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.
“I would attempt to have a lot of one-to-one time with players,” says O’Rourke. “That may not always mean rubbing their bellies! At this stage, I would have been through everyone on the panel and had half-hour meetings away from training with them. I do believe in a holistic approach – I can’t coach a player and hope that he will approach his maximum unless the other things in his life are reasonably settled and structured as well.
“Now, Louth don’t have the resources of some of the big counties so my ability to help them with some or all of that will be limited but we obviously do our best. So while I want to get to know players as best I can, at the same time I wouldn’t consider any of them personal friends or anything like that, you know?”
Has much changed, in that case? “There are a few things that are profoundly different. Coaching is what I like to do, it’s what I’ve always done and that’s just much more difficult when you have a manager’s job.
“I won’t say you lose that but there is far less of it involved, no doubt about it. You do need people around you who will be surrogates for you and who will coach the sort of things you want coached because you have so many other things that you have to take care of.
“Anywhere I have coached or managed before, I would have tried to be a one-man band a little bit when it came to coaching but that’s just not possible at county level. I’ve tried to take people with me who are like-minded and who would share some of the same coaching ideas as me. I’m happy that I’ve got that in Louth.”
One thing you can’t really prepare for is the constant need to be available. Not so much to players – managers expect that and they’re okay with it. But in a broader way besides – to the public, to the press, to the county board. Most of the 14 managers were barely a month or two in their job before they had to go and make a speech at a county convention or dress up nicely for various dinner dances.
You might have spent your career devising strategies and running drills but nobody ever wrote a manual on the ancillary stuff that goes with getting to the top.
“There is an element of fund-raising that has to be done in the modern world,” says Grimley, as a for instance. “And the manager has to get more stuck into that and be more visible than I would have been used to.
“Certainly with other coaching jobs I had, I was in different counties to my own and it would have been the locals who would have done the lions’ share of the fund-raising. Whereas back in my own county and as manager of the county team, it’s something that’s very much in my remit now.”
Still, nothing here is a complaint. These new lives they have are not a chore. They’re just different. As O’Rourke stresses, they immerse themselves because they love it.
“If it wasn’t something that you looked forward to every day, you simply wouldn’t do it.”
And when could you look forward to it more than at this time of year? When all the dials are turned back to zero and, like Grimley says, they’re all unbeaten so far. While Armagh don’t have a game this weekend, Louth welcome UCD to Drogheda tomorrow and then they’re down to Navan on Wednesday night for a bit of neighbourly antler-rutting.
Just the ticket to warm a January night. O’Rourke can’t wait to get going.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “it’s all about playing football and that’s what players want to do and that’s what I want to see them do.
“People might look at these as low-key games or whatever but while I have an idea of what players are capable of, you don’t know anything really until you see them in some sort of semi-competitive environment. So I can’t wait for the O’Byrne Cup games.”
Spoken like a true beginner, albeit one whose place at the starting-line has been hard-earned.
New beginnings And old territory for some
Frank Dawson – age: 56
Long and winding road through clubs in Antrim and Down, not to mention stint as Down hurling manager, leads finally to the Antrim job for the St Gall’s man.
Paul Grimley – age: 54
The top job in his home county is his at last. Has coached in Monaghan, Meath, Cavan and Kildare and did two spells in the backroom for Armagh under Joe Kernan and Paddy O’Rourke.
Anthony Rainbow – age: 41
Last year selector and back-up to Luke Dempsey, who brought him in to groom him as his successor.
Mick O’Dwyer – age: 76
Another spin on the carousel for the great man, who takes charge of his fifth county, 38 years after he took over his first.
Brian McIver – age: 58
Comes with serious CV to job most had him marked out for ever since he won club All-Ireland with Ballinderry in 2002. Three years in charge of Donegal and was in the Down backroom when they made the 2010 All-Ireland final.
Jim Gavin – age: 41
The clear and obvious choice to take over from Pat Gilroy, having spent four years in charge of the county’s under-21s who won two All-Irelands under his guidance.
Eamon Fitzmaurice – age: 36
Jack O’Connor tipped him as a future Kerry manager and brought him in as selector in 2008. Spell with Kerry Under-21s notable for advances he made with limited enough talent at his disposal.
Aidan O’Rourke – age: 36
Third member of Armagh’s 2002 defence to take up a county manager’s job, O’Rourke comes to Louth off the back of spells as right-hand man to Kieran McGeeney in Kildare and James McCartan in Down.
Mick O’Dowd – age: 39
Took Skryne to county title in 2004 as player-manager but was an under-the-radar choice for the top job here, beating Graham Geraghty and Paddy Carr to the post.
Malachy O’Rourke – age: 46
Last job at the top level was an impressive four-year spell managing his native Fermanagh. Has managed clubs all over Ulster to success, most notably Loup in Derry, who won the Ulster club title in 2003.
Emmet McDonnell – age: 33
Youngest county manager in the country comes from a schools background, where his greatest achievement so far has been the winning of last year’s Hogan Cup with St Mary’s, Edenderry.
John Evans – age: 55
Despite not ending his time in Tipperary on the greatest of terms, there’s no doubt he left a fine legacy. Finished last year as the forwards coach in Meath.
Niall Carew – age: 41
Having served as Kieran McGeeney’s deputy in Kildare for the past four years, Carew steps up to a top job for the first time.
Aidan O’Brien – age: 49
From Westmeath originally, he’s been teaching in Wexford since the mid-1980s and has coached Good Counsel to a Hogan Cup title. Has managed Wexford at minor and under-21 with mixed success.