The natural curiosity behind O'Rourke's success

Glen manager Malachy O'Rourke during the Derry Senior Football Championship match against Banagher played at Glen Maghera on Sunday 21st August 2022. Picture Margaret McLaughlin
Glen manager Malachy O'Rourke during the Derry Senior Football Championship match against Banagher played at Glen Maghera on Sunday 21st August 2022. Picture Margaret McLaughlin

A DECADE-and-a-bit ago, Malachy O’Rourke was holidaying down the country.

At the time, Ballyhale Shamrocks were All-Ireland hurling champions, as they could be again by the time his Glen team tear out through them in Croke Park tomorrow.

He decided to veer off the beaten track on the way home and call in to Ballyhale, see what it was about.

This tiny village wrapped in a blanket of hurling superstardom, O’Rourke half-expected that it would be a constant image of celebration.

He crept through the place, waiting and wondering. Where’s the pitch; where’s the big sign marking them as the high kings of Ireland, he thought.

What he found pleased him far more greatly.

When he arrived, the club gates were wide to the world. He walked in down the path, across the pitch to the humble single-story, two-room clubhouse. Door is open too. In he goes.

Up on the wall, an attendance sheet. All the legends, the ticks and x’s beside their name. He steps back out on to the field and it’s just grass. No big fencing, no stand, nothing. Two concrete dugouts, built into the sloping grass bank at the far side of the field, a splash of green paint along the fringe.

A spectacular club in an unspectacular home. He mills around and out pops a local.

“I think he was the vice-chairman. I got chatting to him, said I thought you might have a big sign up. He said ‘we don’t go into that sort of stuff around here’.

“He says, ‘on that hill, there’s five fellas live up there within a mile radius of each other that all captained Kilkenny to All-Ireland titles. They come down here the same as everyone else.’ It struck me.”

O’Rourke told that story to a captivated audience at a coaching day in Louth two years ago. He told it because it underpinned the essence of everything he strives to be and that he wants his teams to be too – humble. Modest. Ordinary, even if you’re anything but.

It’s maybe wrong to say that he just wants that of his teams. It’s the thing he demands above all else.

Why does a man like O’Rourke detour through Ballyhale on his way home from holiday? Curiosity and education.

American psychologist Carl Rogers said that curiosity is the door to empathy. He might as well have been describing Malachy O’Rourke’s management style.

Not just a curiosity and empathy towards his players, but towards people and life in general.

When he studied PE teaching at St Mary’s in the late 1980s – a profession from which he retired last June – he was a classmate of Bronagh Mulholland, whose sons Cathal and Eunan will play for Malachy tomorrow.

“We were doing PE so we wouldn’t have been looked upon as the most studious group in the building, but you’d have known Malachy was well clued in to everything,” says Bronagh.

“But over-riding everything was his kindness and gentle nature. He always had people’s backs and went on about his business in a quiet manner.

“Always had the best of craic with him but that gentle tone he has is a very genuine thing, and that’s maybe how he gets the response he gets from people.”

He talked to the hall for 50 minutes that day in Louth. In that time, he was able to recall stories and passages from books across a spectrum way beyond sport.

He drew on Vitus Gerulaitas, the tennis player who famously said that nobody beats him 17 times after finally ending a 16-game losing streak against Jimmy Connors.

There were tales of Warren Gatland, darts player Peter Wright, the All Blacks’ transformative night out after a Tri Nations game in 2004, and a couple out of the Eddie Jones playbook.

He recounted from Jones’ book the time he set a meeting for 8am and set up hidden cameras in the room. The coaching team sat in a different room watching them. After 15 minutes it dawned on the players that nobody was coming.

Eventually the players held their own meeting, led by Dylan Hartley and Owen Farrell. That’s what Jones had wanted to see.

When Monaghan were beaten by Fermanagh in the Ulster semi-final in 2018, it wasn’t as extreme as that but it was effectively the same method. Him, Ryan Porter, Leo McBride popped their heads in just to say ‘it’s up to you boys what we do from here’ and left.

Monaghan would recover to reach the All-Ireland semi-final where they were beaten by a point by Tyrone.

Conor Convery smiles warmly and nods when you ask if he’s heard about the honey badger, an animal known to savagely and fearlessly attack bigger opponents – lions, hyenas, buffalos, the lot - when escape seems impossible.

You can see why that story had its impact with Monaghan, who have been the wee man sitting at the top table for the last decade.

O’Rourke wouldn’t claim originality on all of his ideas but you have to delve in and find the inspiration first.

“I do enjoy reading. Trying to get a different wee edge to things, just seeing what things might work, how you might use it,” he said last week.

“It’s just trying to get people to think differently. It’s trying to see different ways you can motivate people, rather than listening to me going on all the time, maybe a wee story can get the point across better.

“I would read a lot about sport alright, but I would look at other stuff, stuff on leadership and different things at different times. I enjoy reading anyway but learning things off it. And knowing that you are going to be involved in teams.

“I always like to think I am a better manager now than I was five years ago, and you would like to think that if your health is good enough, in five years’ time you should be better again.

“That should be the way you are going unless you lose motivation or become complacent, that’s what you would be hoping anyway.”

This will be his first All-Ireland final as a manager. He played in a winning Sigerson Cup team with St Mary’s in 1989. They beat UCC in the final and played them again the following year, when O’Rourke marked Maurice Fitzgerald.

He played twelve years for Fermanagh and the only team they beat in the championship was Antrim, twice.

Despite a prolific 30 years as a manager in which he’s won everywhere he’s been, this is his biggest day just as it is Glen’s.

Ryan Porter will be banned from standing alongside him after his red card early in the semi-final.

Malachy would be the first in the queue to give him his credit. The very first night he met the Glen players, he told them they’d be the fittest team in Derry come championship. They were.

Porter has spoken in the past about the ‘slow roast’ approach to fitness and how other trainers might go mad trying to catch a team up quickly by upping the ante too sharply in training.

“Turn up the heat, ruin the roast,” he’d say.

Glen were fitter and faster in 2022 than they were in 2021, and they’ll be better again in 2023 if the current management stay in place.

O’Rourke is humble enough to have been guided on a start date by Porter. They took almost three months off after last year. Porter wanted six weeks before the start of the league, and so that’s what they had.

The addition of Johnny Bradley to his backroom was a masterstroke. Bradley is the man behind the statistics that complement RTÉ’s football coverage, but as a former county player himself, he’s able to see past the data when he has to.

Mickey McCullagh, a softly-spoken, empathetic teacher, was another obvious fit.

Their job for the last two weeks has been to try and deflect the pressure away from the players.

If they look to the sideline on Sunday, they’ll find a calm presence.

You look at the Rory Gallaghers of the world, kicking every ball, and you can only draw contrast.

There is no right or wrong way to manage a team. There’s only your way.

“People show their emotions, show their energy in different ways. Some people do it, some don’t,” says O’Rourke.

“As well as that, you have to be true to yourself, you have to be true to your own personality. That [manic energy]’s not the way I operate and I think people would find that out very early if I decided to try to do that.

“I just do it my own way.”