Managing expectations only part of the challenge
Fourteen clean slates, all waiting for chalk. The turnover in intercounty managers this year has been a notch or two above brisk, with just shy of half the counties sourcing new sizes of Bainisteoir bibs and jackets.
Remarkably, only four of the 14 have guided county football teams before, although Frank Dawson did have a spell in charge of the Down hurlers. That’s a lot of baby steps being taken this weekend as the various provincial pre-season tournaments ease into motion.
For a handful of them, however, this is a new life without being completely new territory. For Anthony Rainbow in Carlow, Aidan O’Rourke in Louth, Niall Carew in Waterford, Eamon Fitzmaurice in Kerry and Paul Grimley in Armagh, the elevator is stopping just one floor up from where they used to be.
They’ve been selectors, assistants, deputies, backs coaches, forwards coaches and everything in between in various colours and under various managers. All with a view to eventually becoming what they are this weekend. They are, at last, The Man.
It’s their show now, nobody else’s. Grimley was at Joe Kernan’s side as long ago as Armagh’s All-Ireland win and has since backed up Donal Keoghan in Cavan, Kieran McGeeney in Kildare and Séamus McEnaney in Monaghan and Meath before returning to Armagh to be at Paddy O’Rourke’s right hand.
In all that time, he never made any secret of where he wanted to end up. Dressed in Armagh garb, sending Armagh players out to play. “And I’m unbeaten so far!” he laughs.
As it happens, he’ll be unbeaten for another week yet, since Queen’s pulled out of the McKenna Cup and left Armagh with no fixture this weekend. If anyone in the country is well-placed to make the step up, Grimley fits the bill. He’s seen the intercounty world from every angle, in teams with all triumphs and none. And still, parts of his new life feel like nothing that has gone before.
“The big difference I find is that the day-to-day contact with the players is far more significant,” he says. “Players always have issue that need to be addressed, some football-related, some life-related, and when you’re the manager, you’re the point of contact for those sort of things. It’s you who has to make sure that everything is where it should be. Whereas beforehand, I really didn’t have those issues to deal with. The manager dealt with them and my only responsibility or brief was to turn up and coach.
“You’re far more preoccupied with it, definitely. Much, much more of your time is just football time. You’re open all hours.
“Players will phone you at 12 o’clock at night or first thing in the morning before they go to work. I’ve found that the biggest job in management is problem-solving. Obviously when it comes to a match-day it’s all about decision-making but away from that, it’s problem-solving off the pitch that is the next biggest job.
“I’ve been involved with county teams for over 10 years and I’ve watched different fellas do it and the one thing that’s obvious is that the job of an intercounty manager is only getting more demanding. I would say around 70 per cent of it is more to do with off the field issues than on the field issues.”
Never is that more true than at this time of year. Aidan O’Rourke got the Louth job on the first weekend of October and has spent the time since attempting to get to know a completely new set of players.
Within the Down panel last year, he was considered as almost a co-manager alongside James McCartan, so wholeheartedly did he invest himself in the role. That’s what Louth got when they appointed him and that’s what the players have found since he arrived.