Former Offaly captain Brian Carroll on a wide range of topics – including hosting a successful podcast, specific advice on corner-forward play, favourite books, love of teaching, and adapting expectations over the course of his playing career.
The Match On Sunday: If you were giving a masterclass for corner-forwards, what key points would you emphasise?
Brian: Movement. Move as much as possible, including making dummy runs and those that make space for others. There is a fine balance between selfishness and selflessness because you have to see the opportunities for the other guys in the forward unit too.
Be ruthless. If you’re playing inside, you might only touch the ball five times in a game, so you have to maximise your return from that.
You have to be able to win your own ball. If the type of ball isn’t ideal, you have to ensure that your opponent doesn’t win it, and then try and turn it in your favour. You have to win ball that you’ve no right to win.
Determination: you’re nothing without it.
Mentally, an inside forward has to love to score. I love the feeling of the ball hitting the net or flying over the bar. I could never score enough. I’d never set a scoring target for a match. For me, that was limiting.
Brian Carroll against JJ Delaney, Eoin Murphy and Kieran Joyce.
If you were coaching a team, what would you focus on?
Mindset. Your team has to have a high work rate, honesty of effort, and relentlessness. You need quality players and tactics, but you’re nothing without the right mindset. To apply yourself in that way, you’ve to get rid of your ego. If you don’t have the right mindset, quality players and tactics count for nothing.
How do you see the championship going this year?
I can’t see anyone beating Limerick, they were so dominant last year. They lost two of their full-back line and it wasn’t even noticeable. They rarely had to get out of fourth gear. Their mentality is scary: Kiely gets the best out of them, but also keeps them grounded and hungry. It’s like how Cody managed his great Kilkenny team, except Limerick are on a higher level. There isn’t much between the rest of the chasing pack.
Who is the most influential coach at the moment?
Paul Kinnerk. His games-based approach to coaching is increasingly prevalent. However, to some extent, it has always been there. The great Offaly teams of the ‘80s and ‘90s were renowned for their ground hurling; that was regularly imposed on them as a constraint in training.
To coach today, you have to look at the demands of the modern game and the type of players you have, and then develop training conditions to optimise that. Paul enables his players to be the best.
Given your background in maths, do you think about hurling in probabilities?
No, I still think the game is largely instinctual. The vast majority of positions on the field are still personal battles to be won. If you listen to Kiely or Cody, you’ll hear them say that the players have autonomy on the field to make decisions.
You can’t be overly structured in hurling. Players need to be able to make split-second decisions under pressure as to the best thing to do. That doesn’t imply passing responsibility from the management to the players, but in the cauldron of a big game, the management can’t get detailed messages out to players—the players have to know what to do. Top players make those autonomous decisions under pressure.
With overly structured teams, when the game isn’t going their way, an intricate system is liable to fail. In the crucial last five minutes, you need individual players to win their own ball.
Brian Carroll against Michael Cahill and Paddy Stapleton.
You played for Offaly for 14 years. How did you find the experience of playing at the top level?
I started out fearless. I couldn’t wait to play senior for Offaly, I felt it was where I should be, that I was good enough to be there. I constantly wanted to prove myself, and to improve. When I started, many of Offaly’s greatest players were still involved. I loved playing with them and wanted to prove that I was good enough to be in their company.
We were competitive for the first few years, but a heavy loss to Kilkenny in 2005 dented our confidence and set off a period of inconsistency. We could beat most teams in the league but we struggled to reproduce that form. Cork and Kilkenny were out of our league at the time, but they were ahead of most teams.
As the years progressed, it started to dawn on me that I wasn't going to win all of these medals and All-Stars that I thought I was destined for—that weighed on me. There was internal pressure that I’d put on myself to achieve these things. I’d blame myself if I hadn’t played well and Offaly lost. I was starting to derive less pleasure from the game.
I was worried that I’d end up bitter about the game. Something had to change. I’d seen legends of the game struggling towards the ends of their careers, ending up frustrated, substitutes on teams they used to lead, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. In 2013, a sports psychologist helped me to adapt mentally, to develop a positive mindset. Realising that I wasn’t going to win all that I expected, I had to come to terms with that reality. If I was to continue playing, I needed to get something else out of the game.
I set new and different goals. I started to derive pleasure from preparing as well as possible and from giving the best performance possible. That released pressure and I had an Indian summer towards the end of my career. In 2014, I got my second All-Star nomination and took great pride in simply being able to compete against the best. With my club, Coolderry, I've enjoyed great times and success, and won a club All-Star, of which I’m very proud.
I was always conscious of being a leader, both in my actions and my words. I aspired to captain my county and it was a huge honour to do so. I’m proud of having led my county out in Croke Park. That said, I had always dreamed of going up the steps of the Hogan Stand … such is life.
You played in the 2004 Leinster Final, is that one that got away?
Definitely. Fitzhenry was superhuman in goal for Wexford. Going in at half-time, we were only two points down, but, from the atmosphere in the dressing room, you’d think we were ten points down—the team was deflated. We didn’t handle adversity well that day.
I came down with a viral infection days before the game. At half-time, sitting in the dressing room, I was freezing. Shivering with a cold sweat. During the presentation of the cup at the end, I was so physically weak that I could barely stand up.
Away from hurling matters, what do you do for a living?
I teach maths and PE in Our Lady’s in Templemore. Previously, I studied in UL, where I completed a PhD in maths education. With a PhD, you have to be self-motivated and disciplined.
I returned to secondary-school teaching and realised how much I loved it. It’s an honour to interact with young people, to try and shape them in positive ways. Many students don’t like maths, so I try to empower them, to let them see that they can be good at the subject regardless of their level, ensuring that there’s positive reinforcement.
As Gandhi once said: “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” I think that’s true of teaching. Letting go of your ego is part of that process.
Brian Carroll celebrates a goal for Coolderry against Ballyboden St. Enda's.
How did you manage your time while doing the PhD?
Sport helped with that: when you’re training at a high level, you have to be able to manage time well. I went to St. Kieran’s in Kilkenny, we trained hard for hurling, but you also had to take care of your academic work. I carried that through to my PhD.
I’m a huge believer in quality over quantity. I wasn’t one to spend all day and evening in the library. I’d rather focus, do high-quality work over a defined number of hours, and then park it until the next day. I needed to have that discipline and segmentation because I had to keep time for other priorities, such as the people in my life and hurling.
What other interests do you have?
Reading is my other huge passion. I read every day and absolutely love it.
When I was younger, I read everything I could get my hands on, such as Roddy Doyle, Maeve Binchy, John Grisham, and many others that my mother had read. Some titles I loved were Animal Farm, The Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22.
My all-time favourite is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I studied it in school and can reread it over and over. The last of the Harry Potter series, Deathly Hollows, is another one that I have read a few times. If I love a book, I can reread it.
Of late, a few that I have read and loved include A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Brilliant writers all. Some other authors I read in recent years include Wilbur Smith, Jeffrey Archer, I also love the plays of John B. Keane, and some poetry too. At the moment, I’m reading I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, a superb writer.
I was always captivated by reading and good writers. I love the way fiction can transport you to a different era, place or time—it’s a kind of mindfulness.
Your podcast has been a huge success. How did you find the experience?
An amazing learning curve. I knew nothing about it initially, and was used to being interviewed rather than conducting.
I did some research – learned about microphones, editing, software, surveyed friends for potential questions – and it grew from there. I got the idea from Jamie Carragher’s podcast, and adapted it to hurling. Initially, I decided to do a few episodes to see how it would go, and it took off. I get a lot of feedback and respond to every person who messages me.
It’s important to ask pertinent questions, but to allow the guest to tell their story in their own way, a bit like the way Tommy Tiernan conducts his interviews. I’m grateful and proud of its success. I called it A Hurler’s Life because, while we all love hurling, there’s so much more to a person. The show is driven by the guests’ honesty.
The Match on Sunday will make donation to a cause of your choosing. What cause would you like to support and why?
Roscrea Hospice does amazing work in the community. They are running a fundraiser called TippOff that people should support. The hospice is human nature at its best and I’m full of admiration for the people who work there.