Darragh Ó Sé: Who in their right mind would be a manager?

Andy McEntee, Rory Gallagher and Derek McGrath looked on in horror last weekend

Rory Gallagher: helpless as a Donegal side in transition were overwhelmed by a well-honed and more experienced Tyrone outfit.  Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Rory Gallagher: helpless as a Donegal side in transition were overwhelmed by a well-honed and more experienced Tyrone outfit. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Who’d be a manager? I was watching Andy McEntee and Rory Gallagher over the weekend and feeling nothing but sympathy for them. I was just thinking of everything they must have done with Meath and Donegal since they got their squads together last October.

Imagine all the times they must have watched training or a sat up the front of the bus on the way home from a game and thought, ‘Yeah, we’re getting there. These fellas are doing what I want them to do. We’re ticking all the boxes.’ And then the day of your big test comes and the wheels just fall off.

It has happened to everybody. It happened to me when I was over the Kerry under-21s. You spend the week building up to the game making a checklist with yourself. Have I every angle covered here? Are there any stones unturned? You do your due diligence, you’re not casual, you’re not lackadaisical about it. And then the referee throws the ball in the air and there’s nothing you can do.

Yes, you can make switches and try different lads here and there. But that only really has an effect in games that are close. McEntee and Gallagher could have thrown on half of the great Meath and Donegal All-Ireland-winning teams last weekend and it wouldn’t have mattered a damn.

They were watching a total non-performance and that goes deeper than trying to make a few switches. You may as well be standing in front of a train asking it politely to stop.

There’s really nothing you can do. Compose yourself, shake hands, tell the press the best team won and get the hell out of Dodge. That’s the full list of options that are open to you. Then go home and stare at the wall and wonder why it went wrong.

A few minutes of the lads dissecting your game and telling you all the mistakes you made will probably cheer you up no end

You might beat yourself up over it. You might, if you’re a real sadist, sit yourself down to watch The Sunday Game. Nothing rounds off an embarrassing afternoon like the whole country sitting down to pick over the bones of it again that night. But you’ll be feeling bad anyway so one more kick isn’t going to hurt.

Actually, sometimes watching The Sunday Game will be good for you. Because a few minutes of the lads dissecting your game and telling you all the mistakes you made will probably cheer you up no end. They’ll draw lines and shade boxes away and you’ll only have to listen to them for a couple of minutes before you’re going, “Ah lads. This shower have even less of a clue than I have!”

Huge amount

Even take poor Derek McGrath there last Sunday. Think of all the plans he has been making in the three months since Waterford finished the league. Three months is an awful amount of time to be thinking about a game.

I wouldn’t be the biggest hurling analyst in the world but you can tell from listening to him that he puts a huge amount of thought into the game and into his players. And they were just flat as pancakes when the big day came.

Andy McEntee: saw Meath tumble to a heavy defeat to Kildare in the Leinster semi-final at Tullamore – just weeks after an impressive display against Louth. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Andy McEntee: saw Meath tumble to a heavy defeat to Kildare in the Leinster semi-final at Tullamore – just weeks after an impressive display against Louth. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

The difference between managing and playing is doing. I was watching Dara Ó Cinnéide’s new programme the other night about all the stuff that goes into these teams behind the scenes and it was interesting stuff. Preparation is huge in every team and nobody will be successful without putting in the work beforehand and finding all the edges they can. But at the end of the day, you live or die by what is done inside the lines over the course of the 70 minutes.

When I was a player, I loved the responsibility of having to get myself right. Training made me a better player because I was up against fellas whose game I knew. And, more importantly, players who knew my game just as well. They knew what leg I was going to jump off, which way I liked to turn to give off a handpass, who I looked for when I lifted my head to play a pass into the forwards.

I knew the same things about them. I knew that they knew and they knew that I knew. So training was a constant chess game, trying to get one up on guys like Kieran Donaghy or Séamus Scanlon or William Kirby. Always thinking, always trying to second guess and double bluff.

What it all meant was that I would find myself on the bus going to games knowing that every bit of my game had been road-tested, body and mind. And I knew that whatever I was going to face out on the pitch wasn’t going to be anything more difficult than what I’d seen in training.

In all likelihood, it was going to be a step down. Not because I was up against lesser players, purely because I was up against guys who couldn’t have known every inch of my game like the Kerry lads did. Unless they were above in the tree looking in on Fitzgerald Stadium – and even then they’d have had to put in a fair amount of time.

So all that was left to me going out onto the pitch was to go and do it. I had the comfort of knowing that all my preparation was done and that made performance so much easier. I had squeezed the last out of myself just to get through training. Bring on the game. I’m ready. I’m in control of my day.

Sitting up the front of the bus, the manager is in the exact opposite position. Every night at training, he’s the main man. Everyone jumps to his tune – players, coaches, kitmen, the fella opening and closing the gate. Every suggestion he makes is carried out to the letter. He draws up a training plan and for the two hours on a Tuesday or Thursday night, everyone he comes into contact with is dead-set on putting it into action. And if they get it wrong, he blows his whistle and they go again.

Derek McGrath: three months without a competitive game, his Waterford team were as flat as a pancake as they were outhurled by a vibrant Cork at Thurles. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
Derek McGrath: three months without a competitive game, his Waterford team were as flat as a pancake as they were outhurled by a vibrant Cork at Thurles. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

The bus

But when he’s on the bus on the way to the game, it’s out of his hands. Those players sitting down the rows behind him are either going to do this or they aren’t. Either way, he has no whistle around his neck to stop them and tell them to go again.

It does the player a world of good to sit there knowing he has the work done because he can now go and put it into action. It does the manager no good at all because he can only stand and watch and hope.

We had a player with the Kerry under-21s who we put a heap of time into. He was a right good forward, loads of ability. One of these kids who can just destroy a defence if he’s in the mood. His only drawback was that he knew he was good and he thought it gave him a bit of leeway not to work.

This is the big problem for managers. You only ever know when it’s too late. By the time you’ve copped on that things are going against you, they’re usually already gone

So we drove him relentlessly in training. Never off his case. Work back, track back, cover that man, work, work, work. His attitude improved out of sight. He was like a choir-boy for us in the weeks coming into the game we were aiming at. Every night in training and in challenge games, he did exactly what we wanted from him. I clearly remember going through my checklist before the game and thinking, ‘Well, he’s good to go. No need to worry about him’.

And what did he do when the game started? He reverted to type. He decided he was going to shoot the lights out and win this game on his own and be the star of his own movie. He was like a child who went to confession and recited all his sins in exactly the way the priest wanted to hear and then went outside and set the bins on fire once he had absolution. I was standing on the line going, “What are you supposed to do with that?”

This is the big problem for managers. You only ever know when it’s too late. By the time you’ve copped on that things are going against you, they’re usually already gone.

I remember being in the warm-up for an All-Ireland quarter-final against Monaghan in 2007 and we were completely flat. Fellas were dropping balls, kicks were going astray, it was all too casual. You could just feel it within the group that we weren’t right.

Monaghan were hopping off the ground and they should have beaten us. We had a big row at half-time in the dressing room, everybody pointing fingers in frustration, total chaos. In the end, we got out by the skin of our teeth but we walked off annoyed at ourselves.

Fingers crossed

I was thinking afterwards that I should have gone to Pat O’Shea during the warm-up and said something to try and nip it in the bud. But the more I’ve thought about it over the years, the more I realise it would have achieved nothing. What could Pat have said or done at that point?

For those three managers last weekend, there must have come a moment when the horror hit them

He would have told me to go and concentrate on my own game and he would have been dead right. But beyond that, he’d have watched me going back about my business with his fingers crossed, hoping for the best.

For those three managers last weekend, there must have come a moment when the horror hit them. Not just that this was going badly wrong but that there was nothing they could do about it.

Look at the players they substituted – Frank McGlynn was gone at half-time for Donegal, Meath pulled Graham Reilly, Waterford took Austin Gleeson off.

When you’re taking off players of that calibre, you’re resigned to your fate. You know you’re goosed. And there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. 

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