GAA Football

“Tell me not to put my hand in the fire, I'll do it anyway to see what you're talking about"

Val Andrews was the accidental Cavan manager who would take them to an Ulster final, win a vote to keep his job and then leave anyway, only to return a decade later. The Dublin native's life experiences put football into sharp perspective. He spoke openly to Cahair O'Kane…

Former Cavan manager Val Andrews. Picture by Brian Lawless / Sportsfile

THE story of how Val Andrews got the Cavan job in late 1998 has been told before, but it’s always worth telling again.

The abridged version: A two-time Sigerson winning manager with Tralee IT, he was “burning mad” to get into county football.

Lecturing and living in Kerry, Andrews and his friend Pat Flanagan, a two-time All-Ireland winning trainer with the Kingdom, allowed they’d call on a journalist friend who could put their name out into the ether.

The hope was that they’d go for interview, get a flavour of it and be in the mix if a job came up in Munster.

Fast forward a week, lying in the Kilmore Hotel on the Saturday morning. The interview had been the previous evening and with the other applicants all withdrawing, the job was theirs.

“Flanagan looks across at me and says: ‘What the f*** have we done?’”

Year one, no trees lifted. Years two and three, Flanagan wasn’t able to commit. He’d looked after the physical aspect and some of the players came to Andrews saying that they’d won Ulster in ’97 because Martin McHugh had them running.

“I did a Jihadi job. ‘You want running, I’ll f***ing give you running’.

“It was built up to 46 laps of Killygarry running track. It was madness. But it worked! It worked in that it was what they were used to.

“They were saying ‘this is what won us an Ulster final, we were running like f***’. Give the customer what he wants.”

They would reach Division One and four years after winning one under McHugh, Cavan were back in an Ulster final in 2001.

Jason O’Reilly threatened for a while to scorch Tyrone’s All-Ireland hopes, building a three-point half-time lead, but they would run out of gas. It would be Sean Teague on the podium with a sling on the right arm and the Anglo Celt in the left.

Eight weeks later, Val Andrews was gone. A county board meeting led to a discussion which led to a vote that went 40-26 in his favour.

Ego enlarged and enraged, he left anyway.

“Oh, f***, yeah [it was ego]. I would always reflect and that was an immature response. It was in keeping with my impetuous, rash behaviours.

“I can get very thick very quick. It’s a Meath genetic flaw we have.

“It’s also down to a personal thing, what you think of yourself and your impostor syndrome, so then you have this over-reaction of ‘f*** off and stick it up your arse’.

“It wasn’t a mature decision. There was ego and there was arrogance in it.

“It’s also why I went back.”

* * * * * * *

WHEN he presented the idea of installing the GAA’s first artificial pitch in Ballymun to the 25-or-so members who turned up, club treasurer John Roche sat in the front row.

“I says ‘it will cost about a million’. He nearly fell off the chair.”

This was now 2003. Andrews’ late brother Sean was the chairman at the time, just as Val had been in the late ‘80s when he, along with three others, went guarantor on a €30,000 debt.

They climbed out of that hole during his tenure, and left the club’s facilities greatly enhanced.

When the bulldozers came in and stripped the pitch, there was no going back. Work had started and they were still €700,000 short of the million.

“I’d drive me brother mad, I’d say to him: ‘God will provide’,” he laughs.

“The boys were worried about money and I said ‘boys, once the pitch is in, they’re not going to repossess it. They can’t dig it up and put it in their pocket. Be grand!’”

The money got found, the artificial pitch got laid and Ballymun Kickham’s went on to use it as the foundation for providing a generation of champions to club and county.

Andrews likens them to a large rural club, one that punches above its weight and remains in touch with the roots that took hold during the first meeting of blow-ins in The Slipper pub, where it all began in 1969.

He likes the Meathness of them. His parents were from there and mad GAA people. His grandfather captained the county’s footballers.

“And me Da was a Meath hurler. A Meath hurler, sure they didn’t throw the ball in until half-time!”

Val’s father died when he was in his early teens and he didn’t have the tools to cope. He’s not sure to this day that he’s properly dealt with it.

“If you said to me ‘what’s your teenage years Val?’, I don’t have memories. I blocked it away, locked it out and got on with it.

“I didn’t have the emotional tools to cope with it, didn’t know how to cope. That’s not a failing of anyone around you. As I say to everyone, whatever you put in the Pandora’s Box at the back of your head will eventually come back out.

“It’s like all deaths. I’d look on it differently now, but I’m 61 now. It took me a long time. Mainly because I didn’t look at these things.

“If you’re to be brutally frank, you find through other things that didn’t go well for me, that it’s a poor way of coping with life, locking things away, biting your lip.

“My frivolity and wildness was ‘sure I could be dead tomorrow, f*** it’. It was recklessness.

“Would you change it? No!” and off he goes, laughing again.

In 1985, Val was playing for the club’s juniors and Sean was managing. They would win the championship that year.

“I was going through me colourful phase,” he says in the thickest north Dublin brogue.

“I went on the beer before the quarter-final, stayed out all day. I was in a heap. Got up the following day to mark Sean Doherty’s brother. Staying upright was half me battle. I was absolutely useless.

“Nothing was said and we had an oul cup game on the Wednesday. I was grand, flying, scored about 1-4. Then me brother dropped me for the semi-final, not the cup game!

“And I wouldn’t talk to him, I stood away from him, ‘f*** off’. Thick. Immature and thick.

“But the best thing, you know families. Me mother was a hardy Meath woman. She got wind that her eldest son had dropped her youngest son.

“Sean went back for dinner and she told him to f*** off, he was getting no dinner.”

A fiercely innovative and bright coach, his own sideline days began with the underage teams in Ballymun, where he’d have cuts of three different sets of jerseys in the one bag.

In the early days the club lacked discipline and direction, but still had the enviable ability to turn out brilliant players.

They are now reigning county champions in Dublin, boasting James McCarthy, Dean Rock, Philly McMahon, the Smalls John and Paddy, and Evan Comerford.

Andrews’ own son Fiach stole the show in the county final, kicking four points from play at centre-forward against Ballyboden.

Val dropped Fiach from Dublin underage squads twice when he was manager.

“It wasn’t easy. But I said to him ‘what do you think?’ and he said ‘I would have been disappointed, Da, if you didn’t drop me’. Because he’d have said we weren’t living to honesty.”

Kaizen (continuous improvement), makoto (honesty) and Y?sh? (excellence) were the three words taken from Japanese operations management and emphasised during the 2010 season that Andrews took Dublin minors along with current boss Ger Lyons.

“We had t-shirts with the Japanese symbols on them. And it was what we’d be about, and the word ‘honesty’ was always there.

“I always try to be honest. I’m human, I’m flawed, but I try.”

It had taken Val Andrews a long time to be honest with himself. After his father’s death, he admits that he has spent so much of his life “lost”.

Failing his degree at UCD the first time hurt. It didn’t particularly change his ways, but he went back and gathered up several degrees after it.

Nine years in the Civil Service bored him beyond belief – “you maybe wrote two letters, on a busy day” – but he learnt from it.

There was sub teaching in the Sisters of Mercy convent school, hiding at the back bluffing the words of the Angelus to his students.

Since finding his feet in Tralee, lecturing has been the bulk of his working life.

Cavan, Louth, Dublin minors, the civil service, the convent, lecturing, Tralee IT, he’d learnt bits from it all.

But nothing in life has taught him more than Joseph.

* * * * * * *

JOSEPH was born on July 3, 1990.

Due to complications during the birth, he was starved of oxygen.

It left Joseph quadriplegic, unable to eat and having to be fed through his stomach.

He died aged 16 in 2006, having lived his entire life in hospital, where he needed 24-hour care.

“The greatest person ever in our family was Joseph,” says his father, succeeding in keeping the tears inside and forcing through a smile that widens in its own time.

“He taught me more about life than anybody. He could laugh and smile when he had very little left. He had hearing and maybe a bit of sight.

“He could laugh every day, and I was going around feeling sorry for myself.

“I wouldn’t have done the higher-end football only for Joseph. That’s the gas thing. He removed the fears and insecurities in some respects. And I was fuelled on anger and hurt maybe a little bit too.

“But in terms of trying things or being innovative or being myself, he took all the fear away.

“Afraid? What did I have to be afraid of?

“It was difficult to handle, yeah. All the milestones and that.

“In Irish they call children with disabilities ‘duine le Dia’ – a person with God. There’s lots to be learned from people like Joseph that had to live like that.

“Every day was a struggle. Every meal was a struggle to stay alive, that he could choke, and he would choke. All the operations.

“To see the endurance and the basic human spirit.

“I look back now and I smile when I think of him, because he was an inspiration. He is an inspiration.

“Whatever madness I had in me, I went by three then. I directed all my energies into football for a lot of years because of it.

“That’s why I came back up from Kerry, to build a house. It’s the way life turns. Just as we were getting ready, having the house set and ready to integrate him back into the family, ready to have lots of care in the house, unfortunately he passed away.”

Val’s attitude to life was altered by his son’s ability to smile through it all. The way he approached football and all that came with it were given a sharp sense of perspective.

“There were lots of decisions going on at that time. Like, ‘do you turn the ventilator on or off?’ was the first one.

“My heart goes to other people who are going through other types of trauma. Just keep at it. And smile.

“Those things are real losses. Losing at sport… That’s why I wasn’t afraid to make decisions. When you make really hard decisions, crucial decisions, what can you do in football, make a mistake and play the wrong corner-forward? F*** it, it’s not that bad!

“Those things which have been with me give you a different perspective on football. I’d often say in dressing rooms that we’ve made a decision to be here and time is really precious, so while we’re here, be here and give this a lash.”

* * * * * * *

THEY say in life you should never go back.

“I always got great advice, but you tell me not to put my hand in the fire, I’ll do it anyway to see what you’re talking about,” Val roars in laughter, having moved downstairs after first the house phone ran out of charge and then the laptop started to go too.

Zoom gives a better sense of the man, the light black lip-warming moustache keeping him fresh beneath the bundles of grey hair that house a pair of glasses the entire time.

The two-and-a-half hour conversation is a rollercoaster. There are huge highs, brilliant stories, long, deep, hearty laughs. And there are lows, softer moments, the sadness in his face for Joseph.

That has been the trajectory of his life, but you couldn’t begin to imagine that it would be distillable in one afternoon’s work.

Anyway, he put his hand in the fire in 2011 and went back to Cavan.

He’d taken Dublin minors, including Jack McCaffrey and Ciaran Kilkenny, to an All-Ireland final the previous year, ending a five-year journey through the development squads that gave him Andrews his most satisfaction in coaching.

The first time he left Cavan he’d gone for the Dublin senior job, but they gave it to Tommy Lyons instead. A third party got in touch to ask if he’d consider joining Lyons, as Paul ‘Pillar’ Caffrey did.

“I think I said: ‘I don’t train to come second’. As a career move, I probably should have went in.

“But I was very poor at playing games or politics. That’s me being stupid too because life’s not about being fair. Life’s about how to deal with unfairness most of the time.”

Despite the rashness of leaving Cavan the first time, his regret wasn’t for himself. It was that Terry Hyland, who’d been in his backroom, had to leave too by proxy.

Hyland wanted to go back in a decade later and Andrews allowed he’d go with him.

Ever the innovator, the Dubliner brought the mod-cons of 20th century football. Video analysis, stats, GPS, all the things that come as standard now.

But it didn’t work. His own heart wasn’t in it. The end of 2011 came they made the huge calls of dropping star forward Seanie Johnston (who subsequently went to Kildare before coming home), two-time Allstar goalkeeper James Reilly, Michéal Lyng, Cian Mackey, Dermot Sheridan and Gareth ‘Nesty’ Smith.

At the end of the 2012 league campaign, there was another meeting, this time among the players.

“I wasn’t a fit, I didn’t connect with the team. It wasn’t their fault. I just felt I was talking to myself.

“That was the space I was occupying, things were going on in my own life. I was dragging myself to training sessions and that’s poor. I knew.

“I was sorry the way it worked out in terms of Seanie. I would have a small regret there. It’s only football and the way it went, him getting abuse, I’d always regret that.

“I didn’t do any abusing, I think Seanie’s a good fella, but it’s just football. It was the right decision.

“It was the best thing that I should go. It would open the door for those players to come back and maybe they’d come back differently, and they did.

“In the back of my head always was if I go, Terry gets the job and that closes the circle, that’s me debt in Cavan over.”

And then off he goes into how former two-time All-Ireland winning Meath corner-back Robbie O’Malley, a product of the time when they’d have taken the life of an inside forward, is a friend and an avid fan of Seamus Heaney’s poetry.

“Anybody reading poetry would be regarded as having a dickie bow, an English accent and going to Trinity! I said I can’t go to Ballymun and tell them I’m reading poetry, they think I’m mad enough as it is!”

But try it he did, and he’s since moved on to the era of Patrick Kavanagh and Flan O’Brien, the craic, the colour and the creativity of their lives and their work.

Fitting that Val Andrews should like that.

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