Paul O'Kelly Interview

November 8, 2018

‘You can’t go 5 miles in Offaly but you will find an inter county footballer.’

By David Farrell
Paul O’Kelly says he doesn’t hold a grudge with anyone over his highly controversial dismissal as Offaly Manager six years ago citing ‘I don’t have time for that stuff’.

The Edenderry club man believes the talent is there in Offaly if the right structures are put in place and believes Tom Cribben should be given at least 3 to 5 years to help bring on the younger players.

In this exclusive interview O’Kelly talks about life with his club, his time with Offaly and how he believed a then 17 year old Niall McNamee was destined for an All-Star.

Who were your earliest influences in football?

‘My earliest influence wasn’t actually in football it was in Hurling in Primary school. Mr Minogue got us started and coached us playing hurling. There was also league’s set up which meant whether you were the best or just an average player every player got the same amount of games. That to me was what got us going, the fact everyone got a chance. It is important at adult and underage level that everyone gets a chance because everyone has some potential’.

Who were your footballing heroes when you were growing up?

‘The 1961 Offaly team that were beaten in the All-Ireland final. I was a young lad and the team was often in Nolan’s restaurant in Edenderry getting there dinner. So at the age of six or seven been around these lads was a huge thing. They would also be down training in Edenderry. There was lads like Sean Foran, Mickey Brady and Tommy Cullen from Edenderry and it was lads like them got the likes of me dreaming about playing football. They were in an All-Ireland final and they were the talk of the country. Every young lad just wanted to play for Offaly’.

Did you attend the ’61 final?

‘No. I was listening to it though. I will never forget though the day before the All-Ireland final I seen Mickey Brady and known that he was playing the next day it was just fantastic. He was iconic to a young lad like me. Twenty years later I was coaching Michael Og and Peter on the Edenderry team that won the county Championship. Then about twelve years later I was coaching Peter Brady on the team that won the Leinster title and the National League title’.

What did you achieve as a player?

‘At primary school level we won hurling and football medals with the Bord Na Og but the one thing that still drives me on to encourage the development of the GAA is this. I went to the secondary school and for five years I never got a chance to kick a football. There was no football or hurling what so ever. The lads that went to the vocational school ended up playing football every week. They ended up playing for the school, Offaly Vocational and basically got a great chance to improve there ability. From the age of 13 to 18 I never had the chance to play football for the school so I missed out. It was only when I went to Physical Education College in Limerick that I started to play again’.

Who was your toughest opponent?

‘I wasn’t good enough to have a toughest opponent! (laughs) The toughest I had was probably during my four years in college. There was lads like John Tobin of Galway who was an All-Star. There was Brian Mullins of Dublin and Teddy Owens of Cork who to this day are two of my closest friends. There was also Pat Spillane. Whatever I know about Gaelic football from a coaching point of viewing all stems from my time at Limerick under the coaching of David Weldrick’.

Who was the best player you played with?

‘In college the most influential player I played with was obviously Brian Mullins. He was an absolute colossus of a man. In some ways as a footballer in terms of intelligence and skill he was actually underrated. He was seen very much as big towering tough man rather than skilful. He was one of the best players to support other people and a brilliant link man to help bring other players into the game. He was total uncompromising in the ways he played his football’.

How did you end up getting into coaching?

‘I basically got into it when I went to Thomond. I started coaching Gaelic football, Badminton, Basketball, Rugby and soccer. When I was in college I tore my knee so it became fairly obvious that I wasn’t going to become an inter-county footballer. It was never going to happen so when I was about 20 I started developing coaching skills. I done courses in all those sports. I took over coaching my first team when I was 22 up in Dundalk with the St Brides club. I also played for them at the same time. I came back to Edenderry when I was 25 and I got involved with the club so I have been at it since I was a baby’! (laughs)

Did you coach many underage teams in Edenderry?

‘Yes when I came back I got involved coaching the street league’s teams. I coached Finbarr Cullen’s street league team at u12 and u14. I was also secretary and treasurer of the club. The fact I was working in town I used to also go into the primary school once a week and coach the kids hurling and football just to help bring on the young lads. It also helped build a connection between the school and the club’.

Do you believe the street leagues are important to help develop players?

‘I really believe every single child, boy or girl, should be playing hurling and football. To me it’s really important that we have something going on in the school or the club to make every child feel welcome to come down regardless of size or ability. They all deserve a chance to play. I think the Fr McWey leagues are absolutely vital because they get the kids and parents involved and gives people the chance to enjoy what Gaelic football is all about’.

You managed Edenderry in 1985 to their first championship in 28 years? How special was that?

‘Well that was the big one. I was involved with the club as secretary with Sean ‘Hooper’ Farrell as Chairman. I got working with Kevin Nolan and Tommy Cullen who did a fantastic job building the team and got us to the position where we were genuinely competitive. We really focused on building a Gaelic football team and increasing the amount of adults playing. We made sure the underage was going well which it was but we also made sure the junior team was going well. Jim McGlynn and Eamon O’Connell were involved with them and we ended up getting 40 to 45 lads down training. Then along with two of my heroes Sean Foran and Paddy Fenlon together with Mickey Usher and Sonny Burke we took the senior team onto the next level. We started to build the team in a certain style similar to the team of ’57. That was the style that suited Edenderry best. When Edenderry are going well they have a certain style and way of doing things and we tried to build the team to that. We got a really great group of lads together and they created a great team atmosphere. The day we won that was the biggest day of my GAA life’.

Is it true there was strict rules enforced on the panel that year?

‘We had what I would call very well agreed discipline with the players. My style is we will keep it together, we figure out together what we want to achieve as a group of people and we sit down together and do a bit of dreaming about what we believe is the best possible thing for us. We set our own standards as a group. It was a shared discipline and nobody ruled with an iron fist. They played because they wanted to win’.

Edenderry had to wait 10 years for another championship but at the start of the ’90’s could you see a breakthrough on the horizon?

‘I could because there was a lot of work been done and Edenderry have always been very good at putting in the work at underage. There has been very strong cycles of good work been done at underage and you could see the players coming through. There was good leadership on the team and the club was ran well which means it was there just ready to boil. Then it came’.

Can you see Edenderry making any improvement in the near future?

‘When I finished with Offaly in 2003 I got involved with the Feile team and those lads are all coming through now. I took sessions with u16’s and minors and it is very clear to see there are plenty of good footballers in Edenderry, probably even more than there was 10 or 15 years ago. They need to keep the street league’s going. It is also very critical that the minor management and senior management keep in close contact. Minor is a huge fall off point but for the guys that do stay involved they end up loving it, they get on better in school and in there jobs and they end up having a better set of friends. To have a good senior team you need a good minor and junior team’.

Would you like to see Jack Sheedy stay on as manager?

‘Yes I would. I spoke a couple of times with him and I thought he was very energetic and enthusiastic. He put a lot of time and effort into it. But the town needs a very good junior team and then let them work hand in hand together. Some of the lads that have come through the schools recently have the potential to make the Offaly team but they have to decide if that’s what they want. There is definitely 5 or 6 young lads good enough’.

What teams did you manage?

‘I managed Round Towers of Clondalkin twice and twice we got promoted from division two. I also worked with Abbeylara in Longord for a while. And obviously Edenderry. I coached more than I managed’.

How did you become involved with Offaly seniors in the late ’90’s?

‘Well actually I was involved in 1986 along with Greg Hughes who had invited me in to help put together a way of coaching the team and planning. A few times after that I was asked to become a coach or selector but because of my job I do a lot of travelling so it wasn’t possible for me to commit full time. When I was on a family holiday in 1996 my wife and kids told me I needed to spend more time involved with football and less time working. When I came home I received a phone call from Tom Reilly who had been asked to ask me would I get involved with the team. I said yes straight away and that was it. The decision was made before I was asked’!

What was it like to be part of that successful era when Offaly won Leinster and there first ever national league title?

‘It was fantastic. Tommy Lyons, Eddie Fleming and I had an absolute fantastic working relationship and are all still great friends and that all stemmed from the Offaly set up. I think we were in a very low position in Offaly at that time and it gave us the opportunity to go and stamp our particular way of doing things on the whole Offaly set up. We set standards for the players, for ourselves and for the county board and because we were in such a low position it was possible to get all that stuff in place. It was just a fantastic time’.

You were appointed Offaly manager in 2003. How did that come about?

‘When Tommy finished with Offaly I was asked by a number of clubs to take the job but after talking to Tommy and Eddie I decided it was better to take a break from it. When Padraig Nolan was finished I was contacted again by a lot of clubs to see would I take it. I had a big think about it and I had a chat with my wife Margaret and my kids to see what they thought. It was something I always wanted to do and was a dream of mine to manage Offaly and to win an All-Ireland with Offaly which was the biggest disappointment of the Tommy Lyons era. I spoke to my partners in work and told them I really wanted to do it so they said go for it. So I did’.

You gave current Offaly Star Niall McNamee his debut against Laois aged 17. Were you always confident he would be as good as he is?

‘Yes Niall is one of about 5 or 6 players that we had identified as a management team who had what it took. We went around and looked at schools matches, we spoke to the school teachers and to the Offaly minor and u16 managements. Through this we identified a group of lads who in a period of about 3 to 5 years you could see them playing in Croke Park in an All-Ireland final and Niall McNamee was definitely one of those players. So because of his size and his ability we reckoned it was possible he might be ready that summer to play senior football. I spoke with his teacher in Edenderry, I spoke to his former school teacher in Ballybyran and I spoke to members of Rhode GAA club and I came to the conclusion this was a guy who was going to make it and he was ready for senior football. We brought him along to the odd training session and didn’t ask him to do anything different. We decided to play him and we put our plan together. Before Niall McNamee even played I believed he was an absolute certainty if Offaly could make the progress that he would become an All-Star. One of my biggest disappointments for him is that if Offaly had achieved there full potential he would be an All-Star by now’.

After your highly controversial dismissal you blamed it on ‘local politics’. What did you mean by that?

‘I suppose I just don’t understand it yet but I believe there was some kind of a hidden agenda there because the players had made significant progress and I had an agreement in place with the county board that it would be reviewed on a particular basis but the people who appointed me were not involved in reviewing me. I just didn’t understand that. Despite the fact it was a devastating experience it was also a very powerful positive experience. One thing I have always done is recognise no matter who you are or what you’re doing you’re going to have major set backs in your career and in life. The way I measure my own success is how high a bounce I make after I have a fall. It was absolutely devastating for me and for the people around me or who were involved with me. But within a year I was working behind the scenes with another inter county team and whilst I am not directly involved with Offaly football now I helped developed the strategic plan for the GAA for the next 7 years. Christy Cooney has appointed me to develop the plan for all the international groups in America, Europe, The Far East and Australia. So maybe because I was fired out of that job I ended up doing something else I love. I love coaching but at least I am still involved in some way’.

Around one third of the squad in 2003 was under the age of 22 so your plan was obviously long term rather than an 8 month plan?

‘The reality of it is that with a county like Offaly we haven’t had huge underage success and because we don’t have a stream of players coming through that it takes 3 to 5 years to win an All-Ireland. The view we took was we held onto players who we believed had the potential to stay for 3 to 5 years and the potential to win an All-Ireland. We also held onto some highly iconic and very influential players like Vinny Claffey and Finbarr Cullen to help the next generation to come through. Then we tried to get the maximum number of fella’s who in 3 to 5 years would be in their prime and bring them on and that’s what we did. That’s the principal in which it has to work’.

Do you hold any grudges over it?

‘No I don’t. That’s not my bag at all. I don’t have time for that stuff’. (laughs)

How did you feel about the Edenderry players involved issuing a statement over there future involvement with Offaly?

‘First of all I really appreciated the fact they stood up for me, all the players in fact. I know that they met and planned to go on strike. I met 3 or 4 key players and said to them ‘listen this is not going to happen I don’t want it too’. I wrote a letter to every single player and I asked them to give there full support to whoever got the job and to build on the work they had done in 2003. I told them to take full responsibility themselves for there own success as individuals and to make the best possible contributions they could to be part of a winning All-Ireland winning team. Some players were able to that but I was disappointed for the guys that chose to end there career over it. I would have preferred that they stayed on. However it was great to see that the players wanted to do what they did but I encouraged them all to carry on and focus on there own achievements’.

Yes or No, Would you ever take the job again?

‘That question only becomes relevant when it’s asked! I have been offered several inter county jobs in this province and a few others in different provinces but I have always said no because I could never manage another team that played against Offaly. I got involved with Monaghan a few years ago along with my daughter Aisling who done the video analysis and when Monaghan played Offaly in Tullamore I went to Portlaoise and caught the train to Cork because I couldn’t look at it’!

Were you surprised Gerry Fahy suffered a similar faith?


Do you think the players were right to strike that time?


Do you think the current players acted accordingly in regard to Richie Connor’s reign this year?

‘I think from every point of view that whole situation was badly managed. I don’t think it is fair on Richie or the players to comment on it’.

Do you hold much hope for Tom Cribben next year?

‘Well I firmly believe you can’t go more than 5 miles in Offaly but you will find an inter county footballer. There are plenty of talented footballers in this county. The problem is the structures we have had over the last number of year’s means when you compare us to other counties we are miles behind. I met many times with Mickey Harte behind closed doors and I have seen it in Tyrone and Cork as well that when you compare the system for the guys between 16 and 25 then we have some serious catching up to do. It will be a real challenge but Tom has proven himself to be a good coach with Edenderry. It takes 3 to 5 years for a 17 year old to develop into a man capable of playing in an All-Ireland and Tom has to be given that time for them to achieve there full potential. What has gone in Offaly over the last ten years is that there have been too many interruptions. There is no continuity and there hearing about 8 or 9 different voices telling them what football is all about’.

What do you make of the current standard of senior football in Offaly?

‘I have been at a number of club games this year, even in Kildare and Dublin and the standard has been very disappointing. Yet at the same time you can still see the good footballers that are there. My concern is that there is one or two teams that are competitive and then there are a lot where the standard seems to have dipped dramatically. The level of commitment seems to have dropped’.

Should the parish rule be re-introduced?

‘I think there are too many people playing senior football that are not senior standard. Only about two thirds of the county play football so for our small population we have too many senior clubs. So yes maybe parish rule is the answer’.

Do you think the clubs could get along? Edenderry and Ballyfore for example?

‘Well it worked very well when I was around so I don’t know you would have to ask them two clubs’!

How did you get involved with the Monaghan senior football team?

‘I worked behind the scenes with a couple of counties and Seamus McEnaney approached me and asked me would I be able to work with him and the management team. He wanted me to help build the coaching set up and work with the players in order for them to develop and to reach their fulfil there full potential. I couldn’t say no because he is a compelling and charismatic individual and also the fact they couldn’t meet Offaly in the Leinster championship and I didn’t think there would be much chance of them meeting in the All-Ireland either! (laughs) Seamus’s heart is completely in the right place and his only desire is to see Monaghan achieve their full potential so that’s why I took it’.

In your business life you were involved with the strategic planning for Sunderland FC working alongside Niall Quinn. What was that like for you?

‘It was very interesting. I met Niall when I was doing some work in UCD for the department of sport. We were both doing some work for UCD and then he asked me to get involved with another business project he was working on. We got to know each other very well and he asked a lot about how I approached coaching and what I was doing with Offaly. He told me he was considering doing something in professional soccer in England and asked me to put together a plan for the development of Sunderland. Part of what attracted me to it was the he wanted to bring the ethos and cultural and the commitment you find in inter county football into a professional soccer club. We used the template I had used for Offaly as the template for a professional club. It was a very exciting experience to work with such an iconic soccer figure and a really fantastic guy in general’.

You are currently involved with the strategic planning for Edenderry GAA. Can you tell us about those plans?

‘First of all I was so delighted to be asked to do it because Edenderry GAA club is near and dear to me. One of my work colleagues Orla Cullen is also involved in the strategic plan for Ladies football. First of all we want to get as many people as possible into the pavilion on October 28th and take them through a three or four step process. The first one is we want to ask them what it is they really love about there time so far in the GAA. We want to hear people’s best memories. We want to know where people will see the club in 5 or 6 years time. We are given everyone the chance to speak up and tell us what they want no matter what it is they want. We then ask people what are their priorities and what they want done next year. We then put together a very practical plan which will help the club deliver does objectives. If it is clear what everyone wants then we can get everyone looking in the same direction. Within a couple of months we will have clear plans of were the club is going’.

How did you get involved with Dolphin RFC in Cork?

‘I have a habit of saying yes to people and a guy I work with called Peter Hannifin caught me in a very weak moment one day! (laughs) He asked me would I help out his local club Dolphin who were bottom of the AIB at the time. My side step wasn’t good enough to say no! I got involved with the management and helped them see where they wanted to go and then I got involved with players. They have some very good players like James Coughlan who was one the star players against the All Blacks last November and also the Irish scrum half Tomas O’Leary. Some of the players are amateur but some are professional. They have moved up to the higher end of the table now and last week they beat there main rivals Constitution for the first time in twenty years so according to the lads in Dolphin I can retire now’!

Despite Dolphin’s appeal for O’Kelly to retire he continues to be involved in sport! He did not rule out a return to the Offaly hot seat and hopefully someday it will happen. It was a huge set back for Paul personally and probably an even bigger set back for the county when he was disgracefully removed from his post in 2003.