Turning the season around for the qualifiers is where managers really earn their salt
Everything you’ve been preaching has to be reworked to get everyone believing again
Watching the golf over the weekend did the heart no end of good. The great thing about the US Open is it makes the best players in the world look like the rest of us. I saw Steve Stricker hit a pure shank on Sunday that I’d have been ashamed of myself. And when Rory McIlroy bent his club in a fit of temper, I knew exactly how he felt.
I’ve played in GAA golf classics where there could be 20 fellas standing around the first tee waiting to watch you tee off. You’d think a crowd of 20 is nothing but trust me, in that situation I’d far rather have to perform in front of 80,000 people screaming at Croke Park. At least there I’d know what I was doing. There’s a big difference between that and taking back the club not knowing where the damn thing is going to go.
When I heard the football qualifier draw on the radio the other morning, I was thinking of the various managers around the country who have been sitting down in team meetings since they lost their first game. In sport, there’s no worse feeling than being in that fog where you’re not sure of yourself. All these guys would have been holding meetings, having to make speeches about what they were going to do next. Some of them would have been feeling no more certain of their ground than me standing on the first tee.
Your first job as a manager is to set the tone. For eight months, these guys have been hammering home a certain message in training, at league matches, in challenges matches, in meetings. They’ve been talking about whatever date their first game is on and they’ve been building their players up and making them believe they’re going to do it.
That is the tone you have to set and you’ll be constantly telling your players they’re up to the job of winning that first game.
Look at Peter Canavan the other day. He would have been saying for ages he had a team that could win an Ulster Championship game. He’s known for a month Cavan would be their opponents, he’s had all that time to tell his team they’ve nothing to fear and that they’re well fit to take them.
And then Fermanagh go out and don’t score for the first 25 minutes. You could see him in the stand – he had his head in his hands. Somewhere in there he was surely questioning himself.
Licking your wounds
Imagine you’re John Evans this week, licking your wounds after the Mayo hiding. You’ve been spending months telling your players they’re the best players around, trying to get them to buy into that idea.
Everyone on the outside has been writing you off but you’ve been going the other way. You’ve convinced yourself that it’s going to happen. To get a trimming like that is shattering.
The road back starts with getting the players to believe again. Players aren’t stupid. They’re the ones who’ve been on the pitch getting beaten to every ball, getting turned around by the opposition and getting abused by the crowd. They’re going to be looking at you thinking: “Well if we were as good as you said we were, how the hell did that happen?”
Players will be sitting in a team meeting feeling pissed off at every word the manager is saying. It’s like that Jack Nicholson movie, As Good As It Gets. In their heads it’ll be: “Go sell crazy somewhere else. We’re all stocked up here.” They might even say it out loud.
But the truth is, you have to sell crazy in that situation. Because you’re trying to turn around something that has gone against the logic of everything you’ve been saying for nine months of preparation. You have to get them back onside and convince them that they can pull it together again.
I remember the first time Kerry played in the qualifiers, back in 2002. I was captain that year and Cork beat us after a replay in the Munster semi-final. The qualifier draw was made and we pulled Wicklow.
Páidí was over us that year and when he got us together on the Tuesday night he said, “Well lads, ye all know about Wicklow . . .”
We all looked at each other. With the greatest of respect, none of us knew a thing about Wicklow. And worse again, Páidí knew less than we did. He was bluffing away going, “Lads, I needn’t tell ye about Wicklow. They’re a banana skin and every one of ye knows it.”
He was deadly serious about it but if one of us had piped up and asked him who we were going to be marking, he’d have been in trouble. But that didn’t really matter to him. What mattered was changing the tone, moving away from the Cork defeat and regrouping.
Over the years, every team finds itself in the situation where a clear-the-air meeting is needed. You reach a point where there has to be a bit of blood-letting, an open forum where everybody can cut loose and air their views. That’s a delicate situation for a manager to be in.
He has to hold his hands up to a certain extent but he can’t let it get out of hand either. He has to be honest and admit his mistakes but he needs the players to row in and do the same. It’s no good him saying, “I got this wrong and that wrong”, only for all the players to sit there and agree. Then he becomes the scapegoat.
But he can’t go the other way either. The worst thing a manager can do is come in and say, “Look lads, ye let me down a bagful out there”. You can’t have them against us. There has to be a mutual facing of the music.
These meetings can go off in unpredictable directions too. Every one of them will start off very serious, purely because you wouldn’t be calling the meeting if everything was hunky-dory. But after a while, fellas get restless and you wouldn’t know what might happen.
There was one year we had a team meeting when things weren’t going well and it was one of those where we said at the start: “Right lads, everything on the table. If you have a problem, this is the time to bring it up.” So we talked away and thrashed it all out until one lad piped up out of nowhere and said he wasn’t happy with the tickets his girlfriend got for the last game!
I can’t name him here. It’s too embarrassing. But he was adamant – this was something he had to get off his chest. She had been given tickets for Row A of the stand and she hadn’t been well taken care of by the county board. He had obviously been getting it in the ear at home and and in fairness, we did say that everything was to be out in the open. So he saw this as his chance.
Sadly for him, the rest of us couldn’t keep a straight face. The meeting had gone through things like kick-out strategy and taking quick frees and all of a sudden, our man comes out with this. There was deathly silence, followed by fits of laughter, followed by the end of the meeting. She dumped him on the team holiday later in the year, as it happened. If she only knew how hard he fought her case.
Most of the teams in the qualifier draw will have had that meeting in the past few weeks. Now is the time for a manager to really find out what his relationship with his players is like. The season can be turned around, make no mistake about it. But the players are who they are – they’re not going to suddenly improve beyond all recognition in the space of a few weeks. It’s the manager who has to make the difference.
And his biggest problem is that everything has changed with the defeat, making a lot of what he’s been doing for months and months feel almost irrelevant. An inter-county manager rang me during the league because his team was playing London and the referee was from Kerry. The manager rang me looking for background on how this referee did a game, what he looked for, what he let go.
This is the level of detail these guys are going into, even for just a league game against London. And then after eight months of work and prep and planning, they go out and lose one game – it must feel like it’s all out the window. But it’s still down to one man to keep it all on the road.
It’s the manager who has to turn it, it’s him who has to make it believable that there’s going to be more than just one game left in the summer. It’s incredibly tough and it’s the main reason why managers are rarely around for more than three years these days.
Because after a while, you just can’t sell crazy anymore.