Aidan Rooney: ‘You have to pass the culture on’
By Cian O’Connell
Aidan Rooney remains intrigued and enthralled by Gaelic Football. Regardless of the team or level, Rooney has a thirst to acquire more knowledge, to better himself for the challenges that await because there will always be missions to accomplish.
The former Leitrim footballer is busy preparing his native Glencar-Manorhamilton for Sunday’s County Final against Mohill. That is the current task, but Rooney is delivering at various grades in Sligo too, where he lives.
Rooney brought Sligo to the 2015 Connacht Minor Football Final with an outfit that was moulded in impressive fashion. That was a clear sign of Rooney’s coaching acumen, and he is simply delighted to be involved on the sideline now.
“At the end of the day your time comes and goes, you just try to pass the game on,” Rooney says during an engaging interview. “It is a culture based Association we have.
“I firmly believe that. You have to pass the culture on. Some guys are very selfish, when their time is done they walk away and leave it.
“They never look back on what they got out of it. I got so much out of the game of Gaelic Football I could never pay it back. That is the way I genuinely feel about Gaelic Football.”
So at the end of 2015 Rooney had a decision to make opting to take charge of Glencar-Manorhamilton. It was a step Rooney was ready, willing, and able to take.
“I wanted to get my foot back into senior football,” Rooney states. “Underage is completely different kettle of fish or perceived to be a different kettle of fish, but I wouldn't say that as much now as I would have beforehand. It is all football.
“Sometimes senior football is overrated as regards its level. For me underage football was a breath of fresh air having come out of senior inter-county football as a player. Getting into underage coaching, spending 15 years at underage coaching, I found that underage football is pure football, it gave me a better sense going back into senior football.
“The game has become very tactical, but I feel, and what I've learned is that maybe more football is better than cynicism or tactics.”
As Jack O'Connor said after the game we were the best team they had played in the sense that our skill levels were decent, they weren't good enough obviously, but they were decent and improved.
Monitoring and learning from what is happening elsewhere is key for Rooney, who always seeks to adopt a skills based approach to training.
“I think so, I totally agree with that,” Rooney says about the importance of concentrating on the skills of the game.
“We had a lot of contact with DCU during my years over the minors and in that five year period, we saw with a lot of help and intervention from the guys in DCU, that Dublin have gone back to a skill based approach. We followed a very, very similar path in a way where we concentrated heavily on the skills.
“Obviously the conditioning of players is very important as well, we would have seen that particularly with the underage set-ups where we had to work very hard on the conditioning of our young players, which we did at the time. That brought us up to the level of physicality we needed to be at. That is what made us competitive and the skills set brought us to where we were on the verge of winning a Connacht Minor.
“We did win a Connacht Minor League, we had Kerry as the gauge that year. As Jack O'Connor said after the game we were the best team they had played in the sense that our skill levels were decent, they weren't good enough obviously, but they were decent and improved.
“That came from the training we were doing. Underage was a breath of fresh air. Sometimes the game gets lost with managers.”
Rooney acknowledges the importance and relevance of gut instinct. It is something Glencar-Manorhamilton’s players have embraced, there is a willingness to develop. “You have to trust yourself,” Rooney admits.
“Sunday is another big game for us. We lost last year by a point, I don't have any regrets because I went on my gut instinct. You have to go on your gut instinct, if you don't have that as a manager you don't really have much.
“Over the last couple of years I've gone from the minor set-up in Sligo where we had everything, a brilliant conditioning coach from Mayo, Conor Finn, we had all those support structures in place with the minors and it was very good. It was great, we had a stats system and everything else. I found that a hands on, gut instinct approach has worked with Manorhamilton.
“Guys have looked for an honest assessment, they have got it, they have then worked on it. The players trusted what I was doing, that is the way it has worked out. I'm not saying if I went into inter-county football that I would use the same approach, but I have seen the game going from playing in the 90s when I was a corner forward and the corner backs job was to stop me playing, he wasn't judged on going the other way.
“The game has changed in that way, but I find that great to see players going the other way, up the pitch. I think it is a great game nowadays when you can play a totally expansive brand of football. Corner backs attack and play football, that is what I want guys to do.”
Ensuring sport is enjoyable for the players and those involved is another vital aspect according to Rooney, who has altered his methods slightly for the 2017 campaign with Glencar-Manorhamilton.
“This year has been very good, but we had to re-align ourselves after last year,” Rooney adds. “After last year when we ran for 11 months of the year. I came in before Christmas in 2015, we tested the team before Christmas. Then we put a training programme in place.
“The team was in good shape to be fair, it wasn't bad. What I did was we had an environment when we had three teams training, we have two teams in finals again, plus a hurling team and we are looking to get into the Junior A. That approach worked, we have a lot of guys playing football in Manorhamilton which is very good.
“The first year, being back in my first year again created a renewed enthusiasm in the club, but this year we have different managers at each level.
It isn't that the players aren't there, it is to generate the enthusiasm and wanting to play. That is what we are looking to do. It is something I'm very conscious of at all levels.
“I was nearly managing every team last year, so we have worked with a senior panel of 30 all year, a lot of them play at Junior A, but they are potentially senior players. It has been good that way, they are enjoying it and that is what I see. If they don't enjoy it they aren't going to do it. That is the trade off.”
Finding the correct balance is vital, and to illustrate his point Rooney stresses what happened during his own career.
“I drove up and down to Kells for eight years, I talk to Sligo players here and obviously in Leitrim and fellas saying you are mad, but I wasn't mad in the head, I wanted to do it at that place and time,” Rooney comments.
“Every player in the 90s did it no matter what county they were playing for. There was no quarter given or taken. Now guys say it is madness having guys in cars from a conditioning point of view, eating food at 10 or 11 o'clock at night. In the 90s that worked. I'm not saying it is the way to go back to, but there is certainly somewhere in between.
“The reality in Sligo is that they need to spend more time together, but that is a logistical issue with Dublin. They are fantastic, they train together all of the time, Sligo don't.
“I would see the same in Leitrim. It isn't that the players aren't there, it is to generate the enthusiasm and wanting to play. That is what we are looking to do. It is something I'm very conscious of at all levels.”
Rooney’s desire to evolve as a manager, coach, and facilitator continues. That is why he wants to attend courses and progress further.
“I spent the last seven months doing the Award 2 coach,” Rooney reveals. “Peter McGinnity, who had managed me at inter-county level was one of the mentors and he asked me 'why are you doing this Rooney?' - I said 'why wouldn't I do it?'
“Funny enough the whole Galway hurling coaching team from senior down to under 16 were at it as well. That was very interesting to see. To see that calibre of person taking part in an Award 2 Coaching course. We all wanted to better ourselves. We were all there for the same reason.
“I did a strength and conditioning course purely for the benefit of me having the knowledge to go to talk to strength and conditioning coaches on the same level, to help me understand the needs of the panel I'm coaching.”
Whether it is training under 11s at Sligo’s splendid Academy in Scarden or trying to guide Glencar-Manorhamilton to silverware, Rooney finds enjoyment.
“I find it intriguing because I'm getting a huge cross reference all of the time. I'm getting brought down to natural coaching at under 11, 13, and 15 up to senior coaching. I use a yardstick approach.
“With a senior footballer you are at 90 with it, you only have 10 per cent to work with. At under 11, I have a son, who is 11. With under 11 your yardstick is only at 10 so you have 90 per cent to work with.
“The difference is vast in what you can do with different players at the different ages. I see that as a huge learning curve for me and it helps me get greater understanding as to what level you are coaching at.
“If you are coaching a guy at 18, they've had a fair bit of coaching already from all types of coaches. So they have fairly well formed opinions be they good or bad. Senior footballers are worse because they are further up the scale, so it can be hard to change.”
Assessing the talent and temperament of a panel must be done quickly. “I would, that is what has been a great experience for me with the senior,” Rooney accepts. “You set goals and targets on their ability.
“The skill set stuff we have done in Manorhamilton has worked. It has focused guys. It might make only a minimal improvement in some guys, but everybody has bought into it.
“What I have learned with DCU, is that it doesn't take a long time for this to work effectively. If you change over a short period of time and do repetition at a high level it does improve. It improves their consciousness of it as well.
My father, God rest him, always said what makes a player different in Leitrim and Kerry? Nothing. They are the same flesh and blood.
“I'm very much from the philosophy that you don't need cones on a pitch. You are trying to get guys to do stuff, on their own initiative. Use the environs of the pitch as much as you possibly can.
“I developed my own teams in St Mary's over the years, I developed my own team with the Sligo minors because I got them at the start. I was able to put my own print on them.
“Manorhamilton is different, but there is a legacy of me in the club. Those guys were playing whatever way they were playing and I had to take that, then try to make it better.
“Not try to change it, just make it better. The challenges are vast as a coach, but I find it intriguing. You have to assess quickly what you can do with a group. Can you train them the same as the last group with you were with? Probably not. You probably have to look at a completely different outlook.”
Certain advancements have been made since Rooney’s own playing career ended. “I felt Niall Moyna's point last week in relation to that was very good, Niall made a point that the guys they see nowadays, Nathan is in college up there, they are 95 per cent fit most of the time,” Rooney says.
“All they need is topping up, they don't need to be trained like dogs like we were when we had winter breaks and needed to be re conditioned for a month or two after Christmas.”
Ultimately, putting the next generation on the right sporting path is what Rooney hopes to achieve. Inevitably it will be a long and winding road, but the past isn’t something he wants to dwell on, merely trying to fashion a better future in the north west.
“You are privileged to work with these guys, I'm out in Scarden working with under 11s trying to develop the next batch,” Rooney says. “People believe in me now because I've done it, but that is what it is about.
“I'm lucky to have a profile from having been a player, but I couldn't care less if it was never mentioned again. I had my time. I speak to Declan Darcy regularly, he is in Dublin, he is a super guy. He is in the backroom team, he is getting full value from his time with Jim Gavin. It is not about having your name in lights.
“That is a point I said to all the development squad coaches in Sligo. It isn't about you, nobody cares who you are at the end of the day. You might have been a good player, you mightn't have been, it doesn't make any difference. You are doing it for these kids and young guys to give them a chance. That is how I see football.
“I've been very lucky as a player. I was the nephew of Mickey Kearns and all this stuff, I had to carry it which wasn't a burden it was great.
“The benefit of the Leitrim set-up down through the years was the sense you could do anything. Why wouldn't you? That is what I take from it. I try to pass that on to every team at every level, anything is achievable if you want to go after it.
“The Manorhamilton guys our target is the County Final next Sunday, I'm not sure if they have bought into anything higher than that because that is what they want to go so we will go after that. My father, God rest him, always said what makes a player different in Leitrim and Kerry? Nothing. They are the same flesh and blood.
“That is what I saw in Sligo, I did from 14-18 which was five years so I thought why don't we get these guys in a couple of years younger, get the parents onboard. So we did it.
“We did eight or nine sessions at under 11s - Super games, fun based coaching. All of a sudden we have 70 guys in that know they will be in development squads at under 13. They are on the path.”
With Rooney leading the way they are set for a rollicking adventure.