from a low base, having been relegated to Division Three last year and not having won an Ulster title in 24 years.
They had that Ulster final appearance last July. If anything highlighted both the opportunity and the challenge Tally has in front of him, it was that run.
They got their gander up against Monaghan and played them off the park for 45 minutes. Everything they touched turned to gold. They tackled and worked and gritted their teeth like no team in red and black had done, really, since 2010.
In a way, it was typical Down. When they found their rhythm, they became unplayable. Self-confidence oozed from every pore and Monaghan were drowned in it. Drowned in the noise as Donal O’Hare dropped over the insurance score.
‘The Down Way’.
Ah. A phrase of old-time that sticks. Where it mostly sticks is in the throats of those who feel the county needs to rid itself of a legacy that’s past its sell-by.
“The thing about ‘the Down way’, I don’t even know what that really means to be honest,” says Tally.
“When you’re coaching a team, you have to cut your cloth to suit according to the type of players you have. You devise a system that best suits that team to try and be successful.
“If you try and pigeon-hole a style of football, you’re maybe heading in the wrong direction straight away.
“I think the first thing we have to do is assemble the best squad that have the ability to play at this level, and the desire to commit to the demands of this level of Gaelic football.
“When that’s in place, you work around devising the system that gets best value out of that squad of players. When the time comes, we’ll do our best to put a system in place that suits the calibre and type of player we have.”
When the Ulster final came, Tyrone were too good. Too fit. Too strong. Too well-organised. Every Down attack felt like a stone being thrown at a bomb shelter.
Tally wants to use that day. That experience. Not just of getting there, but being there. Unlike 2010, from which only Kevin McKernan and Conor Maginn remain (provided they return), that 2017 season is something that most of the squad he’ll inherit has in the bank.
They were good enough to do it out of nowhere. He wants them to have a base that will allow them to do it again, and again, and again.
“There’s huge potential in Down. There are footballers there.
“I’ve always had an affinity with the county since the time I spent there. I spent three really good years there in ’09, ’10 and ’11.
“I really enjoyed the Down people, they’re passionate football people, they love the game. They’re no different to we are in Tyrone.
“As a county, they make time for the county team and support it, and the clubs are the same. I always had a close connection with Down since that time.
“I feel that I’d like to be part of something to bring Down back up and be competitive in Ulster and the league. I feel there’s huge potential in Down to improve.”
IT will have been eight years on Wednesday since Kalum King’s fingertips took Down into an All-Ireland final that nobody expected them to be near.
James McCartan had enlisted the energy of Tally and Brian McIver’s sage, and as a trio they’d taken a team that had underachieved to the brink of fulfilling its potential.
It’s the kind of task Tally particularly enjoys. When Tyrone did it in 2003, theirs was a ripening side, but one which probably wouldn’t have won Sam had they done things the conventional way.
They invented their own rules and by the time anyone else had figured them out, the Burlington was a sea of jubilant white and red.
Those rules no longer apply. Every All-Ireland winner writes their own. The Cork side that beat Down in 2010 were a new kind of physical. The next year Dublin were all pace and panache. Then McGuinness came along.
It’s been fifteen years of one big bang after the other, and football doesn’t quite know where it is right now. So Down are hardly unique in not knowing where they are either.
“There’s a really strong obligation on me to improve every single player, whatever part of their game or technical ability of physical ability it is. If you do that, you improve your teams.
“The game’s moved on an awful lot. Not in the sense of the dedication – the boys in 2003 were as dedicated as the boys in 2018 – but the concept of the way the game’s played now is much more tactical.
“Back in 2003, Tyrone were quite innovative in how we played the game at that time. The other teams weren’t up to that level and you could get a step ahead.
“The last number of years, some of the coaching going on, the tactical game’s undergone a big change.
“The biggest thing is the way the game’s evolved tactically. There’s a lot more analysis, a lot more scrutiny, a lot more teams setting up systems that are hard to break down. And they’re harder to stop in terms of attacking.
“There’s a real challenge to be tactically good. The biggest challenge coming down the line is whether this team can step up to the tactical challenge coming down the line.”
Down lost that All-Ireland final by a point, their first ever defeat in a decider after five wins. The second year was injury-riddled and they never got it back. The management team moved on and Down faded back into the pack.
Relegation to the third tier, a second in three years, dimmed their hopes of building on the good summer of ’17.
The rot has to be cut out. That starts by building a culture.
“I’m a very strong believer in having a culture around a team. If you can develop and embed the right thought processes in the culture, it’s amazing what you can do.
“There’s no guarantee what you’ll do. It might only happen once, or you’ll be very close, but one thing is that once you’re competitive, you’ll always be competitive if you do things right.”
A culture of sheer bloody hard work brought St Mary’s through from beaten All-Ireland Freshers finalists to topping the tree three years later.
That’s the starting point for Down too. Tally will patrol the club championships, and then he’ll set about building a base. Promotion out of Division Three.
Nothing replaces playing, but the goalposts don’t move. Paddy Tally’s angle from corner-forward for Galbally and Tyrone is different from the one he’s had pitchside for the last 15 years, of which he’s spent 10 coaching inter-county teams, yet it’s all geared towards one simple thing.
“Winning. Just winning. This is only about winning, nothing else.”