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Seán Moran: Beginnings and endings in the world of football management

Kevin McStay gets ready to harness Mayo buoyancy whereas Billy Lee has done all he can in Limerick

Recently there were two pieces of business in the world of intercounty football management, one fairly high-profile and the other not to the same extent.

Kevin McStay got the go-ahead for the Mayo job on Monday evening whereas a few hours later it emerged that Billy Lee had stepped down as Limerick manager after six years.

There wasn’t much to link the moves apart from timing. The Mayo vacancy had attracted a lot of publicity and four fairly credible applications whereas Limerick not to the same extent.

Intrigue surrounding the final decision in Castlebar was maintained until the very end – such was the anxiety about the news emerging on social media before official protocols had been observed.


Candidates waited and waited for traces of white smoke. A WhatsApp message even stated when the appointment was confirmed: Habemus Papam!

There had been much vexation with the apparently endless formalities of the process. Within the county there was irritation at the sweeping accusations that the whole business had been a circus. That was because there was a rough consensus that this appointment had to be that way.

Mayo county officialdom has not been universally sure-footed when it comes to these sorts of decisions so the current chair Seamus Tuohy and his officers devised a highly visible process, moving sufficiently slowly that it would be plain to all that no optical illusions were at work.

A sober-minded and capable selection committee, including county officers and Seán Silke, the Galway hurling All-Ireland winner and senior HR professional, conducted the selection having closed applications with four candidates: McStay, Ray Dempsey, Mike Solan and Declan Shaw.

This meant that there would be no rabbits from the hat, an animal at whose paws McStay had suffered in the past. Nonetheless, he was successful on this occasion because he had impressed on the committee that he and his backroom team were the right choice for the role and not because he had previously been a victim of poor process.

In other words he deserved his chance and had assembled a credible management with an emphasis on the collaborative.

There were some reservations that recruiting such well-known names as former Mayo manager Stephen Rochford and Donie Buckley, who had coached for both Rochford and McStay’s predecessor James Horan, lacked novelty.

Rochford has spent time as a coach with Donegal since his managerial stint in Mayo whereas Buckley worked with Séamus McEnaney in Monaghan. Liam McHale, McStay’s brother-in-law, is a long-time collaborator and the introduction of Damien Mulligan, an experienced coach at club level, brings freshness.

When McStay emphasised the experience of his colleagues and the previous involvement in 14 senior intercounty teams, it was hard to avoid the thought that this demonstrated a flexibility of engagement as well as the accumulation of know-how.

Such is the burden of intercounty management these days that an elite team needs that collectivism. In Mayo this week, there has been reference to how All-Ireland champions Kerry were led by a management team that included three Division Two managers from last year: Jack O’Connor himself, Mike Quirke and Paddy Tally.

Individually all could be questioned about their tenures in Kildare, Laois and Down but as a group they fixed the Kerry challenge and delivered what they were appointed to do.

Kevin McStay rightly identified the importance of the Connacht championship and its pathway into a high seeding for the All-Ireland group stages but that will be in itself competitive with Galway having had a creditable All-Ireland campaign.

There is a miraculous buoyancy about Mayo. Even under pressure this year and hobbled by injuries, they reached the quarter-finals and lost out to the ultimate champions having missed a hatful of chances.

There’s enough in what they did this year, who they were missing and with a new management in harness to fire up enthusiasm for the season ahead. They haven’t plummeted down the pecking order and, when the new season comes, they’ll go again.

Since 1989 they’ve been to 11 All-Ireland finals without relief. In the same period Dublin have reached the same number but have amassed nine Sam Maguires.

Mayo maintain their pursuit of the happy medium.

That type of environment where a team can credibly aspire to provincial titles, Division One and All-Ireland advancement is a different one to that in which Billy Lee operated.

His decision to leave Limerick after six seasons came as a surprise even though the scale of his commitment has been immense. The county board didn’t appear to anticipate his departure a few weeks ago when asked but, by this week, Lee felt differently.

He is a huge loss to the county. Those six years have included incremental progress with two promotions lifting the county clear of Division Four and into Division Two for 2023. The panel hasn’t been afflicted by tidal waves of change every year and stability has nurtured improvement.

They were roundly criticised for not showing much against Kerry in the Munster final but they had already beaten Clare and Tipperary to reach a first provincial decider in 12 years. Being there was an achievement.

Their performance in the Division Three final against Louth prompted a rugby writer to observe that Munster weren’t merely fighting the appeal of the Limerick hurlers and that the fit, athletic ball players on Lee’s team also represented a loss.

Billy Lee has been integral to refashioning Limerick football. Of course there’s a glass ceiling but he has been taking charge of football on behalf of the county board for six years and now he’s gone, he will be missed.

Progress means a wide variety of things in different counties. Kevin McStay looks with hope towards the horizon whereas Billy Lee has simply done everything he could.