November 27, 2020
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: How should we honour this extraordinary Joe?

WHEN Jack Charlton brought the Irish football team back from its first international tournament, the Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, made him an honorary Irishman.

It was a meaningless gesture, but it captured the mood of the country which wanted to reward this visitor who had brought us a small measure of success and a great deal of pleasure.

If there are any similar honours hidden away in Government Buildings we should give one to Joe Schmidt whose rugby squads have exceeded even Charlton’s impressive achievements.

We can’t give him citizenship; he acquired that by the normal route in 2015. But we should do something to honour this New Zealander who has transformed Irish rugby.

In his six years as head coach we have won the Six Nations tournament three times, achieved the Grand Slam, beaten New Zealand and risen to the top of the world’s rankings.

It is an extraordinary record and Joe Schmidt deserves to be lauded for it, regardless of how this squad performs in the current World Cup tournament.

He has taken Ireland from being a good but inconsistent rugby nation to be being a great rugby nation. No manager has achieved so much for Ireland in any sport and I am struggling to think of a manager with any other country who can equal his performance.

I have always been fascinated by the style and strategies of great sporting managers.

The big name of my childhood was Matt Busby, the Scot who shaped three wonderful Manchester United teams.

He was a thoughtful, modest, man, who rarely came down to the pitch – “I get a better view from the directors’ box,” he explained.

He took an almost anti-coach approach, arguing that his job was to get the best players and put the best team on the field, not to dictate tactics. He maintained that it would be ludicrous for him to tell the likes of Dennis Law, George Best and Bobbie Charlton, how to play football.

The great manager of my teenage years was another Scot. Bill Shankly built his all-conquering Liverpool sides on a formula of passion, intense loyalty and a no-surrender spirit. He had ‘This is Anfield’ painted above the tunnel to warn opponents they were entering a fortress – “a bastion of invincibility”, he called it.

Shankly convinced his players that there was no club like their club. “There are two football teams in this city,” he once declared. “Liverpool and Liverpool Reserves.”

Shankly was followed at Anfield by Bob Paisley who, in terms of trophies won, was actually more successful but a lot less extrovert and charismatic.

Professionalism was the hallmark of Paisley’s teams. Every player knew his job and how to interact with his team-mates. His sides knitted together like a perfect jigsaw puzzle, each piece pointless by itself but flawless as a unit.

Joe Schmidt combines the talents of these three outstanding managers. He is, like Busby, a modest man who does not believe in boasting or indulging in public spats. He picks the best teams and lets them do his talking on the pitch.

Like Shankly, he has built a fierce loyalty in his teams. He lacks the Scot’s assertiveness but has players share his quiet confidence and belief that no team is better than their team and they need feel inferior to no-one.

Like Paisley, his teams are totally professional. Each player understands his role, knows what he has to do and how to do it.

Irish rugby has been fortunate to have this great manager. And not just Irish rugby. He has brought pleasure and pride to the whole country.

Whatever the World Cup outcome, we should send him off on a high note.

 

 

 

 

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