We talk a lot about managers in football. We look at Eamonn Fitzmaurice bringing an All-Ireland to Kerry when nobody expected one and wonder how he did it. Or we look at the effect a Jim McGuinness can have in Donegal or a Mickey Harte in Tyrone and try to work out what it is about them. What do they bring? How did they turn the world upside down in counties that rarely (in Tyrone's case never) won an All-Ireland before they came along?
I sat in dressing rooms for a long time and listened to a lot of different voices. Well, I heard a lot of different voices. I’d say plenty of them would have their own thoughts on whether I listened or not. And the one thing that always struck me about the job they have to do is that it isn’t one job – it’s countless jobs. A manager is dealing with 30 players who all have their own issues and all have to be treated differently to get the best out of them.
With some players he’d need the hard hand. Mick O’Dwyer would have known that to get the best out of Páidí Ó Sé, he had to stay on him and push him and keep at him. Páidí would have been like the racehorse who only did it for the jockey when he felt the whip. Whereas lads like Mikey Sheehy and Pat Spillane would need a gentler sort of coaxing from Micko. They needed a different kind of loving.
In my case, I need somebody to challenge me. I wanted somebody to rub me up the wrong way and to question me. I often found myself doing things out of sheer bloody-mindedness and when people would be praising me afterwards for having a good game, I’d nearly be cranky at having to play well just to show them.
When Páidí managed Kerry, he knew exactly what to do to me. For a man I knew my whole life, he and I didn’t really get on all that well as player and manager. He was always at me because he knew that was the key to get through to me. If we were doing a few 100m sprints, he’d tell me I hadn’t a hope of winning. I’d go and burst myself in the sprint and then I’d stew on what he said for three or four days afterwards, long after he’d forgotten he even said it.
One night just before training, I knocked a lady down with my car just outside the gate. It didn’t turn out to be too serious but I was upset about it at the time and my head was a bit astray over it. We trained away but I wasn’t properly tuned in, for obvious reasons. Páidí stopped training at one point and gathered everyone in for a speech.
“There’s certain guys here tonight whose heads aren’t right and who aren’t tuned in. I’m telling ye now lads, we’ll win nothing with those fellas.”
I knew right away it was me he was talking about. I lost my reason and I was like a bull when we went back to the game. I was marking Eoin Brosnan and poor Eoin got knees, elbows, everything that was going for the rest of the game.
When we got back into the dressing room after training, Páidí and Tatler O’Sullivan were there – the pair of them weak with laughter. Number one, they were laughing that he’d said it in the first place. And number two, they couldn’t get over the fact that I’d bought it hook, line and sinker. I was the bigger fool not to cop it. I should have known. But the bottom line is, it worked. Players want to be managed, no matter what they say. And each of them have to be managed in different ways. Mike Frank Russell had to nearly be sold on how good he was.
Maurice Fitzgerald never needed that but he needed to be minded. He didn’t need to be made run 10 laps just to show he was committed. He needed to be kept for the big day and let his temperament take over. We never got the best out of Maurice for Kerry because too many managers – Páidí included – didn’t understand that about him.
The clue is in the title. You have to manage players. The game comes down to players on a given day doing what’s needed out on the pitch. But before those players go out, they want certain things from their manager. Does this guy know what he’s talking about? Can he sell it?
Look at what McGuinness did in Donegal. First and foremost, he had to sell the idea to those players that an All-Ireland was possible. To do that, he had to have the personality to get it across. You can be sure he didn’t convince all those players right from the beginning.
He is a unique sort of character though. Always was. I remember years ago when he was in studying in Tralee, he turned up at Kerry training one night looking to join in. Now, if a fella ponied up at club training some evening looking to keep his hand in, you might say fair enough. Definitely if he was in decent shape and looked like the kind of fella who might do some of your running for you, you’d welcome him with open arms.
But Kerry training? Not so fast, buddy. Páidí was over us at the time and he was nearly shocked at the notion of it. It was like, where did yer man get the balls to turn up here? And him from where? Donegal? Ah no. Funny, I always thought afterwards that McGuinness’s long hair probably counted against him that night. It wouldn’t have helped his cause anyway.
Still, when you think about it, it shows the kind of fella he was, even then. He was driven, he had no inferiority complex. He didn’t see barriers up ahead. It wouldn’t occur to 99.9 per cent of intercounty players to even go and watch Kerry training but McGuinness just figured he’d turn up with his boots and give it a shot.
It was always going to take somebody with that kind of mind and conviction to turn a county like Donegal around. Players followed him because he was clear about what he said and had complete determination when he said it.
Any level of spoofing from a manager will be picked up by players in a heartbeat. Not because they’re looking to pick holes in him – actually the opposite is the case. Players are dying to find a manager they can trust. Players want to be able to do their own job and know that the man in charge has picked them for that job for a reason. They want to be sure they’re part of a bigger plan.
Trust brings belief. Go back to last year’s All-Ireland final. All the build-up was about Kieran Donaghy and his resurrection for Kerry. Or if it wasn’t about him, it was about James O’Donoghue, odds-on for Footballer of the Year. So what did Fitzmaurice do? He brought both of them out away from goals for the first five minutes of the game and left Paul Geaney in there, isolated on Paddy McGrath. High ball in, Geaney catches it over McGrath’s head, ball in the net inside a minute.
Just imagine the belief that gave the rest of the Kerry team. Something they worked on, something they dreamed up in advance and it worked like a charm.
Seven of that team were playing in their first All-Ireland final, all wondering what to expect. A rehearsed move like that coming off like it did would have given them 100 times more confidence than all the team talks in the world could have.
Players want details. They love to be given targets to meet. Pat O’Shea took it to a new level when he was in charge of Kerry in 2007 and 2008. Team meetings often consisted of him going around the room one by one and getting each man to lay out what was expected of him in the upcoming game.
It simplified things very well, to be fair to Pat. He would come to me and ask what I was going to be doing in the game and I’d go: “I’ve to catch kick-outs, I’ve to link the play and I’ve to make as many tackles as I can inside the 70 minutes.”
It sounds obvious but it’s never any harm for fellas to say this out loud in front of a room full of people. You feel you are taking on that responsibility once the words come out of your mouth.
Plans don’t always work out though. There was one year before an All-Ireland final, I think it was 2009. It was one of the ones against Cork anyway. Jack O’Connor was in charge and he had everything worked out. We were well-prepared and ready for anything.
We were staying out in the Radisson in Stillorgan and we gathered in a room for our final team meeting to go through everything one last time. Bryan Sheehan hadn’t made the starting 15 and although we knew Gooch would be fine with the frees, he wasn’t a man to kick 45s. Jack looked around the room and picked out Marc Ó Sé. “You take them for the club, don’t you Marc?” he said.
Now, I knew Marc wouldn’t sleep that night if he thought he was going out to kick 45s for Kerry in an All-Ireland final the next day. So before he had a chance to say anything, I piped up and said: “I’ll kick them. I kick them for the club, I’ll kick them tomorrow.” I don’t think I ever kicked more than half a dozen in my life but sure it was better than having Marc staring at the ceiling half the night.
In Croke Park the next day, we were out warming up and I said I better go and have a cut at one of these so I know what I’m doing. I placed it on the 45, took a few steps back, looked up at the posts and drew the boot. The ball went about 25 yards in the air and scooted along the ground then towards the Canal End goal. I topped it, like a 20-handicapper on the first tee.
So much for planning! I went in to Gooch and took him to one side.
“I’m kicking the 45s,” I said.
“I know, yeah,” he said. “It was discussed last night.”
“Right, well, if we get one,” I said, “I need you to come short or make some sort of run for me.”
“Sure I can’t rise the feckin’ thing. I never took a 45 in my life! Don’t make me look like a gombeen in front of all these people, will you?”
This was 15 minutes before throw-in in an All-Ireland final. I’d say Gooch thought I was some eejit. But actually, the whole thing settled me a bit. I had a bit of a laugh at myself. You can do all the planning you like but there’s no legislating for some gobshite with a bit of bravado in him.
Best of all, we got no 45 in the game. As far as anyone knew, I was the best 45-kicker in Ireland! Fooled them again, Darragh boy. Fooled them all.