AS a very successful Portlaoise manager, Malachy McNulty would have had no shortage of offers after opting out last year.
During his four year term in his native club, McNulty led them to three Laois Senior Football Championship titles and he is a very highly rated manager.
As his term came to its natural end, the Portlaoise man had intended taking time out but when an unknown number rang his phone late last year and he learnt of Rhode's interest, he didn't require a huge amount of time to commit.
Like anyone on the club circuit, he was fully aware of Rhode's pedigree and their phenomenal run of success in Offaly. With Rhode having lost to Ferbane in the Senior Football Championship final last year, they have returned to familiar territory this year and they are favourites for Sunday's final against Tullamore.
When you got the chance to take Rhode, were you instantly attracted?
“There was a couple of jobs in the mix. I didn't feel I was in the position to take anything at the time. I got a phone call from an unknown number, the chairman here in Rhode last November and it was the only phone call where I looked twice and said, maybe. That was based on my knowledge of the Rhode footballers. I would have huge respect for the club and team, coming up against them as a player and manager. I knew there was great quality and depth in the squad and I thought, there is a job I would really like to take on. Here is a group looking to improve and do better eac year.
“It is tough for a team that keeps coming back to county finals. You are trying to find a little bit extra, a wee bit of freshness. I was instantly intrigued by the job and it didn't take me long to get on board.”
You have come from one dominant club to another. That sort of dominance brings its own challenges?
“Sure and what you are looking for within a squad is resillience, the acceptance that sport can't be perfect and things can go wrong. It could be on a minute level on the pitch or it could be the whole game is going against you. You are looking for characters and you are looking for leaders. I believe there are leaders in this squad. You have great lads, the Sullivan's, Alan McNamee who is a fantastic leader. You have some fantastic players coming through U-20s, a lot of them are involved in county teams.
“You have some of those young lads looking up to those leaders. Aaron Kellaghan is a fantastic prospect, Keith Murphy who broke through to the senior team this year and is a fantasic defender. You have a younger cohort looking up to the leaders and it is good for coming years.”
What are you memories of Portlaoise playing Rhode in the Leinster club championship?
“I came up against Rhode two or three years ago in O'Connor Park. It was a tough game. We won, we had a very bright first half and pulled away from Rhode. They came back very strong in the second half and it came down to two or three points. I remember some of the players I am dealing with now and you can see improvement in some of them, whether it is physical progress or skills. You can see some of the older fellows who are still there and plying their trade as well as ever.”
Would you be aware of what happened Rhode in the semi-final last year and Niall's injury (Niall McNamee and Brian Dary went off with head injuries in their win over Clara)?
“Yes and it was a tough injury for Niall. Niall is obviously a huge player for the team and is a fine marquee forward. Rhode went into the final and I saw the video a couple of times and it came down to five or seven minutes of absolute madness where there was 2-3 scored against them (v Ferbane), We were five points clear and the game was turned on its head. Some times the momentum of a game goes and you just can't get back into it. Motivation wise, the lads really wanted to get back into the final and try and make amends for it.”
There had been concerns after that game that Niall mightn't play football again because of the nature of his head injury but he is probably back playing his best football since the late 2000s. What would you put that down to?
“I would have said it before the county semi-final that Niall takes very good care of himself and a lot of it comes down to Niall's patience. That he didn't rush himself back into inter-county football and I think John Maughan was very good to him around that. There was no forcing him to play or tying to get him up to speed, he was given time and space to recover. With that, lockdown probably came at a good time. It gave him a bit of time to get his body into shape which he has done. Then basically what I do as I do with all players is communicate closely when them. Make sure they are okay and what works with them, particularly with older players which you have to manage slightly differently. Niall has come back with all guns blazing and is going really well.”
Is he 100% or is there a bit of a residue from his injury?
“Niall scored 1-7, 1-6 in a game, 5 or 6 points in another game and 1-4 the last day. That speaks for itself.”
Alan McNamee has been used as an impact sub. Is that a management decision?
“Alan had a couple of small knocks that made my decision pretty easy over the last couple of months. I was just delighted to see him get on the park and have an influence the last day. He was instrumental in the leveller and the goal in extra time. He is a fine option whether he starts or not.”
There is no doubt that Niall McNamee is the main man. Would you have fears about what will happen if he doesn't perform or if Tullamore somehow mark him?
“That is a fair question and I will give you my honest opinion. At the start of the year, Niall was carrying his injury and we were thinking about the prospect of what if Niall doesn't make the cut. We really have tried to bring a very strong panel, not around Niall, but in general and who know how to go about their business. Even in the early stages of the championship, the scores were very top heavy between Niall and Anton (Sullivan) but as the games have moved on, there is more of a spread of scores. This is very much a panel effort and you really need lads stepping up. In relation to the Edenderry game, you had to have lads who really went trying to make it happen from deep because it wasn't happening. You had the Darby's coming from the half back, full back line, Eoin Rigney, Gareth McNamee breaking the line quite a lot. They were really endeavouring to make it happen. We used 22 players on Saturday and there was not one of those players who didn't have a significant impact on the eventual outcome. You look at Darren Garry fetching the ball at a crucial moment in the last kickout, Paul McPadden's pace was fantastic. Pauric Sullivan, such a team player, to come on for Ciaran Heavy on five minutes, who took a significant knock to his eye. Pauric played his heart out for 45 minutes and then that was his job done. Someone else goes on and finishes the job off. This is very much a panel effort.”
See Tullamore and Midland Tribune for full interview