By John Foley
TIME flies when you’re having fun. Or so it seemed when it came to Turlough O’Brien and the Carlow senior footballers.
Five and a half years have gone by in the blink of an eye and yet in that time the county team has taken their supporters on a memorable journey. There were great championship clashes, famous victories, big days out against marquee teams and so many league Sundays to remember.
That Leinster victory over Kildare in Tullamore just over two years ago will be talked about for generations to come. Likewise, winning promotion from Division 4 in Siberian conditions in Antrim is an achievement that will be remembered long after the current crop of players have hung up their boots.
Of course there were tough days too; heartbreaking defeats, run-ins with officials, criticism over a defensive style of play and days when fortune, for a change, did not favour the brave. But over these past few years, Carlow football supporters could always be sure of one thing; they were following a team with a plan who were guided by a management group which always had their best interests at heart.
It has certainly been an era to remember. On Saturday, Turlough brought that era to an end.
“It’s strange in a way, but when the GAA decided what they were going to do with the upcoming fixtures, I kind of had my mind made up,” he says.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be manager next year anyway and to finish out the year would have left the county board in a difficult situation where they would be looking for a new manager in December. That wouldn’t work, so I decided it would be best to put an end to it now.”
It is certainly not the end he or Carlow supporters would have wanted. He finishes up in a season which has seen a national league campaign cut short and a championship which may not finish until December, assuming the new schedule announced by the GAA goes to plan, which is far from certain.
He says the decision was still a difficult one to make.
“You would have liked to finish out the season,” he says. “I feel I let the players down a little but. The season was only half finished really. But it has been a great time. It’s been a privilege. It’s been a marvellous time to be involved in Carlow football. I have great memories of it. We had great days out and we made great progress. We restored a bit of hope and positivity in the team, which was lacking. It just shows you what can be done. If enough people get together and put their minds to it, they can achieve a lot.”
Carlow GAA turned to Turlough when they were perhaps at their lowest ebb. The 2014 season was Anthony Rainbow’s second year in charge and they had finished bottom of Division 4 in the league. They were thrashed by Meath in the Leinster championship, recovered a little to beat Waterford in the qualifiers before losing badly once again to Clare. By the time that year’s club championship was reaching its final rounds the Éire Óg clubman was at the helm, watching with particular interest and plotting a path for the future.
“I found it very frustrating down through the years looking at Carlow’s lowly league position and knowing we could be so much better, so it was nice to be involved in making some progress.
“You looked forward to going to the field every Tuesday and Thursday and Sunday. It was the highlight of the week really, going training. But we had a great bunch of players. This is the fantastic thing about it. We had a panel which was fairly settled. That was one of the weaknesses in Carlow, players coming and going. We got rid of all of that and got a big commitment from them.
“They were very easy to work with. We didn’t have to make any rules, they just did what they were supposed to do. We had no messers. It was a great time and it was brilliant crack along the way.”
He credits the players with taking their preparations to the next level.
“Players now are very focussed on conditioning and looking after themselves. If you’re playing inter-county football now, the intensity and the pace of the game means you just wouldn’t survive unless you bought into it. But it’s a great lifestyle.”
That renewed work ethic meant Carlow teams were going out well prepared. Their style of play, influenced in large parts by the work of coach Steven Poacher, was often ultra defensive. However it gave them a foundation on which they could build.
“One thing we would have been lacking down the years, like a lot of counties in our position, was that we didn’t know how to win,” Turlough says. “We didn’t know how to go about it. That has held back a lot of counties.
“We certainly have made a lot of progress there. We were fierce technically aware of our own game plan and the opposition game and how to counteract them. We had a lot of work done which gave players confidence that we were well prepared. We knew what we were about. We knew when we hit the pitch what we had to do. We weren’t daunted when we played some of the big teams because we knew we had a system when things went wrong. We were very organised and structured. I’d say we were one of the most tactically aware teams in the country.”
It all came together in 2018 when Carlow put together a run of games in the league which saw they win promotion for the first time in 33 years. That was followed by a magical day in Tullamore when Kildare were put to the sword in Leinster by a near-perfect Carlow performance.
“The victory over Kildare was enormous,” says Turlough. “It had huge consequences for Carlow. We were completely dismissed going into that game. Kildare would have been confident. But we really gave an outstanding performance and Kildare had no answers. If that game had gone on longer we would have won by more. That was probably one of our best performances of all.
“I thought our performance against Louth in the championship that year as well was superb. We were on fire that day. We dominated them mentally, physically and tactically. We had some great championship games. And we should have made more of a breakthrough. We should have beaten Monaghan in the qualifiers [in 2017] and we let that one slip. You have those big days against Dublin and Tyrone. Great times.”
He’s confident the future looks bright.
“We’ve introduced a lot of good young players. There’s great potential there still,” he says. “It’s going to be very interesting to see what might happen this year. It could be a very interesting championship. The team that gets the bit between their teeth and has the right attitude could go far.”
He may not be on the sideline from now on, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be going to games. Indeed he sounds like he’s relishing the next phase.
“I’m looking forward to being a spectator, going to matches with no pressure on you, being able to relax and enjoy it. I love championship Sundays and I love going around the country watching games, so I’m looking forward to that.
“It’s been a privilege to be involved. I never thought I would be in that position but look, we gave it everything. We have no regrets and I’m proud to have played a part.”
Turlough ‘proud to have played a part’
By John Foley