Battered and bruised but Banty is still unbowed
Players perform for Séamus McEnaney eventually – no matter how much drama he trails in his wake, writes MALACHY CLERKIN
Trouble, trouble, I try to chase trouble but it’s chasing me.
Trouble, trouble, Trouble with a capital T.
Horslips, The Book Of Invasions (1976)
IN A way, nothing foretold the bumps in the road ahead of Séamus McEnaney as Meath manager better than his very nomination for the role. His name went forward at the end of September 2010, just a few weeks after Monaghan had thanked him for his time and pointed him at the exit.
The Meath job sounded like the perfect pick-me-up for Banty just then – big stage, good players, tradition going back generations. Yet if ever there was a tip-off that he should have turned on his heel and left them at it, it surely came when he found out he was one of 13 names that had made it onto the ballot.
It’s like that old racing saying – if you think you have four horses in your yard capable of winning the Derby, you almost certainly don’t have one. If the good people of Meath thought they had 13 men worth nominating for manager of the county team, then it didn’t say much for the prospects of whoever would eventually make it through.
The process of whittling those 13 names down to one took seven weeks and he had to listen to some pretty ugly chat along the way. Former manager Eamon Barry declared Banty’s CV was “no great shakes” and warned that the clubs of Meath would not accept him. Three weeks after they did just that, Barry was appointed to the county board. If McEnaney had walked there and then, he’d have saved himself a good 18 months of ever-spiralling strife.
Ah, but would he have been happy? Ever since he began to find his feet as an intercounty manager, he’s never given the impression of being particularly attracted by the quiet life.
Drama follows him like a bad rumour, to the extent he often appears to thrive on it. Be it playing Darren Hughes in goal for Monaghan in 2010 ahead of regular sub-goalkeeper Seán Gorman (and only telling Gorman on the morning of the game he wouldn’t be playing) or plucking Graham Geraghty out of retirement at the age of 38 without informing his Meath selectors, he has consistently shown a willingness to rock any and all boats that sail by.
When it works out, it’s all just part of his appeal. When Monaghan made the Ulster final two years ago, Gorman’s snubbing and subsequent leaving of the county panel was largely forgotten about.
The fact Geraghty very nearly turned last year’s Leinster quarter-final with his first touch of a ball in three years, palming a goal that shouldn’t have been disallowed, at the very least legitimised the move to bring him into the squad. But the upshot of all the drama is that invariably when the credits roll, there are bodies strewn all over the place.
Anthony Moyles left the Meath panel last winter after 12 years of toil. His time didn’t end well and he wouldn’t say he left on especially good terms with McEnaney. But for all that, he points out that even in the Monaghan man’s short time in the job, aspects of Meath’s preparation improved beyond recognition.
“There was a lot of professionalism brought to the set-up. I must say that McEnaney to be fair to him, he leaves no stone unturned.”
That said, it must feel like spinning around the inside of a cyclone at times. When Liam Harnan and Barry Callaghan walked out in the wake of Geraghty’s recall, Meath were on every back page for weeks. The backroom mix changed as the summer went on, with Skryne man Tom Keague coming in to bump out the quota of home-grown faces on the sideline. They came through qualifiers against Louth and Galway before falling to Kildare for the second time. For Moyles, the constant buzz of distractions did nothing for their progress.
“For the young players, it doesn’t really make much difference. When you’re young and you come into a panel, you’re just happy to be there and you want to get stuck into it. You can go in with that devil-may-care attitude. For the older lads, the more experienced lads, it can be very, very disconcerting to see what’s going on.
“Now look, we were hardly without controversy even before McEnaney came along. There’s been plenty there for years with the county board with Eamon Barry, with Colm Coyle and then the whole Louth situation.
“So you have a tendency to just say, ‘Right lads, let’s just get back to the day job here’ and to try and focus on the job at hand. But certainly, all the stuff about a players’ meeting and whether there was a vote or not around the time of the county board move against him [after this year’s league], all of that is a big distraction.
“But once you get across the white line, it’s your reputation that’s on the line. Okay, McEnaney’s is too to a certain degree but in the end, it’s you who is the Meath footballer so you just have to go out there and get on with it.”
Relegation from Division Two of the league this year brought the highest drama so far. All the good of surviving the county board push to get rid of him disappeared with size of the margin of victory – just enough to keep the job, nowhere near enough to feel like he had a mandate.
Meath was never a county that was going to take kindly to an outside manager – they famously rejected Luke Dempsey in 2006 on precisely those grounds, even though the county board recommended him for the job. And they’ve certainly never made McEnaney feel like his feet were under safely the table there.
Yet he’d have to admit he hasn’t helped himself. He’s never been allowed to forget his error in co-commentating for RTÉ on an Ulster Championship game last May on the same day that a round of Meath county championship matches was taking place. It was a bizarre thing to do, especially since it gave the opposite impression to what even his fiercest critics accept is one of his most admirable traits. There isn’t a player worthy of the name in Meath who McEnaney hasn’t watched over the past 18 months yet his afternoon behind the mic made it look like he was the worst kind of absentee manager.
They mention it still in Meath when you ask why they haven’t taken to him.
All indications point to him not having too many more games to convince them. Kildare look to have put clear water between themselves and Meath since their two encounters last summer, both of which Kildare won but only after medium-sized scares both days.
The loss of Kevin Reilly for tomorrow’s Leinster semi-final is particularly cruel, as the Meath full back was one of the few in the country who has consistently had Tomás O’Connor’s number when they’ve met.
With him, McEnaney’s side could have caused trouble for Kildare tomorrow. It’s hard to see it now.
The evidence of his managerial career so far, however, says that he’ll get at least one more big display out of his team before it’s all over. It may come tomorrow or we may have to wait for the qualifiers. But players do perform for him eventually, no matter how much drama he trails in his wake.
And if Meath wash their hands of him when the season is done, we can be sure it won’t be long before he pops up somewhere else. Trying to chase trouble even as it chases him.
Troubling times in Meath: Royal county riven by competing factions
September 2010— Despite winning a first Leinster title in nine years, Eamonn O’Brien is ousted as Meath manager on a 32-27 delegate vote.
November 2010– Séamus McEnaney is announced as first outside manager but only after he undertakes to include Meathmen Liam Harnan and Barry Callaghan as selectors. Former manager Eamon Barry says that the clubs are against his appointment; three weeks later, Barry joins the county board.
Spring 2011 –Meath only survive relegation from Division Two on the final day with a draw against Tyrone. They lose five and win one out of seven games.
May 2011 –McEnaney asks Graham Geraghty and Darren Fay to come out of retirement to join the panel. Geraghty agrees, Fay declines. Harnan and Callaghan walk away in protest at not being consulted.
July 2011– After qualifier wins against Louth and Galway, Meath exit the championship at Kildare’s hands.
September 2011– McEnaney gets the green light for another year from the county board. On the same night, Seán Boylan is made director of football in the county.
Spring 2012– Midway through another poor league campaign, Joe Sheridan decamps to Boston in search of work. Boylan resigns as director of football, saying it just didn’t work out. Meath lose to Louth on the final day of the league to drop to Division Three.
April 2012– County board ask McEnaney to step aside; he refuses, saying he never walked away from a fight in his life. With Seán Boylan waiting in the wings, the county board hold a vote to remove McEnaney but don’t get the 66 per cent majority support needed. McEnaney hangs on, even though 58 per cent of delegates voted against him. He brings in former Tipperary manager John Evans to his backroom team.
June 2012– After beating Wicklow in the first round of the championship, Meath need a replay to get past Carlow.