Across the full, ominous Shannon at the long, grey bridge at
Killaloe and on into Mike Mac country. Out through Tuamgraney and up
the hill into Scarriff. There you find him at the dark end of the
bar which has his name above the door. Black jacket and shoulders as
wide as the river. The weather has etched its stories on his face.
He could be the Bull McCabe.
It's a good time to be talking to him. Mike Mac is a man who
looks like he is put together with steel wire and roofer's nails.
He's managing a county with a reputation for discipline that would
trouble a Vegas rat-pack crooner.
McNamara made his name running fellas' legs to stumps on hills
and mountains in Clare. In Clare, even during the time of plenty, he
was always the one to pinch the county's gut and rail against the
all-too-comfortable heft of it.
And the Offaly lounge lizards? They were promising that they'd
just have the one they came in for plus a packet of cheese and onion
thanks, and then they'd worry about hurling.
Undeniably, he seemed like an odd choice last November. Many,
many managers have breezed into Offaly in the past decade, all mouth
and trousers some of them. And most have been asked to pack their
certainties and theories and go home again. Because Offaly is
unique. Square-bashing sergeants don't usually get the respect of
louche creative geniuses and vice versa. All the more intriguing
then to find Offaly and Mike Mac together on the way to Croke Park
in late June.
Ask him for an explanation and he'll ask you to subtract his own
mystique from the reality and vice versa. He loved the reputation as
a sadistic loon which he built with the Clare players on the hill at
Shannon. It got so that journalists thought that the Clare training
pitch at Crusheen was a hill, got so that the lads could scent an
NUJ card at 500 yards and drop the hurleys and break into a run just
so the reputation would be unshrunk.
And in Offaly they never let a quiet pint turn into anything less
than the last days of the Roman Empire in the public imagination.
Perhaps the most talented team of the 1990s did little to disturb
the impression that they stubbed out their cigarettes and put down
their cocktails 10 minutes before a big game and, yawning and
stretching as they did so, made their way to the pitch.
There was a germ of truth in each version. Not much more than
that. Not too much.
He never wanted the Offaly job until it was dangled in front of
him. He was unhappy with how his stint with Noel Lane and Galway had
ended and thought perhaps he'd had a bellyfull of hassles and
Then the phone rang one evening last winter. Offaly calling. It
set him thinking, and out of politeness he drove to Portumna for a
meeting, saying to himself as he drove that he wasn't getting
involved. He was going to get his clubs together and play golf. He'd
hear them out and say thanks but no thanks.
After the first meeting there was a follow-up phone call the next
day and he got positive vibes in the place between the words.
"I don't know why I took the job is the honest answer. I've said
a thousand times that it wasn't just because I wanted my own team. I
always did my own thing wherever I was. I'm more low-key than people
think. I never courted publicity, or snapshots or media attention.
I'm a private person. Mind you, a good result this Sunday and the
low-key bit is probably gone. I shy away a little bit from that.
"I suppose there is a bit of ego. That brings a few problems,
too. On your bad days everything you have done well for a period of
time can be blown away in 10 minutes with two goals against the run
of play. Ego comes into it when the Wexford game comes to mind. For
me, when a team looks a little disjointed in the second half, it
would be alien to my way of thinking and preparing. That put me
back. If it happened again I might be golfing full time."
He doesn't know why he does it, just that something about Offaly
intrigued him and, well, he remembers his first year in Galway and
all the work he'd done with the players under Noel Lane's
management, and when they got to Croke Park there were new rules in
place and Mike Mac and the selectors had to sit up in the stand, not
even on the sideline. And after 12 months with players he found
himself watching them in the company of a man who had paid 30 quid
for a ticket but was offering his opinions for free.
"When the offer came from Offaly, as usual with the GAA, it
wasn't direct. It was, if you were offered the job what do you think
you'd say? I thought for a week. About golf. But there was something
biting in there. I've always seen my best work as introducing a
younger team rather than continuing on a winning team. We've nothing
done yet, of course. It remains to be seen how this management team
will be judged."
He knew that people looked askance at the appointment. Raised
eyebrows and a few thin smiles. Faces that said, this should be
He held a badly-attended squad meeting before Christmas. Offaly
people were never busier. Practically everyone in the county who
could hold a hurl was otherwise engaged. He didn't worry too much.
He called his first training session for St Stephen's morning in
Birr, a quiet day for dental appointments, job interviews, sisters'
And he laid out his stall. Girlfriends on the back burner till
September lads. No? Well, hands up, who here has a Leinster senior
medal? The Birr boys were absent. No hands. He had some
"That first day, fellas looking out at you under the eyebrows.
Sceptical. Fellas peeping out from up the way. C'mon down here,
what's wrong with ya? I enjoyed myself with my reputation, the
madman for fitness thing, but when they saw that it wasn't fully
true they were surprised. When we could hurl we were hurling. It's
about the skill of the game, married to high fitness levels.
"Offaly have developed a style a little close to Kilkenny style
and they retained it over the years, filtered it into club hurling.
It's sweetness, movement, a little of the ground hurling which
others don't do. That's stayed there. You'd be a fool to change
So he trained them on St Stephen's Day with the crisp air filling
their lungs and the knowledge dawning that reputations in hurling
are just marketing devices. And after he'd finished he walked up
town and had a couple of soft pints in Whelahans.
"Listen, I knew everyone would be dubious about me. The
reputation goes before the man. Living outside the county helps. The
vibes in Offaly hurling? I wouldn't know what they are. They're
saying, this fella is a bollox of whatever? I don't feel that. I'm
in my little car driving home. I shoot in, do my business and shoot
out again. If there was a feeling I wouldn't know and it wouldn't
have bothered me. As a matter of fact it's often a good thing.
"You get the shout from the top of the stand, of course. At the
21 match (the provincial under-21 semi-final against Kilkenny), when
everything was going wrong, there was some yokel telling me, as if I
didn't know. If it was five years ago I'd have been up in the back
of the stand. Some ape roaring at me. You don't have to go to Offaly
to find that sort."
Contrary to popular opinion, Pad Joe Whelahan and Mike Mac go
back a long way. The first Clare team to make a breakthrough was the
1989 minor All-Ireland side which Mike Mac managed. They beat an
Offaly team which Pad Joe managed.
"We've been in communication ever since. We often sit down and
have a chat. We did after the Wexford game this year. I met him
coming up the street in Kilkenny. Arguably, they wouldn't be
intimate chats. Maybe Pad Joe is perceived to be anti me, but I
think he has more a problem with the board; there would be
absolutely no part of him that wouldn't wish the county hurlers
well. He does what he has to do for Birr, but he's an Offaly man and
so are the lads. They are exceptional people."
Their exceptionality extends, of course, to their club-mates,
perhaps the best club hurling team of the last few decades. Birr
were tied up with winning another club championship until March, and
that was followed by a week's holiday and a little recovery.
Mike Mac had them for six weeks before Offaly played Dublin, a
little longer before they had to face Wexford. Not ideal. Birr had
won their All-Ireland, but they were playing a different kind of
game, staying fresh and sharp for matches while the rest of the
panel were grinding out the stamina levels on the college pitch in
The Birr contingent married in well: the first testament,
perhaps, that Mike Mac has a finer touch with these things than
people would have given him credit for.
"It took understanding and patience, but they are fine hurlers
and Pad Joe had been doing his work. That was one of those things.
As well as the pitfalls, it brought to the fore fellas who wouldn't
have been seen normally. And in Offaly the numbers aren't there.
"Without them we had to look for fellas like Conor Gath, Aidan
Hanrahan, who were not part and parcel of modern Offaly hurling. And
the so-called master stroke of Ger Oakley at full back was just a
necessity. It wasn't ideal, but we got something out of it."
When did he know that the various mix-and-match pieces were
knitting together? Well, you can measure these things by the
distance from previous hurts. In March, 2002, an Offaly team with a
good chunk of its Birr boys playing went to Páirc Uí Chaoimh and got
an unmitigated hammering.
Fast-forward 364 days. Cork came to Birr on a Saturday afternoon,
and although the local contingent weren't playing Offaly won by
three points, ending Cork's unbeaten league run.
"That day we played Cork in the league. We spoke about that
before the match. I brought it up and some of the players wanted to
talk about it, how 12 months previously they'd had an almighty
drubbing. We beat them in Birr with a youthful, gutsy sort of
performance and I thought I saw a team that wanted their pride back.
It's a strange thing, pride."
Mike Mac is more of a student than he lets on to be. He speaks
casually of correspondence with fitness experts in centres like
Cambridge and Harvard, and when he speaks of Brian Cody and his
handling of certain problems which arise within hurling teams it is
clear he has absorbed lessons.
Most recently, in the week before the Limerick game, the first
family of Offaly hurling abdicated. Just out of the blue. He learned
by phone call but didn't pick up the receiver again after he'd put
it down. By the end of the week two Whelahans started against
Limerick and one came on as a substitute. McNamara had said it would
be so and nothing changed. In the aftermath he was generous in his
praise of the Whelahan family and inclined to play down the
"There was something there, which I didn't handle at all really.
A little hiccup. A little perception maybe that if there was a
problem I'd dash in and solve it straight away. That would be the
problem. Maybe the lads were expecting me to be at the door. I don't
do that anymore. I go away and mull about it and maybe not talk at
all about it.
"So that was the whole extent of the problem really. It's
something which happens regularly with different players. Gary
Hanniffy had it solved in two minutes, really. I would expect him
"Listen, they say being a parent is no bother provided you have
no problems. Management is the same."
For precedent he cites the case of Stephen Byrne, the only Offaly
player he knew well before he took the job. Through the spring he
relied heavily on Byrne as his guide to the players and his liaison
with the squad. The odd chat, the odd phone call. Useful stuff for a
manager feeling his way.
"I gave Stephen the captain's role, in effect. Then, when Brian
Mullins arrived on the scene, I had to do what was right for Offaly.
It was a hard decision. Very hard for me. Brian was just shading it
and they are two super 'keepers. Nobody could have argued if I'd put
Stephen in, but I had to do the right thing for Offaly. That's what
it comes down to."
And he stresses that he knew that the Whelahans would do the
right thing for Offaly in the end. Knowing that was his trump
"If anyone is playing for selfish reasons they would be out the
window. If they can't be prepared to play the part that's decided
for them they are playing the wrong game. Subs have to wish the lads
well. You don't have to be happy to be a sub, but it is a totally
unselfish game. You back the players that play."
And so Offaly came out and strung together a fine performance
that sent Limerick hurling back on the seat of its pants. Back where
Offaly was last year.
Ah, the distance from previous failures. Speaking to a former
Offaly hurler earlier this year, a prediction was demanded for the
summer ahead. It came wrapped in colourful certainty: "Shite bate
out of us. Twice. Again."
And last summer that's how the championship went. A good hiding
from Kilkenny, a worse one from Tipperary. Offaly were gone and
wouldn't be back for some time.
Yet tomorrow Tipperary will fear them. Or be fools if they don't.
McNamara has made the set-piece coup something of a speciality down
the years. Back in 2001, it was he who spotted the fat, happy way
Kilkenny gobbled down all the compliments served to them about
having the best full forward line of all time. And Mike Mac went
away and every time he drove from Galway to Scarriff and back he
thought about Kilkenny's Achilles' heel.
"Planning for that game, I prepared really well for that one. It
was decided that we wouldn't let them hurl. We'd run them off the
park, harassing them. Arguably, it wasn't something they were
expecting. It wasn't a Galway type of thing to do. They'd see it
coming maybe from Clare or from Limerick or even Tipp. That's the
game of hurling."
He relishes the memory, but time passes more quickly the older
you get and everything that got poured into that coup counted for
naught come September.
"That's why you look at Kilkenny. The standard they play at, the
standard they maintain. You look at what happened to them against
Galway a couple of years ago, and what did they do? They didn't go
back into their shell and accept that that was how things were, they
"They stepped up physically. Their standard of preparation is the
benchmark. Their touch is the benchmark. The standard of play is
matched by the excellence of preparation."
He looks at Kilkenny and looks at his own side. He knows the work
that remains to be done. The game against Wexford still haunts him,
the sight of the side losing their shape, going hunting in packs,
crowding Gary Hannify out under dropping balls.
"We stepped it up against Limerick. Fellas get to this time of
the year hurling and I just think they are happier. We were better
against Limerick and if we bring it up some more we can perform
against Tipperary. Let it down a little and we'll be hammered."
And if that happens, has this season been enough to cure the
sceptics in Offaly?
"Listen," he says with a smile, "I think it was
George Bernard Shaw
near the end of his life
who was asked about his greatest regret and he said
it was worrying about things which never happened."
Nice touch. Shaw. Not the Bull McCabe at