by Anthony Hennigan
Liam McHale wasn’t a footballer who played basketball. He was a basketballer who played football.
The order of things was important in McHale’s world. He never disguised that it would be Mayo’s loss were he ever forced to choose.
Indeed so unpolished by comparison was the Ballina totem when first introduced to the world of the Mayo senior football panel, he was treated to a personal coach for the first eighteen months.
Brian McDonald, a future Mayo manager, had won a senior and two junior All-Ireland titles as a Dublin footballer and working in Castlebar, agreed to give up a couple of his lunchtimes every week to hone the kicking skills of the rookie. It ended that McDonald helped mould the greatest Irish basketballer of his time into one of Gaelic football’s finest midfielders. A dual jewel.
How the tables have turned. Now it’s basketball coaches who are teaching footballers how to play football.
Some of Dublin’s five-in-a-row success has been credited to Mark Ingle, head coach of DCU’s women’s basketball team. Irish women’s coach James Weldon was part of the Kerry senior football setup in 2018. Neptune legend Jim Nugent has lent his skills to the benefit of the Cork footballers over the years. And now Mayo have joined the party.
Back in the early 1990s, when Ballina boasted the greatest basketball team in the country, a conversation about the game of hoop and backboard was as incomplete without mention of Terry Kennedy and Deora Marsh as it was without McHale. Kennedy was the spiky haired young coach who guided Team Connacht Gold to their first league and cup titles, Marsh the on-court colossus from Ohio whose favourite meal apparently was baked beans with seven dessertspoons of sugar on them.
“The first few years we couldn’t play with him because we were so in awe of his athletic ability,” explained Liam McHale a decade ago. “You’d find yourself watching him instead of playing with him.”
These days it’s the Mayo senior footballers who are watching Marsh’s every move, at least they were up until the GAA halted the season in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kennedy and Marsh had become part of James Horan’s coaching team from once a 40-strong panel of players returned to training after the disappointment of last August’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin. The pair ran the squad through two-hour sessions of movement, handling, coordination and spatial drills every Saturday morning at Breaffy Sports Arena before later transferring those sessions to grass.
“We turned up and the players loved it,” Terry Kennedy told the Western People this week. “There were no egos, every one of them was into it, they were all learning different moves, different stances in basketball, defensive, offensive. It was very interesting and a big eye-opener for me, to see the work they put in and what goes in to running a county senior team.”
This opportunity to switch codes is, however, one that might never have come about were it not for the foresight of a former Mayo teammate of James Horan’s.
It’s more than eighteen months now since Terry Kennedy was in Crossmolina putting the Mayo U18 basketball team preparing for a trip to America through its paces, when a man walked into the sports hall after a football match out on the pitch. The onlooker stood and watched intently as Kennedy taught the nuances of his game to the teenagers. That man was Ray Dempsey.
The Knockmore manager recognised the transferability in what was being coached and asked Kennedy if he’d be able to do his stuff with a football team.
“I said I’d have to go away and think about it, about how to work what I do on a bigger pitch, but to tell you the truth I never thought I’d hear back from him. The next thing is he’s on the phone the following day true to his word, wanting to meet me and bring me out to the pitch.”
Terry Kennedy’s first season ended with Knockmore crowned Mayo SFL Division 1 champions. “Suddenly I’m getting a call from James Horan one Monday morning.”
The leap from club to county was considerable because of the sheer numbers present for every session, so Kennedy told Horan he’d have to bring in extra help. Deora Marsh, who was NBA standard according to his American peers on the Irish basketball circuit, was the obvious choice. More than that, he was “delighted” to be asked.
“Deora is great, he mixes well,” says Kennedy. “I’d be more serious whereas Deora would be more fun. He’d be laughing at me because I wouldn’t know a lot of the Mayo players whereas he knew them all because he was always at games. He’d catch me out at training, saying ‘Who were you talking to there, T?’ knowing full well that I didn’t have a clue.”
Kennedy also brought his nephew Adam Battle – a Mayo under-16 footballer and one of the top basketballers in Connacht at his age – along to training to help demonstrate the drills to the Mayo players.
“We were working on different aspects of the game that would coordinate from basketball to football. You want to bring in something that will work.
“Some of them would have played basketball. Conor Loftus, Aidan O’Shea, the goalkeeper Rory Byrne actually played on a team I brought to America, Padraig O’Hora won an All-Ireland under-18 medal with me. But even some of the others, Cillian O’Connor, his brother Diarmuid, they all picked up things, they’re very smart players. Their footwork started getting better and hopefully they’ll be able to bring that on to the pitch when they come back.”
Terry Kennedy and Deora Marsh soon began to sit down and watch game after game of football to talk about what they could bring to the table and how to maximise their expertise in what previously was a somewhat alien environment to them. According to Kennedy, what quickly became apparent was just how much of what Dublin implement on the football pitch has been whipped straight off the basketball court.
“They set a lot of screens, where you’re blocking a man getting on the ball. It’s supposed to be illegal but you’ll see them do it all the time. There’s a lot done off the ball that the referee can’t see.
“There’s a lot of dummy runs, they mix up the defence with man-to-man and zone, so it’s interesting for me to watch and to see the different tactics that they use.
“I’ve gone mad watching football and I’ve become very interested in it because I think there’s a lot of basketball drills that can be of use to football teams, especially for movement, spacing, using the whole pitch. The pitch is so big yet a lot of footballers don’t make best use to get space, to get wide and draw defence out. We call it read and react.
“A lot of the time footballers will pass the ball and go towards it whereas in basketball we always teach never to cut towards the ball unless it’s wide open; you go away from the ball but the next man is coming to it. It’s very hard to defend then. It’s easy to defend when you’re going towards the ball. When I watch the tapes of Dublin I can see an awful lot of that.
“The eye-hand coordination is another big part of basketball that you can relate to football, the quickness and decision making. Instead of getting your head down to solo or bounce the ball, look up straightaway and then use your solo or bounce. Quick decisions, quick movements, landing correctly, pivot and go at something, see what the defence is giving you and attack it, stuff like that. Look at Donaghy, McHale, McGarrity, you can see the difference; they were maybe all a step ahead of the other guys at reading defence and how to attack it.”
As proud as he is of the county under-16 medal he won playing for Ballina Stephenites back in 1975, Terry Kennedy has no problem admitting it’s basketball and not football that has consumed his sporting life. And from once his hometown club disappeared from national competition over a decade ago, he transferred those coaching skills to clubs in Sligo and Galway. But the months spent with the Mayo senior footballers has given him a new appreciation for just how organised – and demanding – the atmosphere is that surrounds them.
“It’s such a pro set-up, it opened my eyes the way it’s organised. It’s top class. I didn’t expect it to be as professional and as well run. It has given me a new approach to how I’d watch a game.
“These fellas are amateurs, they don’t get paid, yet the sessions they do are incredible, a basketball player would never do it. Their athleticism is amazing and the amount of work they put in, there’s no way I’d play football. It’s just too much work. Their training is savage, there’s nothing else to call it. These guys are mad.
“Myself and Deora would be used to the warmth of the indoors and you could take a break if you wanted but these lads were doing savage training altogether in the rain. They all have day jobs and they might be going from job to training without anything to eat and then you go to a game and you hear the abuse they get, and these could be people who have never even played the game. It’s awful to hear,” slams Kennedy.
“They make mistakes, everyone will in any game, but they don’t go out to make mistakes. It doesn’t matter how good you are in any sport, you’re going to make mistakes, you’ll turn the ball over, but it’s not intentional. They make mistakes because they’re human beings. That’s the way sport is.”
Kennedy is at pains to express his gratitude to Ray Dempsey for the punt he took on him at the start of last season, and thankful too for the advice of Dempsey’s assistant at Knockmore, Pat Kelly, and that of Mayo trainer James Burke and Joe Doyle as well. Their brains, he says, were picked endlessly in order to establish just how best to relocate drills which for 30-odd years he ran on a 28 by 15-metre indoor timber court to a 145 by 90-metre grass pitch, going from working on a five man to a fifteen-man game.
“I look at a football game completely differently now; I’m trying to learn and discover if there’s anything I can do to make this thing a little bit better.”
A county must wait a while longer to find out.