THERE’S a strong case to be made that Keith Ricken is a successful manager because he doesn’t prioritise success.Or, to put it another way, the Cork U20 football manager places more importance on developing the person rather than the player, ensuring that success on the field can be a by-product of positive events off it.
‘I hate the word ‘manager’,’ he says, ‘it’s almost like you’re responsible for what goes on.
‘There are 50 things that can go right, possibly, and 50 things that can go wrong for any one person on any given day. There are 31 people out on that pitch, maybe 39 altogether if you include the rest of the officials.
‘You multiply that by 50 by 50 and so on, the combinations are phenomenal, so to be ‘managing’ or ‘controlling’ that doesn’t make logical sense.
‘What it is really is trying to equip them with coping skills and life skills. When a guy has his stuff together off the field, he tends to bring that on to the field and he’s good in his decision-making. I’ve found over a lot of years that sport is very reflective of where you are.
‘To take it separately and say “That’s the field and this is life,” and fail to join the dots, I think you’re coming at this from the wrong way.
‘Sport is life. We have a lot of barriers and defence mechanisms that we can put up in front of us but when we go to play a game of sport, they’re the first things to drop. If you’re in good form, you’ll see it out there, if you’re in bad form you’re going to be fecking the referee and all this stuff.’
The hope is that Cork will be in a good frame of mind for Saturday’s All-Ireland U20FC final against Dublin in O’Moore Park in Portlaoise. Having had to come from behind against Tyrone last week after a rampant performance over Kerry in the Munster final, Ricken feels the team passed a test of
‘Confidence doesn’t come from winning,’ he says, ‘it comes from solving problems and knowing that you have the ability to solve problems.
‘If it just comes from winning, it would be very flaky and none of us would be any good. I’m at coaching 30-odd years, I don’t know how many matches I’ve been involved in that we’ve lost but you can say, “We solved one problem today.”
‘Confidence in life comes from solving problems, knowing that it’s not going to overwhelm you, it’s not going to kill you, you’ll learn from it.
‘There was certainly confidence gained from the semi-final. They created the problems in ways but they solved them and for young lads to know that, I think that that’s important.’
It has been a fruitful year for Cork, with an increased West Cork angle due to the playing of two games – against Kerry in the John Kerins Cup and Waterford in the Munster championship – in Clonakilty. Ricken, whose day job is as CIT GAA development officer, was a driver of that centralisation.
‘I would be big into that,’ he says.
‘Your sense of community and your landscape is very much part of who we are. I’d very much believe that we’re not just mechanical or psychological creatures, we’re emotional and spiritual creatures as well.
‘We connect to the landscape and the environment around us and it’s good for a boy to go to somewhere where there’s a spirituality about football.
‘I started my coaching in West Cork way back in the early 90s, I got a job with the county board going around to the clubs, at the time it was only myself and Tom Nott.
‘It was just by chance I started there but it was a fantastic eye-opener for me, great to see the passion and spirit and love for football. They’re mad and crazy like the rest of us, they just love their football.
‘I had the privilege this year of attending games in West Cork and re-engaging with that, it was like being away from Mass for years and going back to it. It was just a lovely place to be.’
It certainly didn’t harm Cork and now they will face into the final against Dublin, something few would have foreseen at the start of the year. Given that they will have played the maximum number of games they could, how important, in terms of development, is it to actually win?
‘I don’t know really, at the end of the day,’ Ricken says.
‘I met Dan Joe Foley last week, he’s a former chairman of Carraig na bhFear and played for them for 30 years. We had a good chat about different things and he said to me that all you have at the end of the day is memories.
‘Winning and losing, they just go, it’s how you felt is what stays with you. I would like if these young fellas went away with that, “I felt good and I enjoyed being part of this.”
‘We had 50 players in this year for quite a long and time and as championship came closer, logistically you have to reduce numbers. I had to tell young fellas that and obviously they were devastated as they gave everything to it, but to a man everybody said, “Thanks for the opportunity, I loved every moment.”
‘That’s your success. Everything else – cups, trophies, press, media – that’s unimportant when it comes down to the reality of what it’s about.’