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Cahair O’Kane: Micko, Art and The Expectation Effect

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair is a sports reporter and columnist with the Irish News specialising in Gaelic Games.

Wicklow has a population just over 600 fewer than Kerry, yet as a county that has never won even a Leinster title, they expect nothing of themselves. Mick O'Dwyer came in and suddenly they started to believe and get results, but it quickly fell away again when he left.
Wicklow has a population just over 600 fewer than Kerry, yet as a county that has never won even a Leinster title, they expect nothing of themselves. Mick O'Dwyer came in and suddenly they started to believe and get results, but it quickly fell away again when he left. (Cliff Donaldson (077 5925 3331)/Cliff Donaldson)

LITTLE did Pat McCartan know when he rang the late Art McRory to ask if he’d be interested in taking Tyrone minors the impact that it would have on the county’s fortunes.

The version of Tyrone that has existed for the last 20 years owes so much to McRory.

He started the ball rolling at Vocational School level before winning a rhen-rare All-Ireland minor title in 1973.

Prior to the senior team adding the Ulster title that same year, Tyrone had only ever won the Anglo Celt twice in their history.

Since McRory inherited a mess in February 1980, when Jody O’Neill stepped down after a decade in charge and they were rarely achieving more than a dozen men at training, Tyrone have won another 13 Ulster titles, four All-Irelands and a stack of minor and U21 crowns.

As he stood on the Hogan Stand steps in 2003, Peter Canavan thanked the men of ‘86 and ‘95 that made them believe it was possible.

Nowadays, a crisis is easily constituted in Tyrone. A couple of years without an Ulster title or a season spent outside Division One and everyone loses their mind.

Their form will fluctuate like anyone’s but the reason Tyrone will never be far from the top table again is because they believe, as a county, that this is where they belong.

Sometimes it only takes that one man to change the mindset of an entire people.

The late Art McRory pictured hunkered over during Tyrone's 1986 All-Ireland final defeat by Kerry. Picture: Sportsfile
The late Art McRory pictured hunkered over during Tyrone's 1986 All-Ireland final defeat by Kerry. Picture: Sportsfile The late Art McRory pictured hunkered over during Tyrone's 1986 All-Ireland final defeat by Kerry. Picture: Sportsfile

Recently I stumbled upon a book called ‘The Expectation Effect’.

Author David Robson is a science writer in the UK.

His book is an exploration of various scientific studies and how mere expectation can affect an outcome.

One of the studies was around people suffering from ‘gluten sensitivity’, as it’s called.

These people were not coeliac and there was no medical understanding as to why they were suffering from symptoms such as diarrhoea and headaches after consuming wheat.

So different independent scientists did a number of blinded trials where suspected sufferers cut out all wheat for a few weeks before being asked to eat products that may or may not contain the proteins.

They weren’t aware when eating the food whether it actually contained gluten or not.

A meta-analysis of the studies found that almost 40 per cent of them responded the same way to the food that didn’t have gluten as the food that did.

Their expectation was that it had gluten, so they responded accordingly.

Or there’s the 2019 paper in which scientists looked at the CREB1 gene, which studies had shown reduced people’s aerobic capacity and increased their body temperature during exercise.

David Robson, author of The Expectation Effect, a book that looks at the effect of what a person thinks what will happen has on what actually happens.
David Robson, author of The Expectation Effect, a book that looks at the effect of what a person thinks what will happen has on what actually happens.

After conducting tests on who had the gene and who didn’t, researchers told some of them the truth and some of them lies.

“That created expectations that they either were or were not ‘naturally’ good at exercise,” Robson notes.

What they found was that the psychological impact of thinking they carried the CREB1 gene was more damaging to physical performance than the actual gene itself.

You are what you think you are.

For a long time, Tyrone didn’t think they were All-Ireland contenders. But very quickly after Art McRory started the process of changing their mindset and making them believe they could compete, they were in an All-Ireland final. Nine years later, with Eugene McKenna added, they reached another. A run of underage successes that Mickey Harte spearheaded propelled them to the ultimate glory in 2003.

Since 2002, the lowest Tyrone have finished in the league was fourth in Division Two.

How much of that is down to the belief that they belonged at the top?

Because while Dublin’s success both recent and historical is easier to explain, particularly in terms of population, why are Kerry what they are?

In the 2022 census, the county’s population was registered as 156,458.

It is the fifteenth biggest county in Ireland, yet they have the most All-Ireland titles in history.

And while they might not be as dominant as they once were, they’re the longest-serving Division One team and are rarely more than one good afternoon away from any year’s All-Ireland final.

The population of Wicklow is 607 fewer than the population of Kerry.

Wicklow have never even won a Leinster title, while Kerry have won 84 Munster titles and 38 All-Irelands.

Why?

There are myriad factors in anything but how much of it is simply down to Wicklow accepting their place in the order of things?

When Mick O’Dwyer took over down there in 2007, it was reported that 121 players flocked to the first trial he held. For his first game in charge, thousands descended on Aughrim for a game broadcast live on TG4.

By the end of the first summer, they’d won their first ever championship game in Croke Park and beaten Kildare for only the second time in 97 years.

The following year, they beat Fermanagh, Cavan and Down in the qualifiers only to come up four points short of an All-Ireland quarter-final when Kildare got their revenge.

The Wicklow players would go to the ends of the earth to play for him.

“He’d get you running and it would be sickening stuff. You’d be questioning yourself while you’re doing it but that’s what he wanted,” Leighton Glynn told The42.ie’s Kevin O’Brien in a 2017 interview.

O’Dwyer could only change so much physiologically in that short space of time.

But psychologically, they were transformed because they believed that here was the man that was going to transform their fortunes.

When he leaves, it all falls quickly back to earth.

How many counties never really improve themselves simply because somebody’s effectively told them they’ve got the CREB1 gene? ‘You’ll never be any good so why bother trying?’ kinda thing.

Monaghan continue to do the opposite. They ignore all the stuff about population and disadvantage because they have come to believe they’re a Division One county. For a full decade they’ve been told they’ll be relegated and there they go, tearing up Croke Park a little over a week ago with almost a brand-new team.

From the moment Rory Gallagher took over in Derry, he was making public pronouncements about winning Ulster titles, competing for All-Irelands, getting back to Division One, beating the Donegals and Tyrones of the world. The players began to believe and voila, look where they are now.

The trick is for them to keep on expecting. The way Art McRory started Tyrone reforming their mindset and convincing themselves their natural place was at the very top of Gaelic football has sustained to the point where you can’t imagine them ever falling away now.

They won’t win every Ulster title and they’ll only claim the very odd All-Ireland but for so long, they didn’t even expect that of themselves.

It can be done.

You just have to expect it of yourself.