When Jerry Flannery and Johnny O'Connor walk into the canteen at London Colney, heads turn, greetings are shouted out and jokes are shared. The amiable Irishmen only arrived at the Club on year-long placements this summer, but it is immediately clear that they already have made a major impact.
Both former international rugby players, their reputations precede them. Within an hour of being at the training ground, two people have already told me about the incredible intensity of the pair’s personal gym sessions, which they do every morning before starting work as academy strength and conditioning coaches.
It is this inner drive and determination that tends to mark out the very best from the rest, and something that defined them both during hugely successful rugby careers.
Hooker Flannery earned 41 caps for Ireland, was a key member of the side that claimed the 2009 Grand Slam and also won the Heineken Cup with Munster in 2005/06 and 2007/08. O’Connor meanwhile, earned the nickname ‘Johnny O’Concrete’ such was the physical nature of his play while at London Wasps, where he won two Heineken Cups, two Premiership titles and the Powergen Cup. He also represented Ireland 12 times and was voted as his nation’s players’ player of the year in 2005.
Clearly, success is in-built in their DNA and, as they told the Arsenal Magazine, they’re enjoying the fresh challenge of working in football.
So, how have you settled into life at Arsenal?
Jerry Flannery: It’s been really enjoyable. I suppose coming from rugby, we thought there was going to be a huge culture shock coming into the Club but it’s been really good. Everyone likes to train hard and Liam Brady has put in this pathway for the players that’s really clear. The Club has been very progressive. The academy is where we can develop players and give them the best opportunity possible to earn a living in the game and we’ve really enjoyed it.
So how did two former international rugby players end at up Arsenal?
JF: When I retired, I did a Masters in sports performance and Johnny did a degree in strength and conditioning. The Club headhunted two of the best strength and conditioning coaches they could have found and we were welcome to come over and get involved in Arsenal Football Club!
There’s a good Irish contingent. It’s the key – that’s probably why we’re top of the league!Jerry Flannery
It’s caused a bit of a stir in Ireland. Has that surprised you?
Johnny O’Connor: Yeah, but Arsenal are a huge name there. I suppose people are very keen to keep an interest in what other people do, particularly past players - probably Jerry more so than myself. It’s intriguing how two rugby players end up at a football club and what we’re going to do and what sort of impact we’re going to have. Sport is sport – if you’ve got an ability to achieve then you’ve got something to carry on. A lot of decisions were made when we were playing to get the best out of ourselves that we can pass on. It’s a case of doing it – once you’ve done it, you can relate it back. There are loads of highs and lows in sport and we’ve gone down every kind of avenue – being dropped, being injured and getting ourselves out of holes. If you teach these lads how to grind it out, they will always have that for the rest of their lives, regardless of what they go into.
What was it like meeting an Irish legend like Liam Brady for the first time?
JF: He’s massive – he was one of the greatest Irish footballers ever to have played so to have him here was great. There’s a big Irish contingent here so we felt very welcome when we came in. Obviously you’re a bit nervous coming to a club as big as Arsenal but Liam has been brilliant. He’s made us feel at home. It was the same with Des Ryan, Declan Lynch, Simon Harland and Gerry Peyton. There’s a good Irish contingent. It’s the key – that’s probably why we’re top of the league!
What do you put this Irish rugby influence at the Club down to?
JF: I think a lot of it is coincidental. Rugby and football are very different sports. The skill element is so much harder in football that the physical development probably hasn’t been as strong in the past, whereas in rugby it’s much stronger. You can’t take what fits in rugby and take it to football. You can apply certain aspects of that. Some of the structures that have been put together in rugby work well and it’s about trying to get those and taking the players at a young age, making sure they are functionally confident and developing all the way through to ensure they are the best athletes they can be. Any player that comes in here is of a certain skill level already if he’s good enough to be at Arsenal Football Club. We just want to make them robust and keep them on the field.
JO’C: Physically you have to have those attributes in rugby. If you don’t have them, you don’t have a chance because everyone’s got that now. In football, the skill level is absolutely massive. I think if we don’t have lads prepared physically as well, they are going to miss their opportunity. What Jerry and I are trying to do is improve performance but also improve durability. If I can make a guy faster, that’s going to make him a better player because he’s already got that skill level. If someone needs work with a coach, that’s fine. People say you can’t make a player and it’s a gift – but it’s not. Some guys work really hard. Some guys are lucky to be in the perfect environment for them to improve. There could be a guy here that people may not rate, but if he starts improving, you don’t know how good he can get. It’s about having patience. Once he starts getting better and better at certain things, technically and physically, you don’t know what sort of player you are going to end up with. That’s the joy of working with young kids.
What about some of the challenges of dealing with younger players?
JO’C: You have to remember to stop swearing! I suppose you’ve got to understand that they are still growing. Their bodies are still going through changes. They are naturally going through a process and you’ve got to make sure that you are helping them through that and making them more robust. Our biggest job is to make sure that we keep the players healthy so that they don’t get injured when they go out on to the field. The biggest compliment I can say about them is that they’ve worked incredibly hard. They’ve been a pleasure to work with. There’s a real good work ethic at the Club, which has been driven home by the football coaches before us. We’re just applying some of the stuff we’ve learned. I think one of the biggest advantages we have is that we’ve gone through a lot of the processes. We’ve been in that position where we are trying to make it and sign our first professional contract. We know [how it feels] when the players get frustrated. I see sometimes if a player isn’t completely satisfied with his performance when he’s coming off the field. I know what it’s like. You try to pass on some of the things you would have learned in your own career, like how to deal with disappointment and how to best manage expectation when they are coming back from an injury. They are important parts.
There’s a real good work ethic at the Club, which has been driven home by the football coaches before usJohnny O'Connor
But presumably you are dealing with different body shapes to rugby?
JF: With regards to the training that I do with them, it’s different but the actual mentality – which is the main thing – [is similar]. You can have guys that are fantastic athletes but if they don’t want to train it just makes your job a lot harder. Things are fairly different to what we do with rugby lads because there isn’t the [emphasis] on putting size on people here. The majority of what we’re trying to do is just fundamental movement skills – getting them to move well.
Talking of rounded athletes, was there ever a stage when either of you could have been football players?
JO’C: I’m not as fanatical as Jerry - he once wrote a letter to the manager of Chelsea to give them the pros and cons of signing a player! He did sign in the end and he was a bit of a flop wasn’t he?
JF: I used to be a big Chelsea fan back in the day. My mum pulled out a letter that I’d written to Ian Porterfield who was the Chelsea manager at the time. Chelsea were looking at Robert Fleck and I sent a letter saying how I recommended going for him because he’d skinned us a couple of times when he was at Norwich. My mother found the letter and gave it to me – I told Johnny in confidence but he’s a rat!
So, how good are you at football?
JO’C: I’m quite accurate from a standing start. I’ve actually beaten a couple of the players in a crossbar challenge from the edge of the box. I’ve beaten Benik Afobe during his comeback – I was trying to break his confidence a bit! I’ve beaten Alfred Mugabo as well. I’m pretty handy but once any kind of decisions have to be made, I’m terrible!
JF: I have a very good engine on me. I’m kind of like a Roy Keane – a little bit more physically dominant than Dennis Wise used to be! Roy Keane would be the player I modelled myself on.
And what about the Arsenal squad, could any of them make it in rugby?
JO’C: Danny Boateng!
JF: Danny Boateng, yeah! I think Dan Crowley could have made a good scrum half. He’s cheeky. There are a few lads there but we’re just generally trying to keep them away from rugby because we’ve seen all the injuries that come with it so stick to football lads – that’s what you want to be playing!