All-Ireland winning coach John McCloskey glad to be back on home soil
JOHN McCloskey had fallen asleep at the wheel. Thankfully, the car was in his own driveway at the time.
It was late. It was always after midnight by the time he’d reach home. This was the physical manifestation of how a coach burns out.
From the Sigerson-winning days with Queen’s, a year in Bellaghy, hooking up with big Joe in Crossmaglen, a brief stopover at his native Antrim, the Down footballers, those crazy, exhilarating days with Armagh and now Derry...
It was the summer of 2008. Little did he know he’d be back sooner than expected with grass under his feet dipping his toe in professional waters with London rugby club, Wasps.
McCloskey had been on the go for the best part of a decade. Full pelt. No half measures.
“What I learned was you have to work at your craft no matter what sport you are in,” he says.
“In that period of your life where you were a county player, you want to be able to say I put my all into it. It’s not enough to say: ‘Well, I went to all the training sessions, I was good at the diets and I got to wear the kit.’
“If that’s what it is for you, then it’s a fundamental waste of your time in life.”
Even with a career break from teaching at St Bride's Primary School thrown into the mix, he needed some time out to re-charge.
The constant running, the endless preparation, video analysis, sourcing venues, the long drives, thinking outside the box, trying La Manga for size, sitting through umpteen management meetings, the coaching drills and keeping it fresh, the fine detail was absolutely everything, the one-to-ones, the cajoling and motivating, winning the hearts and minds of players, always having the manager’s back, gaining inches, the match-day adrenaline, and winning, not forgetting the laughter and the life-long friendships that emerged from part of his life that travelled at blurring speed.
A few weeks earlier, Derry had been knocked out of the Ulster Championship by Fermanagh at Healy Park – the kind of result that sent shockwaves through the country.
Ahead of their subsequent All-Ireland Qualifier with Monaghan at Clones, Paddy Crozier decided to flood his Oak Leaf squad with young players and they ended up losing by a point.
“The week of that match I came home one night and I actually remember wakening up with my head on the steering wheel of the car in the driveway,” McCloskey ruefully recalls.
“I remember thinking: how did I get here? Why am I sleeping in my car? I was physically exhausted, I needed a break. That was me. I had a great run for eight or nine years with different teams...”
Coaching skills at elite level was pure addiction for McCloskey. And for large parts of it, he was teaching full-time.
“I had to invest myself in my teaching job too. We’d play an away match and I’d be sitting at the back of the bus marking books because I had to get it done and to make sure I was on top of my own job and giving the best to the kids that were there…
“Certainly, from a personal life side of things, it did impact because you don’t meet anybody in the middle of a training field or in the classroom. Socially, all that was put on the back burner.
“With Armagh, some of the players were lucky because they’d already met their partners and they allowed them to do what they were doing, and Joe facilitated that. He’d organise baby-sitters and made sure none of the players were out of pocket.”
McCloskey was an integral part of the most successful period in Armagh’s history. One Ulster title success seemed to merge into another.
But he always found the post-match celebrations slightly awkward affairs. He remembers standing in the Clones car-park after another Ulster Championship final win and watching all the Armagh players hugging their wives, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, sons or daughters.
McCloskey couldn’t get away quick enough.
“I didn’t have any relatives down there. I was always last out of the changing room and it was the part I found most difficult because you couldn’t share it with anyone.
“Paul [McGrane] came over to me and said: ‘John, in another year or two, this is all going to be over. What are you going to do, because we all go back to our families and we all move on with our lives?’ I never forgot that.”
Another time he was walking out of Queen’s PEC from one of his fitness classes and a guy in front of him was greeted by his wife and two daughters at the exit. The warm embraces stayed with him as the couple and two kids went cycling around the park.
IT’S the best part of 15 years since we last met, probably towards the end of Armagh’s halcyon days.
It might have been outside the Armagh changing room. Maybe at pitch-side. Probably a quick handshake and an amiable few words exchanged. Forever at the cutting edge of his craft, it’s difficult to overstate the role the west Belfast native played in Armagh’s All-Ireland win and four Ulster title successes.
“John would have pushed the whole thing on in Armagh,” says former Armagh midfielder Paul McGrane.
“He would come out to do individual sessions with fellas, he was in good nick himself. He brought a whole lot to the table. All the training was teed up for us and we just did it.”
It’s a bright, cool Friday afternoon on the Falls Road. John McCloskey looks as lean and as fresh as he was back in the early ‘Noughties’.
He could be still standing beside the Armagh players at pitch-side, arm and arm as Amhrán na bhFiann plays – all of them in their perpetual youth and days that would last forever.
We find a small canteen downstairs of St Mary’s University.
He’s been persuaded to jump back on the inter-county carousel – with his native county Antrim.
He’d coaching links with the McEntee brothers of Meath, Gerry and Andy. One phone call led to another.
And here he is again, putting his shoulder to another wheel, trying to raise standards on home soil.
Life keeps moving and changing.
John is married to Lisa and they have two girls – Ava (7) and Beth (5). He’s now teaching part-time with more space in his life. Until, of course, he said ‘yes’ to Andy McEntee!
Full pelt again. If it's half measures you're after, it's a 'fundamental waste of your time'. Words that will be ringing in the ears of every Antrim player for the remainder of the season.
He turned 60 during the COVID pandemic – 60 going on 30.
“My wife did a great thing when I reached that milestone. It was one of those periods where we were starting to come out of lockdown and there was still social distancing. It was a Sunday morning.
“She said about taking the kids for a walk in the park. We drove up to Malone House, it was a lovely day, late April. I noticed a car that I thought belonged to my friend Trevor. ‘Imagine that’. I hadn’t seen him in a long time.
“So we got out of the car and other cars started opening their doors and I realised all these people, friends of mine, had turned up. When Lisa opened the boot, she’d champagne and a picnic organised. Everyone was standing, socially distancing in the open air and all the kids were playing together. It was a really beautiful gesture. I’d no idea.”
He doesn’t feel his age. For him, it’s all about attitude. His mum’s side of the family all tended to live well into their 80s and 90s.
His uncle Eddie was still swimming in the Falls Baths up until he was 91 – “His mental arithmetic was phenomenal” – and he recently received a WhatsApp from his aunt Bernie, living out in Spain, diving into a swimming pool. She’s 93.
Fatherhood came later to him but it is all he imagined it to be, and more.
“You just feel like it’s your role to make their lives as enjoyable as possible, being the funny dad, in order to give them fun.
“To have the opportunity to do that in later life is just wonderful. Now that I’ve gone part-time in my job, it allows me to bring them to school and pick them up and seeing their smiling faces and running to give you a hug is completely unequivocal love. You enjoy it for what it is and, please God, I get to enjoy it for a long time to come.”
He'd one last hurrah with Joe Kernan at the 2017 International Rules tour in Australia.
“My wife sent me a little video of Ava shouting: ‘Come on Ireland’, with the Irish jersey on and you’re sitting in Australia thousands of miles watching this. So that felt a natural conclusion to everything.”
CROSSMAGLEN’S Colm Hanratty, now one of the world’s leading cardiologists, got wind of McCloskey’s work and invited him to meet Armagh’s joint managers at the time Brian McAlinden and Brian Canavan.
Initially coaching athletics – mostly in sprint and relay up to international standard - he agreed to meet the two Brians and helped Armagh during the 1997/98 season.
The Crossmaglen contingent in the squad were sufficiently impressed - so McCloskey appeared on Joe Kernan's radar from some distance out.
The Armagh gig came to a “natural conclusion”; the two Brians went their way and McCloskey went his, with all signposts guiding him to St Oliver Plunkett Park, albeit with a few detours along the way, including Queen’s where the legendary Dessie Ryan was weaving his magic at Sigerson level.
“I got on really well with Dessie. He was innovative. He inspired me. We’d be talking to each other at one o’clock in the morning about the game.”
Away from the intensive inter-county glare, Ryan and McCloskey were proving a formidable partnership. Word got around quite fast about McCloskey's burgeoning reputation and he was increasingly pushing open doors.
James McCartan asked him to meet with Down manager Pete McGrath. In 1999, he was on the touchline at Clones for the Ulster final.
About four rows back in the crowd, Joe Kernan catches his eye and gestures that he’ll phone him.
As it turned out, Armagh, inspired by Oisin McConville and Diarmaid Marsden in Clones that day, ran over the top of Down to win their first Anglo-Celt in 17 years.
“I went to ’Cross the following Tuesday night, did a few fitness tests. Joe says to me: ‘That’s you, John. Two nights a week. We’re going to win the All-Ireland again next year.’ So, there was no opportunity to say no, plus they were All-Ireland champions and I was thinking: what can I bring here?
“The following year, Queen’s won the Sigerson . That was some outfit. God rest him, Cormac McAnallen was in the team, Joe Quinn of Antrim did a great job for us, Tom Brewster as well. I remember Philip Jordan turned up one day and Dessie said: ‘I’m going to give this guy a bit of a run. I think he could be half decent.’”
Crossmaglen went on to claim their third All-Ireland crown in 2000, edging out Na Fianna in the St Patrick’s Day final, and once Kernan and Paul Grimley were handed the keys to Armagh, John McCloskey was always on their managerial ticket that would deliver the Sam Maguire in their first season.
John McCloskey’s is a coaching life lived.
From those late-night calls to Dessie Ryan, working with Kernan and Grimley, and winning a glut of national titles along the way, to getting the call from Wasps rugby coach Shaun Edwards and ending up in Poland on his first away trip coaching some British Lions and World Cup winners on the art of kicking to now being back involved with his native Antrim.
But those days with Armagh were something extraordinary.
“As life moves on, you realise it was a part of your life that was a great honour to have. When you were in the middle of it you don’t think it’s ever going to end.
“Those battles with Tyrone and Kerry, the adrenaline pumping and the camaraderie. We knew we were in a talented group, not just on the field but off it. It was phenomenal.
“In many ways, we were the Hagler, Duran, Leonard, Hearns of that era… We gave a lot of people a lot of fun, great days out, and to be part of that was a privilege – we brought so much joy to people.
“It was the players that created the magic, it’s the players that put bums on seats. When you got on that bus, you were in a bubble. It was such an enjoyable experience. People say Armagh should have won more than one All-Ireland, but I’m happy we climbed the mountain once. Regrets-wise, I have none.”
Later, when Armagh’s golden era was drawing to a close, McCloskey teamed up with Paddy Crozier at Derry.
He was mesmerised by the talent within that Derry squad of the mid-Noughties.
He remembers the players engaging in a free-kick competition after training one night where the ball would be placed further and further from the goalposts. Once a player missed, he dropped out.
There was still a half dozen players kicking the ball over the bar from 45 metres with ridiculous ease. McCloskey just shook his head.
Darren O’Neill, a close friend of McCloskey’s and currently assisting the Antrim footballers, was also part of Crozier’s backroom team in '08 - a squad of players forever haunted by the freakish happenings of Healy Park and Fermanagh's makeshift goal hanger, Barry Owens.
Occasionally, O’Neill would still turn to McCloskey and say: ‘What about Derry?’
McCloskey's back catalogue of coaching the skills of the game with various teams is unparalleled in the modern game.
But as the game evolves, some things never change.
At last month's Dr McKenna Cup game between Armagh and Antrim at the Athletic Grounds, interested spectator Paul McGrane scoured the Antrim sideline and spotted McCloskey.
“I knew it was John," McGrane smiled, "because he still had the Welly boots on.”