Emmett McDonnell strides through the lobby of the Hilamar Hotel, juggling his mobile phone from one hand to the other. At this stage of the evening, colleagues from his staff room in St Mary’s, Edenderry would be winding down. They have just one job to worry about.
McDonnell, though, has more on his mind. Having proved his mettle at underage level, where he guided his school to an unprecedented Hogan Cup triumph, the Westmeath-man was handed a Poisoned Chalice in September.
Offaly, a county with tradition rather than form, turned to him, a 33-year-old rookie and said: “Sort this mess out.”
That’s easier said than done, of course. The 10th manager of the county’s footballers in 10 years — and a relative unknown, McDonnell has inherited a side low on belief but lumped with an expectation that stems from the 1970s and ’80s when three All-Irelands and six Leinsters were acquired through good management and good players. In the last decade, neither commodity has been available.
Instead, their teams have been a bit too slow, a bit too small and far too disorganised.
While his relative youth suggests inexperience, at underage level he has proved a master of tactical organisation and the thoroughness of his preparation struck a chord with the Offaly Minor Board when they asked him for an interview back in August.
Posing the questions then was Matt Connor, the county’s iconic figure from the golden era.
“Never mind the minors,” Connor said, “this guy has bigger fish to fry.”
What impressed Connor that day was the worldliness of this young man, the expertise which matched his passion.
Offaly, of course, is a small county. Connor, anyone, in fact, would have known about his school side’s preparations for All-Ireland glory, the 7am training programmes (switched to 6am when they won Leinster), the nutritional demands, the subtle fundraising in an economically-depressed town and the instillation of self-belief into a group of young men who achieved more than they dreamed possible.
Yet what also struck a chord was the lengths he went to educate and improve himself. Having kicked off his coaching career as an 18-year-old, when his younger brother, Gordon’s, Coralstown/Kinnegad team were struggling for a mentor, McDonnell received his first coaching badge when he was 20. “I was fresh-faced. Everyone else on that course had a weathered face,” he remembers.
And by now, the addiction had set in. At the family home in Kinnegad, McDonnell found a new purpose for the family sitting-room, where he monopolised the television to record and digest any number of football videos, learning everything from tactical plays to the new art of a blanket defence.
Meanwhile, as a playing career was lived out under the radar, coaching filled the void with his expertise resulting in the most prized trophies in school’s GAA heading to Edenderry.
Yet that’s schools football. Adults — even if 11 of the Offaly panel have served under McDonnell — are different.
“Look, I have no doubt people will look at my background and say this job is very different at inter-county level,” says McDonnell. “But in actual fact, the principles are very similar. A lot of it is dealing with people.
“Players want the best they can get, in terms of training facilities, training programmes, in terms of organisation, in terms of information. That’s the same for a 16-year-old player as it is for a 36-year-old.
“My job is to give them that. From colleges football, I’ve come across Colm O’Rourke, Brian Talty, Leo Brien, Sean Marty Lockhart, Peter Canavan and Jack O’Connor on the sideline, figuring out my own plans to counteract theirs. It’s a very tactical, competitive world.
“But I’m at pains to point out that this is not about me. I am not an egotistical person. This job is all about the tradition of Offaly. It is about the bigger picture.”
That picture has not been pretty in recent years.
Last season, under Tom Coffey, Offaly were thumped by Kildare in the Championship and then dumped out of the qualifiers by Tipperary.
And given how it has always had a healthy sense of its own importance, and given how Offaly has always been a county with a ferocious desire to win games, the slide has seriously damaged morale.
Yet that’s not unique, either. McDonnell — the unknown — makes an interesting point.
“How well known was Eugene McGee when he got the job in the 70s? Tommy Lyons had never managed a county team before he was headhunted from Kilmacud Crokes in the ’90s. Offaly have never been afraid to look outside the box or take a risk.”
Nor was McDonnell afraid to look outside the boundaries of his own sport and county when he headed over to England this summer to study the strength and fitness programmes of London Irish and Reading.
While that is an area of importance he regards as critical to his success, his managerial practices also include an extensive use of advanced statistical models, a kind of prozone for the GAA. And yet, for all his belief in sports science and cold analysis, McDonnell continually refers to an old-fashioned parochial pride.
He says: “There is huge tradition among the Offaly people, a huge passion there. I’ve seen that among the school kids. There were games we should have lost last year but the Offaly lads have a habit of digging a result out.
“Maybe, in the past, some coaches relied on tradition too much. We won’t ignore that spirit but we want to look at the right tactics, the right preparation and the best possible approach we can.
“I’ll ask them how good they felt losing so heavily in O’Connor Park last summer. How they felt their parents felt looking at the scoreboard.
“I want fellas excited about playing for Offaly again. I am going to ask guys to go to the well. They want the right road map and if the map is there, then maybe we can get a little success.”
Finding the destination in your journey is easy to propose, difficult to achieve. And yet, this guy is worth keeping an eye on. Kildare, their opponents in Leinster next summer, have been on the treadmill a long time. Their neighbours have been waiting an awfully long time to knock them off.