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genius coach The football man revolutionising hurling - meet the quiet man taking Limerick to new heights

Coach has amassed a glittering CV, but his thirst for knowledge means there’s plenty more still to come

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Paul Kinnerk at home in Cratloe, Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward

Paul Kinnerk at home in Cratloe, Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward

Paul Kinnerk at home in Cratloe, Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward

Various images are often conjured up of Paul Kinnerk’s unique approach to coaching since he was hailed as the “mathematical genius” behind arguably the most successful period in the history of Clare hurling.

Some reckon he dissects the opposition using a blackboard and chalk, while others imagine his mind works similar to Dustin Hoffman’s during that iconic Rain Man scene where Raymond uses his genius to count cards and outsmart a Las Vegas casino.

Kinnerk is amused by such notions and the fuss around his mystique, but the legacy he has left on the inter-county scene over the last 11 years is nothing short of incredible. And all at the age of just 35.

Three All-Ireland SHC titles have already been achieved under his watch with the victories of Clare (2013) and Limerick, (2018 and 2020) all the more notable given that both are outside the ‘Big Three’ of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork.

Kinnerk is far from a traditionalist – he thinks outside the box and it’s easy to see why he is lauded everywhere he goes. It’s clear that his intelligence is on another level, but his ability to make content digestible and easily understandable is quickly evident.

His background as a maths teacher, having worked in St Caimin’s Community School in Shannon for seven years, is often highlighted as the difference-maker with teams which have scaled the summit, but it is his grounding in physical education that underpins his coaching philosophy.

The notion of drills, drills and more drills may have cut the mustard 20 years ago, but Kinnerk’s game-based approach is rendering much of that old-school training redundant, with rave reviews from players and coaches alike.

But it’s not just opinion – his philosophies are evidence-based, with players replicating match situations through a variety of small-sided games where the onus is on decision-making and skill application under intense pressure. The goal is to become comfortable in the chaos of hurling.

The method to his madness has revolutionised how the game is played and helped to turn Limerick into an unstoppable juggernaut that swept all silverware before them last year to go unbeaten across all competitions.

His extraordinary record speaks for itself with six All-Ireland titles already collected between senior and U-21.

“You’re trying to challenge players in different ways and that can be done through the content that they’re exposed to, the principles that they’re exposed to,” Kinnerk tells the Irish Independent in a rare interview.

“We’re a principles-based approach team in terms of how we try and play, exposing them to that and exposing them to greater difficulty and increasing the complexity at which they’re working within those areas. Ultimately, it is done through games pressurised opposed environments.”

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Paul Kinnerk on the Limerick sideline alongside manager John Kiely. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Paul Kinnerk on the Limerick sideline alongside manager John Kiely. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Paul Kinnerk on the Limerick sideline alongside manager John Kiely. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Being on the pitch in the thick of things with players is his passion, although his methodologies have raised many eyebrows along the way.

“That’s undoubtedly one of the most satisfying outcomes from coaching, designing an activity, testing it on the pitch and reflecting on its success. There’s probably been some strange concepts that I’ve brought to them over the years,” Kinnerk laughs.

“They probably think at times, more so at the beginning, ‘What is this that we’re working on here?’ But they want to be challenged, that’s the type of group that they are and it’s my responsibility to try and facilitate that challenge for them.

“There’s definitely great satisfaction from seeing something lead to improvement, it’s one of the most satisfying aspects of coaching and it’s very much a two-way process. We encourage the players to come forward with ideas and feedback.

“That’s hugely important for any coaching group that the players have a voice because they’re bringing such experience and expertise and that needs to be tapped into, it’s certainly something that we embrace.”

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and rugby minds like Stuart Lancaster and Eddie Jones are among the coaches Kinnerk studies and admires, while he regularly dips his toes into consultancy work across a variety of sporting spheres.

No names or bombshells are dropped, though, with all work completed “discreetly and in confidence”, but there’s an innate thirst for information and self-improvement.

“Curiosity is a critical component for coaches looking to challenge their approach and I’ve definitely learned from my conversations and the mentoring I’ve provided in other spheres; from simple things like team meetings to video analysis,” he says.

“Even coaching behaviours and promoting leadership, they’re all transferable no matter what context you go into, whether it’s Australian Rules to hockey and so forth. You pick up on that and see ‘that’s a way of challenging my own approach’ or ‘I could possibly do that better than I am’.

“Going away for three or four days with a team in professional sports and reviewing what they’re doing, and feeding back and providing recommendations and assessing their approach, is definitely something that is hugely appealing to me.”

Kinnerk is someone who makes you question whether they are operating with more than 24 hours in their day – every minute of his career break from teaching is being maximised on a variety of fronts.

Among his duties is a guest lecturing role with the University of Limerick, his alma mater, while he signed off on his PhD last June with four years of blood, sweat and tears producing a fascinating 374-page study.

‘Coaching pedagogy in inter-county Gaelic football’ can be accessed freely on Google Scholar, where Kinnerk details interviews with 12 senior inter-county coaches and the improvements which a game-based coaching style can offer their players with regards to key decision-making and executing skills efficiently.

He has a handful of other interesting coaching studies that are currently in motion with the button set to be pushed at some stage over the next 12 months. He’s also awaiting the arrival of his first child with his wife, Maggie, expecting in May.

That will keep him busy with the pair recently moving into a beautiful new house in Cratloe, Co Clare, next door to his parents, where one of his requirements was a “man cave” where he can pore over video footage and tinker with various coaching theories.

He was just 23 and carrying an injury when his teaching colleague Seán Stack lured him to get involved with the Sixmilebridge U-21 hurlers in 2009, before a surprise county title saw him parachuted into the Clare minor fold the following year.

The rest is history as he helped the Banner to successive Munster minor crowns before a hat-trick of All-Ireland U-21 titles (2012-14), with the holy grail and a Liam MacCarthy Cup success alongside Davy Fitzgerald thrown in for good measure.

With his father Martin from Doonbeg and his mother Anna a native of Kilkee, the Banner has always been close to his heart and he “grew up being brought to Clare matches and supporting Clare” during their first golden era in the mid to late ’90s.

The Kinnerks – Paul is the eldest of three with brother Declan and sister Karen also teachers – upped sticks to Clare 20 years ago, but Limerick has always been considered his home and he had already taken up firm roots in Monaleen before that move.

He had worn the Limerick colours playing primary game and his love for the Treaty gathered more momentum after stepping through the gates of Ard Scoil Rís. He continued his playing career with the city club before graduating to the senior ranks with the county footballers.

Changing club was not on the radar despite obvious interest from Cratloe and the convenience of avoiding treks through inner-city traffic, but Kinnerk has always defied common logic and continues to try and do so.

Having not played football competitively since 2017, he briefly dipped his toes in the water last July with Monaleen, managed by former county team-mate Muiris Gavin, before another hamstring injury quickly put paid to that experiment.

Had he avoided repetitive injury during his playing days, his sensational coaching journey would have been significantly stalled, although he admits he still hasn’t accepted the likelihood that his playing days are behind him.

But as one door closed, another opened and when Fitzgerald departed Clare at the end of 2016, the chance came to work with Limerick’s hurlers under John Kiely – he didn’t need a second invitation.

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Eddie Jones: England’s head rugby coach is one of the sporting minds that Kinnerk studies and admires. Photo: Getty Images

Eddie Jones: England’s head rugby coach is one of the sporting minds that Kinnerk studies and admires. Photo: Getty Images

Eddie Jones: England’s head rugby coach is one of the sporting minds that Kinnerk studies and admires. Photo: Getty Images

Their first championship outing would naturally be against Clare, with Kinnerk locking horns against Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney, who he worked under during those heady days with the U-21s. However, the maiden season didn’t exactly go to plan.

It was a far cry from the dominance which we now associate with Limerick, but his belief never wavered and therein lies a lesson for all coaches.

“We didn’t get promoted and we’d two championship games and we lost both of them. You engage in reflection and it’s an important part for any coach to do that. There were maybe little subtle adjustments made in the off-season that we did,” he says.

“But the fundamental principles and coaching approach that we would have implemented stayed the same. That probably provided a lesson to me from the point of view of maintaining belief, even in adversity.

“Going back to the early days of when I was coaching in 2010 and ’11, I was probably going in as a novice coach at 25 at that time and had this idea of using games as the focal point and using opposed practices as being the focal point of sessions.

“But maybe I didn’t have a full belief that that was the way to go. I’d say after those years and the feedback that I had from the players – and the relative success that we achieved during that time – that it probably reinforced that approach within me.

“Coaches need to keep faith, especially if they are taking up a new method. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I experienced difficulty early on in implementing a particular coaching aspect such as a new game design or a new coaching behaviour.

“Having the persistence to continue with it is vitally important. What happens too often is that a coach will try something for a session, it won’t work and then that’s it, it’s forgotten about because it didn’t work one time. You have to go through it the second, third and fourth time to see results.”

Kinnerk is a huge advocate of mentoring and having people to call upon that will challenge his approach, and while not divulging those he seeks counsel from, it should come as no surprise that he formed a “coaching friendship” with Donie Buckley.

Having trained under Buckley during his time in the Treaty when Mickey Ned O’Sullivan was at the football helm, Kinnerk insists the Kerry native has “informed the coaching approach that I and others would implement” such was the enormous mark which he left.

He is also surrounded by greatness on and off the pitch with Limerick, where experts like Alan Cunningham, Aonghus O’Brien, Donal O’Grady, Seanie O’Donnell, Timmy Houlihan and renowned sports psychologist Caroline Currid keep them ahead of the pack.

He’s not one for hyperbole, though, so questions about where the ceiling may be for this extraordinary crop of Limerick players is treated like a hand grenade with All-Ireland success just two months behind them.

“There’s a huge desire within the group to challenge themselves further and to enjoy hurling at this level further, and to enjoy success further, and that’s probably where their ambitions are at the moment – hopefully success comes with that.

“Some of the best memories they have, and we have, have been over the last three years on the days that we’ve won those games. There’s great ambition within the group to challenge themselves further and who knows what that will bring.”

Kinnerk put his famous tactics board – “which visually enhances the chances of a message being gathered during a water break after an intense play” – away over Christmas as he was “ready for the break” and most unusually for him, he didn’t watch the rerun of their comprehensive All-Ireland final victory over Waterford until the turn of the year.

It’s “all shoulders to the wheel” when they get the green light to proceed again “so it’s important to take a break and freshen up mentally” before the inter-county onslaught resumes.

“We have taken a complete break since the All-Ireland final,” he says. “It is important that players and management get ample time to switch off before re-engaging with the significant commitment. When specific dates are outlined for competitions, we will revise plans, but for now it is important to take that time to recharge the batteries.”

Much like Mick Dempsey’s influence during Kilkenny’s trophy-laden era from 2006 to 2015, Kinnerk has brought his football acumen to the hurling table. Their clinical use of possession and support play has taken the game to another level with the likes of Hurler of the Year-elect Gearóid Hegarty another prime example of the role which the big ball has had on Limerick’s rise.

“From a tactical perspective, I would place an importance on possession and perhaps that has been stimulated through my football experiences. It certainly has some level of influence on how I do things with maybe the possession side of it and support play,” Kinnerk says.

“But it’s a case of analysing hurling and seeing opportunities to exploit along with playing to the strengths of the group you’re working with.”

It also begs the question whether Kinnerk will turn his hand back to his first love of football and pit his wits against the game’s finest at inter-county level, although Treaty hurling folk look like they will be holding on to their messiah for some time yet.

“I’m definitely enjoying hurling, I wouldn’t rule out moving into Gaelic football or another sport in time in a coaching capacity because there’s always that passion for coaching.

“What context that’s in – at the moment hurling is what I’m really enjoying, but who knows in time what might happen – you couldn’t rule it out, is what I would say.”

One thing for certain, however, is that management does not appeal to him and he is keeping his eye in with coaching the big ball while overseeing the Limerick underage football academy since 2015. He doesn’t need to as there’s more than enough on his plate already, but he loves it.

Connections with former Limerick stars like Stephen Lavin, Seanie Buckley, Pa Ranahan and Gavin are maintained while he “coaches the coaches” and tries to ensure that football isn’t left in the shade of hurling’s green giants.

It’s also not lost on him that his integral role with the senior hurlers and the spin-off of their All-Ireland successes is directly affecting the growth of football in the county and it’s often the source of conversation and debate in the Retired Limerick Footballers WhatsApp group.

Kinnerk is known as a dab hand with a guitar who boasts an “eclectic” music taste ranging from the Kilfenora Céilí Band to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – he saw Petty in concert four times before his death in 2017 – and Limerick supporters will be praying that he continues to compose sweet music.

He looks back “with great satisfaction” on what he has already conquered in his short coaching career “but you don’t dwell on it either as the next challenge is always looming” with a first back-to-back in the county’s history top of the agenda when the action resumes.

With hurling’s version of Elon Musk in their corner, an innovator with a sharp eye for finding gaps in the hurling market and turning them into gold, you’d be a fool to write Limerick and their quiet genius off as they continue to strive for perfection.

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