Saturday 23 February 2019

'Nobody will beat us easily this year'

O'Brien's Carlow charges thrive on

Carlow boss Turlough O’Brien says that his players are full of confidence ahead of showdown with Laois Pic: Sportsfile
Carlow boss Turlough O’Brien says that his players are full of confidence ahead of showdown with Laois Pic: Sportsfile

Some managers believe their first and last function in front of a dictaphone is to publicly talk down their chances. To kill the carnival of hype.

Not Turlough O'Brien, though.

Is that because of his own infectious positivity? Or because he hails from a place that never knew hype in the first place?

Well, that's all changed: Carlow stand on the cusp of qualifying for a first Leinster SFC final since 1944 - the one and only year they managed to win the damn thing. Never mind if the Sky Blue beast is sure to be lurking in wait, Carlow have morphed from rank outsider to ravenous underdog.

They are 13/8 to beat Laois in Croke Park on Sunday - a considerable shortening of the odds when measured against their 13/2 price against Kildare. So how does their manager actually 'manage' these rising expectations?

"Ah, I think it's great," he counters. "Because the expectation up to now was that we'd lose, and we always fulfilled it to the letter of the law.

"Kerry, Kilkenny, they always expect to win. And Tyrone expect to win. And even when they're not going well, they're still able to grind out results.

"And we're getting a mindset now that we kind of expect to win ... look, we know we can compete with everybody up to maybe the top four teams in the country, that we'll give them a really stern test and who knows where that might take us.

"We're not making any predictions about results because it's a fool's game really. But no one will beat Carlow easily this year, I'll guarantee you that."

It's all a welcome antidote to the standard 'woe-is-me' Leinster football script. Pop psychologists will argue that Dublin's dominance now appears to be directly impacting morale in the likes of Kildare and Meath - but why not Carlow?

"Well, I think it has been an issue for all of us over the last ten years," says O'Brien.

"Dublin got so far ahead and I think ex-players in particular, pundits, are talking down the game the whole time.

"Talking down their chances, talking up Dublin, talking down their own counties … I can't say names, but there's guys writing in newspapers and they're writing the same story every weekend, lads, and it's a mantra: 'Football is a disaster.' It really annoys me. I don't know how they're kept on."

Given their history, it would have been easy for Carlow to wallow in all the negativity. Instead, on O'Brien's watch it's now fun to be a Carlow footballer.

Indentured slaves? Hardly.

After their first round win over Louth, reporters spied a crate of beer in the dressing-room, apparently sourced by the back-room team.

The players are happy to engage with the media, maybe because the interest in their back stories is all so novel.


"I honestly think a lot of counties are making a huge mistake with the way they deal with the media - and the public, their supporters," says O'Brien.

"You guys have jobs to do, we're complaining about press coverage and we don't give you access. So, we can't have it both ways.

"There's no secrets anymore anyway, with the social media. Before a game is finished, your opposition probably has the video of the game. There's nothing to hide really."

But is there a danger of players taking advantage and abdicating responsibility?

"We haven't had an issue," the manager replies. "I have found if you treat players like adults they behave like adults. For what they're putting into it, they're not going to go mad, like. They can't afford to."

He then expands: "John Wooden, the basketball coach, always said his best friend was the bench; you can have all the rules and regulations and team charters, whatever you want, but at the end of the day the manager has the power to say 'sorry, you're not starting today'. And that's the ultimate punishment."

Clearly, the approach is working. The shot of belief injected by last summer's five-match adventure has carried over into the League (a promotion to end decades in the basement division) and now into the Championship arena (another rarity, back-to-back wins in Leinster).

The manager was quietly confident that Kildare were "a side we could take".

So it transpired.

"I thought that we were much more tactically aware," he says. "Our game plan, we fulfilled it to the letter of the law - and Kildare didn't know how to deal with it really."

Results like that make outsiders sit up and take notice, but it has another invaluable, internal impact.

O'Brien has long believed that coming from a successful GAA county, a Kerry or a Kilkenny, has a hugely positive impact on a county's self-esteem.

"They're very, very confident - nearly arrogant," he reckons.

"If you're a Carlow man and you go to work in Dublin and you're listening to the Dubs talking football and they're kind of laughing at you because you're from Carlow … they're not doing it now.

"Your chest is out and you're going to work and you're up in Kildare and Newbridge: 'Who won the match last week, lads?' You know, it does make a difference. And that's not just the football community. I think everybody feeds off it."

Next up are John Sugrue's Laois, who - lest we forget - are the only team to have beaten Carlow in ten games this season. Moreover, they've done it twice - 1-6 to 0-8 in the league (with Carlow already promoted) and 0-15 to 0-11 in the Division 4 final.

"Both counties realise it's a 50-50 game. I mean, there was nothing in the two games between us in the league and it's going to be the same next weekend," O'Brien says.

As for Carlow's tactics against Laois, for once he goes all coy and delivers a one-word answer: "Win!"

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