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Comment: How Newry man has turned Carlow into record-breaking winners

By Declan Bogue

Two tweets by the excellent GAA statistician who goes by the Twitter handle @dontfoul caught the eye after Carlow produced the result of the Championship so far by beating Kildare.

In scoring 2-16, they hit no shots wide. That's no as in zero. Nada. Zilch. One less than one.

Even if he was counting the early free that fell short of its target, allowing Darragh Foley to swipe the loose ball to the net, the figure stands at a 94% success rate.

He then tweeted: 'To put that 94% in context. I have 336 Championship performances from 2012 - 2017. The highest Conversion Rate is 83% (4-15 from 23) for Laois v Longford last year. No other team has breached 78%.'

If every aspect of performance can be measured, then there are few better recommendations of a coaching job than how Newry man Steven Poacher prepared his Carlow side.

Poacher is an oddity. There is enough football in Ulster for men not to have to cross provinces, although the presence of Tony McEntee in Mayo and Paddy Tally in Galway, also as number twos, have been noteworthy.

Poacher has built a considerable reputation for himself in Carlow. A quick skim over some stats will show you the impact he has made. Prior to his arrival, they had won just nine Championship games in 20 years. In the last two, they have won five and counting.

Last year, they won three Championship games for the first time since 1944 when they claimed their only Leinster title. And this win over Kildare was the first since 1953.

He hasn't fared well when the pundits came to judge him. Their criticisms seemed to be based entirely on a term - "transition" - that he uses to describe the change from being in possession of the ball to losing possession.

But he can live with that. Anything new and innovative in Gaelic Games coaching has a peculiar effect of terrifying, rather than intriguing, the conservative wing.

Sunday's result brought him into the mainstream though, when his name was mentioned by Sunday Game analyst Sean Cavanagh after the highlights were shown. That is not surprising in itself as coaches do tend to pick up a lot of credit now, but that Poacher was mentioned before the manager Turlough O'Brien definitely was.

There is a certain type of manager who does not like that, not one bit.

But O'Brien is an ego-free zone, passionately wedded to the Carlow cause way above the needs of the football team. Just listening to his comments in the aftermath of victory displays that.

"Suddenly, Carlow is feeling good about itself," he said.

"It's no coincidence that the likes of Kerry and Kilkenny have such a good self-image of themselves because of their sports people…"

Poacher knows how it might look to some people. He is definitely media-friendly but, in his defence, he understands the gig as he has been writing a weekly column on coaching since 2009.

His innovations extend to his job and, while a teacher in St Columban's in Kilkeel, he organised coaching days with a number of elite coaches and managers. It was at one such event that he first came into contact with O'Brien.

He was invited down to take a guest session in Carlow in 2016 and it has rolled on since then.

This spring, O'Brien came up to take part in one of the coaching clinics and this writer was part of the discussion panel with O'Brien, Kilcoo manager Paul McIver and former Armagh player Ciaran McKeever.

The first thing that strikes you about O'Brien is his genuine warmth for people. The combined charisma between him and Poacher is staggering.

And they are realists into the bargain. Last week, with 11 of the Carlow panel in the middle of exams, they were all excused from training.

There are no idiotic social media bans and no player has to run it past the manager to give an interview. The entire set-up seems remarkably grown-up and adult.

Perhaps this is the way it has to be. While Jim Gavin and Brian Cody can present a persona of cool aloofness, that doesn't work when you are trying to convince players to put their lives on hold for the good of Carlow football.

What Carlow show us is that the effect of personality in management and coaching cannot be underestimated.

Now they stand 70-odd minutes away from a first Leinster final in 74 years, facing Laois who they have already met twice this year.

So the question has to be asked, what in God's name is Poacher doing in Carlow, a two-and-a-half-hour drive away, rather than involved in coaching in Down?

He explains: "I had to get away from that because for 10 years I worked with development squads, at minor level, at Under-21 level, and a few things happened behind the scenes."

All of which goes to show how bad GAA administration can be when ego comes into it.

Belfast Telegraph

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