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'When I first went to Wasps I used GAA training methods... just a few days later they beat Leinster'

Former GAA and rugby coach John McCloskey talks about his days in both sports, and what it was like taking on the L'Etape du Tour

A fortnight ago in Castlebar, Co Mayo, a familiar face of the northern GAA rivalry of the early '00s came centre-stage once again.

Paddy Tally, the trainer of Tyrone in 2003 when they won their first All-Ireland, beating Armagh in the final, is now selector with Galway. His fingerprints, according to some pundits, were all over the way Galway were able to grind out a grim victory over Mayo for the third year running.

You can hardly think of Tally as a young man without thinking of his counterpart as trainer of the Armagh team, John McCloskey of Belfast. Together, they changed and modernised the way Gaelic football was taught and coached at the turn of the century.

Recalling those times now, McCloskey remembers bumping into Tally a fortnight before the 2003 All-Ireland final.

"People say we had no life outside of football. Maybe that was true," laughs the 57-year-old.

"I used to set the video to record Larry Sanders and Seinfeld while I was taking training. On my way home, I used to stop in a sweet shop, grab a bar of chocolate and head home for a session of TV. But two weeks before the All-Ireland final, I went into the shop and Paddy Tally was in it.

"It was a mutual nod of the head, not very much said aside from 'see you in a fortnight,' and that was it."

And while Tally has remained very much part of the picture, managing St Mary's to a miraculous Sigerson Cup last year, McCloskey left GAA behind a decade ago to take up a coaching post with Wasps, before returning to his teaching job in Belfast.

He still satisfies some sporting ambitions. In 2014, he and a group of friends headed over to do L'Etape du Tour, a few stages of the Tour de France.

"We went up Alpe d'Huez," he says, like it's an everyday occurrence.

"The whole stage took us about six hours to do. It was about four or five days before the first stage came through. It was funny watching them going up on TV and recognizing the landmarks on the way."

McCloskey was one of the most influential coaches in Gaelic football. So much so, that he was eventually picked up by Wasps rugby club and hired as a professional skills coach in 2009.

The link did not come out of the blue. For years he had a fascination with rugby, and when the first opportunity arose for a young lad from west Belfast to play the game when he entered Queen's, he took it.

"The Queen's team at that time was brilliant. Trevor Ringland, Nigel Carr, David Irvine... they were all internationals," he recalls.

His degree was in economics, but it was the detail of sport that consumed him. Future Ireland rugby head coach Jimmy Davidson made an impression.

He says: "That's one of the things that turned me onto the coaching thing, listening to Jimmy Davidson. He took us in Stranmillis. One of the things he did was to shout at a guy one day: 'That was great talking!'

"Complimenting the player on what he said to another player, which I don't think any of us had heard said before."

He became involved in coaching Gaelic football and fitness with Queen's teams under Dessie Ryan. When Dessie called your phone at 11pm, you settled down to prepare for a two-hour talk.

A number of Armagh players passed through that system and McCloskey's reputation reached Joe Kernan, who got him in to work with Crossmaglen when they begin winning All-Ireland titles. After Kernan was appointed Armagh manager in September 2001, McCloskey had just began a three-year career break which coincided perfectly for coach, manager and team.

They won the All-Ireland at their first attempt in 2002.

They were ground-breakers, with their training camp to La Manga widely publicised ahead of the 2002 campaign. But in 2003, fattened by success, dinners and All-Star tours, Kernan decided they needed to go back to basics and held a training camp in Bath, where they invited Shaun Edwards and Dave Alred, the famous kicking coach who worked with Jonny Wilkinson.

The two sides found mutual benefit, especially in 2008 when Edwards' Wasps side were finding a new element to rugby difficult.

"There was a lot of 'rugby-tennis' they called it, where teams were booting the ball from one end to the other. Wasps played Leinster one night and lost at the RDS and dropped a lot of ball. So he called and asked if I might come over for a couple of days and work on this," states McCloskey.

"I did a lot of stuff we would have done with Gaelic teams, from Under-12 right up to senior, the skills are still the same, no matter what age you are.

"Then they played that Saturday and won in Twickenham against Leinster. They did an audit in the club later on the season and decided they needed a skills coach, he phoned me up and asked if I'd be interested in it."

He secured his second career break from St Bride's Primary School off the Malone Road and made his way to the glamour of genteel Richmond in south London. But professional sport is another country.

"It was a very surreal existence," he recalls.

"It is all about results, big time. It is seven days a week, there weren't really any holidays, I was in there at 7am in the morning and there is almost a competition to see who might leave last.

"I would have got an email at midnight from the director of rugby. He just seemed to be there non-stop. He was constantly fielding phone calls."

He continues: "Our training might have lasted for 75 minutes, and it would be 75 minutes. You were told: 'this is your slot, and you have 10 minutes to do what you have to do.'

"You have to be ready to go, do it all in 10 minutes, and the guy would come over and say: 'You have one minute left'.

"My stuff really was the extras. I found that the overseas players were good at that. They had a culture of working hard."

Tweaking techniques is a delicate process. At one point, McCloskey and Joe Kernan had Dave Alred in to help Oisin McConville for Armagh.

Alred felt that McConville's style was doing lasting damage to his back. They tried it another way, but it led to McConville's accuracy going to pot. Eventually, they told McConville to stick with his own methods.

"There was a lesson in there for me, in that some people just have great natural ability, so don't meddle with it, facilitate it as best you can," he explains.

With such a knowledge of different sports and experience, it would be tempting to want back in to that world.

For now though, he insists he does not have the time. He married Lisa Hobson, from a Quaker family in the Moy, and they have two young daughters, Ava and Beth.

In an era when the roles of managers and trainers are over-exaggerated, it is refreshing to hear McCloskey remind us: "It is down to the players. It's their will and their talent. We are all just riding on the back of it.

"The other thing is we can only help them a cross the line."

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