I was manager of Tranmere in April 1999 when we played a fixture against Graham Taylor’s Watford that lived long in my memory – as much for the tale behind the game as the events that took place on the pitch.
We left Vicarage Road that evening wondering how we had lost a game to a Watford side that finished with nine men and came from behind to win 2-1 after David Kelly scored an opener for my team.
It was one hell of a battle, a real feisty affair and a few months later I got a chance to sit down with Taylor and his assistant Kenny Jackett (below) to reflect on the match – we found ourselves taking part in the same pre-season tournament as Watford.
As it happens, the three points they manufactured against my Tranmere team proved to be crucial in Watford’s long-term future, as they played a part in helping the Hornets to secure promotion to the Premier League, with the financial windfall that comes from that all too obvious in the modern game.
What impressed me about Watford on the night they beat us was the passion of their players, the drive and commitment they had when battling against the odds to get the better of opponents who were a match for them all over the pitch.
When I found out the reason why Taylor believed his players wanted to succeed a little bit more than my lads, it highlighted for me once again just how much respect the heroes who play GAA hurling and football command among their fellow sportsmen.
Taylor told me that in the days before the game against Tranmere, he had hired an Irish sports psychologist called Kieran Cosgrove, who had sat his players down, said nothing to them and showed them a tape of a high-octane hurling game.
He then got the soccer players, many of whom would have been earning the kind of money the hurlers could only dream about, to write down the qualities they could identify in a sport that many of them had never seen before.
The descriptions that were presented went something like this: passion, pride, desire, bravery, devotion to a cause.
All of them were very relevant until the psychologist told them that there was one major point that they missed.
He then got his black ink marker and wrote on a board in big bold letters – UNPAID!
Taylor told me that you could see the jaws of his players hit the floor.
To a soccer star who is used to having money flowing his way all too quickly, the idea that these supremely fit sportsmen give their all for their counties in front of sell-out crowds, live on TV, without being paid, was impossible to comprehend.
The message from the psychologist was that, if these lads can show this much drive and hunger, and do it all without a big pay cheque, why the hell can’t you replicate it in a job where you are lucky to be getting paid to do something that you love?
Taylor believes the influence of the Irish psychologist and the tactics he used with his hurling tape was crucial in that success – I’m certain he was right to suggest as much.
How could you not be inspired by these incredible sporting giants?
I was fortunate to be over in Dublin earlier this week, sharing a few pints with some GAA legends at the Sunday World sports department’s Christmas party, and this story came up, with the conversations that followed inspiring me to write this article.
Now I know people will tell me I should not be sticking my nose into a sport that I know very little about, but there is nothing I love more than sitting down to watch hurling or football and it baffles me that, in 2013, the lads performing heroics for their counties are not being better looked after.
You have a TV deal in place with RTE, sell-out crowds at Croke Park, €4m shirt sponsorship deals for the likes of Dublin and yet the lads get little more than a few expenses, a Christmas hamper and maybe a family holiday to thank them for generating so much money.
Is that right in the modern age? I’m not so sure it is and, while it is great that all the money generated flows into the grass roots of the game, I was amazed to hear a story from one GAA legend suggesting some of the lads are not even taken care of when they pick up injuries while playing hurling or football.
These boys have to work to subsidise their sporting passion and that means getting up for training at all hours of the morning, going to work and then training later that evening!
They are probably spending a lot less time with their families than they would want to as well.
After sacrificing so much, at the very least they should get looked after if they pick up a serious injury.
There should be top-of-the-bus insurance policies set-up for every player, making sure he gets the best medical attention and can be helped out in some way financially if he has to have time off work with an injury and, while I know this is controversial, I also think the day will come when top GAA players get some kind of wage.
I celebrate the fact that the lads are doing it for little more than pride, because every other sport has been diluted by the injection of huge money flooding into the game in TV deals.
But I wonder how many of the players would like to receive some form of bonus payment if they get to All Ireland finals or semi-finals?
There is a suggestion that Sky TV may be interested in acquiring the rights to GAA games at some point in the future and, if that was to happen, the lads involved would need to do more media work with the sponsors and the TV companies to promote the brand.
At the moment, it seems like the balance between the money coming into the sport and the rewards for those generating that income may force changes to age-old mindsets, but perhaps that is just my warped view as someone who doesn’t entirely understand the politics and traditions of these great sports.
All I will say to you is there were more than a few GAA legends who were suggesting to me that the day when the finest hurlers and footballers will be paid for what they do may not be as far away as you might think.
Finally, to all players of both codes, I salute you.
It’s a pity some of the overpaid, underacheiving, big-money earners in the English Premier League don’t have the passion, drive and love of their sport that you great athletes have.