County Final

What can your club learn from Thurles Sarsfields and Kiladangan?

Brian McDonnell


Brian McDonnell


What can your club learn from Thurles Sarsfields and Kiladangan?

Can Dan Hackett's Kiladangan stop Sarsfields winning three in-a-row?

Thurles Sarsfields and Kiladangan roll into Semple Stadium on Sunday chasing the Dan Breen Cup. But have you ever thought about what these great clubs have in common and what your club could learn from the county finalists?

At one point in both clubs a group of people came together, decided to think big and asked themselves a simple question: why not us? Instead of falling in love with the idea of what their club was they fell in love with the idea of what their club come become.

Essentially both clubs have built a culture of hurling in their respective bailiwicks which makes success inevitable - Thurles Sarsfields and Kiladangan are beacons for hurling excellence and startling examples of what can be achieved. Indeed, success leaves plenty of clues if you are prepared to look for them.


Just look at where Kiladangan have come from - not too long ago the name of the Kiladangan club was synonymous with a distinct lack of ambition.

When Eamon Kelly took charge of the intermediate team in 2000 the club had not won a game in three seasons. Four years later Kiladangan were county, Munster and All-Ireland intermediate champions. In 2008 Kiladangan added a North title (the first in 65 years) before adding three of the last four divisional titles (2013, 2015 & 2016).

Kiladangan has put villages like Puckane and Ballycommon on the map - the identity of the entire area is wrapped up in the club. In a way the hurling club is the gunship that the people of Kiladangan send out into the world. That aspect to Kiladangan probably explains why so many clubs dread facing them in the North division. When Kiladangan take the field they take aim at something more significant than winning - they are not so much concerned with winning a contest as expressing who they are.

It is striking to note that each and every year Kiladangan demand that their underage teams play at the A grade in the North division. This desire to expose their players to the highest level of competition possible, despite drawing from a rural pool of players, distinguishes the club.


Traditionalists are eager to suggest that hurling is a rural game; traditionalists argue that the GAA can’t be developed successfully in urban areas, but it can. Developing hurling in an urban area is challenging, but it can be done. The town of Thurles has proven that it has a big enough population for success to become sustainable, but it is also small enough to become a tight-knit community. Thurles have developed the resources to succeed - they are big and they are smart.

People love to talk about tradition, but where was Thurles’ tradition between 1974 and 2005 when the club failed to win a county title?

Rather than sit back and complain in 1978 a group of like-minded people met in Hayes’ Hotel to discuss the obstacles faced by the Thurles club and decided to form a new juvenile club. A decision was made to invest in coaching. In 1979 that group of concerned Thurles people pulled together and formed Durlas Óg.

Between 1979 and 1990 Durlas Óg won 12 Mid Tipperary under-12 titles in-a-row. As a direct consequence of this ground work since 2000 Thurles Sarsfields have have appeared in 11 county finals and won six (2005, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014 & 2015).


Both Kiladangan and Thurles Sarsfields made a decision to invest in coaching. Indeed, hurling is booming in both because coaching is booming in both.

The most successful sporting organisations in the world invest in coaching; if you want better players you need better coaching - in a world of perfect information coaching makes the difference.

Nemo Rangers, for instance, have won seven All-Ireland club titles, 15 Munster club titles and 19 county senior football titles. Nemo Rangers have never employed an outside manager or coach with any of their club teams.

Some may look with envy at a club like Nemo and think that their success is solely down to having more naturally-talented footballers, but a major part of their success is down to the commitment the club have shown to coaching and how they invest in their own coaches. And, at juvenile level Nemo Rangers do not place an emphasis on winning - for Nemo winning is a consequence of good development; conversely good development is not a consequence of winning.

Joey Carton got involved with De La Salle in Waterford when the club could not field a minor team during the 1980s - Joey set about building the club from the bottom up and not the top down. Under Carton’s direction the executive focused all of their attention on nurturing skills development in their players between the ages of six and ten.

De La Salle won the Waterford senior hurling championship in 2008 for the first time, added further titles in 2010 and 2012 before progressing to land Munster club hurling titles in 2008 and 2010.

Essentially, the top clubs have realised that there is a need to select, train and develop potential managers and coaches; that the coaching mechanism in a club needs to be structured on a deliberate basis.

Lar Corbett will be hoping to star for Sarsfields in Sunday's county final against Dan Hackett's Kiladangan.


The common perception of what "tradition" represents has very little to do with success. People talk about a winning tradition, but tradition in this sense has nothing to do with breeding or a sense of entitlement, it is about developing a self-perpetuating culture (a shared way of working).

Writing in 1975 Tony Wall referenced the “hurling atmosphere” - Tony made the point that once a hurling atmosphere has been created the game will thrive and then spill out around a neighbourhood and engulf families which traditionally had little association with the game - thus can hurling become the dominant recreational influence in a given area.

Thurles Sarsfields and Kiladangan have created this hurling atmosphere. These clubs share a common expectation of themselves to excel, an attention to detail, a humility to challenge themselves on a continuous basis and over the years have developed the institutional knowledge in their respective clubs - they know what it takes to succeed and believe that they are capable of doing so.

Hurling success has little to do with breeding - it is down to doing the work required to succeed. Hurling success is earned by clubs who have developed a culture defined by a determination to help players become the best they can be, which treats coaches as performers, emphasizes the transformational capacity of purposeful practice and tries to represent a positive force in the community.

These clubs model themselves on a culture of excellence; every little thing they do is an opportunity to do things right as opposed to trundling along. They are beacons of excellence because they have developed a culture of excellence and weaved it into every aspect of how their club is run.


The Dublin footballers recently lifted the Sam Maguire Cup for the fourth time in six years. Lazy arguments, however, abound - the Dubs are regularly accused of financial doping; many believe that the resources enjoyed by Dublin have facilitated their success.

But Dublin’s success is down to something which no level of Central Council funding can buy. The vast majority of what Dublin GAA has done to make themselves successful is free of charge - you can’t buy a culture.

When a strategic review committee took a good look at Dublin in 2002 the committee decided to invest in people - they decided to do everything in their power to develop the ability of their volunteers and Games Development Administrators to coach their players effectively. And, the result was an explosion in excellence.

Every club and county in the country can learn from the Dublin blueprint - having access to resources is one thing, but resourcefulness is quite another.

Just contrast the Dublin story with Cork - considering the resources at hand the Rebels are not, or rather have not been, a byword for progressive thinking, for significant investment in coaching or for their ability to make the most of their resources. For decades Cork has had the resources to succeed, but they have not been organised to take advantage.

Once you accept that an improved standard of coaching will help to develop the quality of player in your club the next step is obvious. Indeed, what a club decides to do in terms of coaching investment will create a perfect future for that club - either perfectly good or perfectly bad.

Po is the central character in the children's film 'Kung Fu Panda'.


The ambition of a club and how that club thinks is crucial.

A feature of the 2013 GAA Coaching Conference at Croke Park, Dublin was a presentation made by the Crossmaglen Rangers chairman Tony Brady and club coaching officer Peter McMahon - over the years there have been many similar presentations which reflected on how to build a successful club, but this one made the most significant impression.

Although Crossmaglen can only draw on 1,300 households, have been plagued by economic problems and tortured by the British security forces for decades Rangers have won 43 county titles, 11 Ulster football titles and six All-Ireland club titles.

So, what can we learn from Crossmaglen? How have they managed it?

There was no revelation.

“People always want to know - what’s the secret? The secret is that there is none,” Tony Brady said before Peter McMahon added: “I hope you won’t be disappointed by the ordinary nature of our club”.

There is no silver bullet. Brady and McMahon painted a portrait of a club which relentlessly seeks a means by which it can improve every area that the club is engaged in; they are determined to come up with ways of out-planning and out-preparing their opponents.

It’s a question of detail - the best-run organisations always pay closer attention to the smaller details. Rangers’ ambition is not just to win, but to do everything better; there is always a better way to do something and there is always a convention worth challenging.

Crossmaglen continuously review every activity that the club is engaged in and one of Rangers’ key findings is that an investment in coaching is paramount - that coaches and managers must be treated like performers. Crossmaglen Rangers are very particular about who is placed in charge of their underage teams. There is always talent, but talent is only the starting point - it is no guarantee. You need coaches to nurture that talent. As a result the Crossmaglen club is stuffed with players who expect to succeed and who are armed with the institutional knowledge of how to go about it.

To conclude the presentation Peter McMahon cleverly made an analogy between club success and the children’s movie Kung Fu Panda. In the film Po the panda finally wins access to the Dragon’s Scroll which Po expects will reveal the secret to limitless power. But, when Po opens the scroll the confused panda is simply presented with a blank, but reflective surface.

“The message,” explained Tony Brady, “is that the power comes from within”.

Just ask yourself: how many GAA clubs in Tipperary have realised their potential like Kiladangan and Thurles Sarsfields have?

The point being made here is that anything is possible. Dreaming small is no good to anyone. Irrational dreams and unreasonable people can go a long way - county titles are won by people who do not give in.

It is no accident that Kiladangan and Thurles Sarsfields will face one another in next Sunday’s county final. Those clubs have created a perfect future for themselves. And, if you seek to succeed like they have money and resources are not the biggest obstacle that you will face. The problem is rarely resources. Resources are one thing, but resourcefulness is quite another.

So, when anything is possible what club will you build?