After OTB Sports brought you the story of how Sligo hurling's most successful management team were forced to walk away, Colum O'Meara, the coach caught at the centre of the storm, speaks to Arthur James O'Dea.
In fairness to Colum, he has come in and been part of a team where we’ve had success, you know. That can’t be underplayed. We’re all human and people make mistakes. For us, it was just a mistake on his behalf. We did an awful lot of stuff around honesty and integrity. You try to protect the group as best you can from outside influences and we just thought that he had crossed a line.
- Peter Galvin, former Sligo Hurling selector
A few hours after Colum O’Meara had first spoken to OTB Sports, he was having reservations.
“Just met a friend of mine,” a message read over WhatsApp later that night. “He said I was better off not getting involved in any talks with media until after I do the interview.”
Amid Sligo hurling’s disharmony, he wished to seriously pursue an opportunity.
It was a few weeks before the Christy Ring Cup got underway and a frustrated Daithí Hand had just resigned, along with the bulk of his backroom team. A coach in Hand’s set-up, O’Meara had had no direct involvement in the decision.
“I wasn’t going behind Daithí’s back applying for the manager’s job,” he insists in conversation a second time round. “I just thought I could help these players.”
For Hand, Peter Galvin, and other members of the backroom team, part of the trouble was that they believed O’Meara had already broken their trust, however.
“He compromised us with the clubs,” argued Hand to OTB Sports. “The dressing room, from what I could gather, was split. It was a shit-show, the whole thing became a mess.”
Colum O’Meara was still in charge of Longford when he first met Daithí Hand at a challenge match against Sligo in 2018.
When his spell in the midlands ended, he was not long waiting for Hand’s call. A coach first and foremost, O'Meara's pedigree was unquestionable.
“I must have started coaching with my home club of Killimor when I was 18,” the Galway native explains, a later spell working with the late Tony Keady in Ahascragh-Fohenagh is among his fondest memories.
“I’m just mad for action, I’ll train anyone. When I arrived in Sligo the enthusiasm for hurling was great but a lot of it was all standing up stuff. To be a good hurler you have to hit the ball and move.
“That’s how you’re coached down in Galway from a young age. I’m not knocking Sligo, but nearly every lad there plays at least two sports. Where I’m from in Galway, we don’t know what a football is.”
In 2005, a 48-week ban for representing two clubs in one summer had led O’Meara, then of Kilburn Gaels, to a coaching role with London’s hurlers. They won the Nicky Rackard Cup later that year.
Although Sligo had won the Lory Meagher Cup in 2018, O’Meara’s arrival had a transformative impact on the panel, nevertheless. He complemented with his coaching the great work that Hand, Galvin and their team had successfully initiated away from the training pitch.
“Colum is brilliant from a development point of view,” claimed Peter Galvin before last year’s Nicky Rackard Cup final. “He is always demanding that people improve and train at a certain level. I think that's the key to where a lot of the results have come from this year.”
“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had,” chimed Keith Raymond via Instagram, Sligo’s marquee player arm-in-arm with O’Meara after their eventual win in Croke Park.
RELATED ARTICLE: How Sligo's most successful management team were forced to walk away
Undoubtedly self-confident, O’Meara has never taken such praise for granted. Well-schooled in the Galway tradition, he approached his task in Sligo without an ounce of snobbery.
After all, this was a blank canvas where he could blaze a trail of his own without the weight of expectation. Unfortunately, those kind words are now as much an indication of what was left undone.
“These boys in five years’ time,” he stresses of Sligo’s emerging talents, “if they got the proper coaching and backing, they could give Galway a game.
“It is frightening, absolutely frightening. People in Sligo don’t realise what this team could do if they were given what’s needed. They don’t realise the talent that’s there.”
Colum O’Meara did. Daithi Hand and Peter Galvin did too. For O’Meara though, the determination to see this talent flourish was his undoing.
Having spoken to a respected Western Gaels clubman last week, he eschewed the notion that there is an ill, sometimes unhealthy rivalry between these neighbouring teams from West Sligo. I believe him. I’ve seen first-hand Paul O’Grady, Western Gaels, and Mikey Gordon, Easkey, go at each other on an inter-county training night but pick each other up off the ground afterwards and embrace. There is a respect there amongst both sets of players, as there should be.
- Daithí Hand, Sligo Champion, 8/9/2020
Daithi Hand’s departure cannot be traced back to one isolated incident. The concerned parties are confident that Colum O’Meara’s transgression alone would not have brought about the end.
Nevertheless, tensions were already high after Hand accused the County Board of mishandling his request to secure permits for two Galway natives that were keen to represent Sligo.
Concurrently, he was having issues with a club who he believed were withholding their county players longer than had been arranged. It didn't help then to discover that his coach was working with the club in question.
While there is no suggestion the arrangement had any bearing on the release of players, it bothered him that O’Meara had failed to mention he was working with Easkey/St. Farnan’s.
“I honestly don’t know why it hit them so hard,” reasons O’Meara, aware throughout that no rules were breached. “Sure, I was only coaching Sligo lads to be better.”
For Hand, the circumstances in which O’Meara had begun working with the club, along with how he had become aware of the arrangement, was problematic, however.
As GAA clubs returned to training earlier this summer, Hand and his coaches offered their services to Sligo’s six hurling clubs. After conducting a session with Western Gaels, one of this year’s county semi-finalists, O’Meara ran a session with their opponents Easkey before both teams met on September 13th.
When the semi-final took place in Markievicz Park, O’Meara - stood across the pitch from the gathered Sligo management team under the stand - was already working with Easkey in a personal capacity.
“A recorded voice message pops into our WhatsApp group from Colum,” recalled Hand to OTB Sports of how the arrangement became apparent. “He was giving directions to Easkey on how to set up their full-back line. It was intended for a different group.”
An embarrassing slip on O’Meara’s part, Hand concluded that O'Meara was using information he had gained while working as a representative of Sligo's management team for the benefit of one club over another.
For the Sligo hurling manager, it had put his backroom team’s reputation with their players in jeopardy.
“I was in contact with two people from Western Gaels since,” clarifies O’Meara, dismissing the notion of dressing-room unrest and any wrongdoing. “Nobody said one word about my working with Easkey. That doesn’t sit with me at all.
“For all that I did before Easkey played Western Gaels, it wasn’t worth talking about. I’m not trying to put them down, but Easkey were going to win that match. You just have to look at the score-line (4-17 to 0-7).”
Any hint of subterfuge gone, O’Meara was on the sideline of Markievicz Park as Easkey went on to beat Naomh Eoin and win their first county title in almost 60 years. Throughout it all, he maintains that he did nothing wrong.
“The way it worked out,” he explains, discussions for his continued involvement in 2021 already underway, “nobody else wanted me and Easkey did.
“Three of the Naomh Eoin players were ringing me beforehand to ask why I wasn’t coming up to them. Sure, I can’t go up if I’m not asked.
“I was only improving Sligo hurling whatever way I could. I’m a hurling man. I can’t be sitting down at home looking out of the window. I’ll help whoever I can.”
It is no surprise then that Colum O’Meara’s conscience was clear as he considered replacing Hand as the county manager. With a league final against Leitrim to come on top of Sligo’s first run in the Christy Ring Cup, he felt well-placed to take over.
“I was very confident that I would get the job,” he admits, Padraig Mannion the candidate ultimately chosen to see out the remainder of 2020.
“So, yeah, I was a little bit taken aback when I didn’t get it. That’s their wish. I don’t think I could do a better interview again in my life though.”
Accepting but irritated, O’Meara, much like the man he wished to replace, would not necessarily have backed Sligo’s County Board to make the correct decision when it came to hurling, anyway.
“When the boys got their All-Ireland medals for the Nicky Rackard Cup this year,” he recalls, “they had to pay for their own tickets into the function. I was gobsmacked. That doesn’t happen where I’m from.
“I even brought up a few spot prizes on the night from friends in Galway. There was a hurl signed by Joe Canning, an overnight stay in a hotel and Tom Joe Larkin gave a me a hurl.
“I was three months waiting after I asked the County Board to send a thank you letter to the lads just to show that they were used as spot prizes. Three months! I can’t understand that.”
Yet, there is no doubt that O’Meara still wishes he was working under Hand to prepare Sligo for their league final on Sunday afternoon.
Still mad for action, he will content himself with a smaller but no less significant goal for now.
“I’ve my name down to take over the national school team about half-a-mile from my home in Galway,” he announces, two of his own children among the small panel of players.
“There’s only about 18 kids overall, but that’s my next job. I want to win a national schools title with them, and after that bring whatever team wants me on to another final in Croke Park.”
No job too big or too small.