This is the week where intercounty managers need to show up and prove their worth. You can talk about tactics and strategies until the cows come home. You can coach the skills and do the drills and put everyone through video sessions. You can do all that. But the biggest part of the gig is to manage people. This week, most of all.
Once it all starts, the championship gathers its own momentum. The stakes get more and more obvious to everyone with each passing week. Especially this year, with such a compressed schedule – the Munster and Connacht finals are only four weeks away.
So unless you take your eye off the ball altogether, the chances of getting caught cold should decrease the further on you go.
But the one thing you can be guaranteed is that this weekend or next weekend, teams will go out of the championship because they weren’t properly tuned in. With the good weather and the hard ground, it’s easy to forget that this is not a normal championship. Somebody somewhere is going to get shocked because they didn’t realise the demands of this thing until it was too late.
They’ll fool themselves into thinking they have it sussed. All around the country tonight, there’s fellas gathered in huddles in centres of excellence and colleges and pitches and you know fine well that if you asked every one of them did they realise they are about to enter a knockout competition, every last one of them would say yes. And does that mean they do? Not a bit of it.
Because here’s the one thing we know for sure. For absolute sure. If you had gone around every intercounty training session last October and asked the players did they realise what they were about to get themselves into, every last one of them would have said yes, that time too. And yet, throughout 2020 All-Ireland championship, it became clear as day that some teams got it and some teams didn’t.
With any luck this will be the last year of the knock-out All-Ireland championship
Cork got it against Kerry. Kerry didn’t. Tipperary got it against Cork. Cork didn’t. Cavan got it against Monaghan, Armagh and Donegal. Meath got it against Kildare. All the teams that got beaten in those games were off-colour for one reason or another on the day. Was it because they had become bad teams? No. It was because they didn’t properly realise they were playing in a different championship until it was too late.
With any luck – and if the GAA are serious about their duty of care to the players – this will be the last year of the knock-out All-Ireland championship. It’s bad enough that they had to go one year without a back-door but two years out of any player’s career is a huge chunk. You don’t need to be heading for middle age like I am to know that time flies by.
Think of it this way. Everyone’s excited for the championship but 10 days from now, there will be 14 counties whose year is over. A lot of them probably only got one day out last year as well. Two years is quarter of a good intercounty career. Lose next weekend and you’re talking about 25 per cent of a player’s career gone up in smoke in 140 minutes of football. That can’t be allowed to happen again.
It’s not like ancient times when I started out and you could ease the pain of an early championship defeat by heading to New York or Boston for the summer. That door is closed just now. So the stakes are sky high in these opening games. If you don’t get to the pitch of them straight away, it’s staycation time for you.
This is where management comes into its own. Complacency is the ultimate disease where prevention is better than cure. Apart from anything else, it’s the much easier way to go. You can take steps in the lead up to a game to root out lapses in concentration. It’s so much harder to do in the middle of a game.
Kerry found that out in front of the whole country last year in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Inside the stadium, the difference between the two teams at the second-half water break was so obvious. The Cork lads were standing around, taking on their water, cool, calm and focused. Down at the other end, Peter Keane and Tommy Griffin were going bananas at the Kerry lads, trying to get them to realise the stakes they were playing with.
The thing is, the score at the time was Cork 0-7 Kerry 0-6. It wasn’t like Kerry were miles behind or anything – both sides had only scored one point since half-time. But it was clear from how the two teams were playing that one side was tuned in and the other wasn’t. Trying harder didn’t bring Kerry any joy. They just weren’t mentally right from the get-go and they paid the price in the end.
In other years, you at least had a bit of leeway. The qualifiers had a way of teaching a team a lesson when they still had time to learn it
Go around the country and that’s why this week is so important. The time to do your mental preparation for the road ahead is now. It’s definitely not at the second water break with management screaming and your brain doing somersaults trying to work out why it’s all going wrong.
As a player, you have to be obsessed. That’s how you guard against complacency. It should actually be easier than in the back-door years because the stakes are so plain and simple. You have to spend this week reminding yourself that knock-out is different. There’s no safety net. There’s no next day.
If it’s not dominating your thoughts for 50 per cent of the day, you need to make yourself knuckle down and think about it. If you’re doing it right, it will make you nervous. That’s good. If you’re not going into a championship game with a knot in your stomach, something is wrong.
This is the week where a manager has to know his players. He has to be on the look-out for anyone acting differently to how they normally would. With Kerry, we used to worry if Mike McCarthy rang you for a chat the week of a game. Mike was the kind of guy who basically wanted to be left alone most of the time. If he was getting talkative all of a sudden, something was up.
Managers need to be wise to all of this. It's very tough because you're talking about 30 players and they're all different. Tom Sullivan was the complete opposite of Mike McCarthy – he would be trying to hop balls and be cheeky and annoy people the week of a game. If he went all serious on you, that would set off the alarm bells.
A good manager is touching base through the week. He’s checking in, he’s making sure everything is okay off the pitch. He’s testing the waters to see where his players’ heads are. He can’t allow himself to be surprised on the day.
In other years, you at least had a bit of leeway. The qualifiers had a way of teaching a team a lesson when they still had time to learn it. All that talk you did before the first game about staying focused comes to mean something after a defeat. Players are forced to rethink, to ask themselves were they tuned in really or were they just telling themselves they were. A good fright and a bit of a humbling is no bad thing sometimes.
There was one year we played Waterford in Killarney. It was one of those games where everyone, without exception, spent the build-up talking about guarding against complacency. Inside the camp, outside the camp, on TV, in the papers – anyone who talked about Kerry’s job in the game made reference to not taking it for granted.
You can't apply jump leads in the middle of a game. You have to go in there with the battery charged
And what did we do? We took it for granted. It was a wet day and we were shocking bad. Early in the second half, we were only a point ahead and Waterford missed a penalty. We knuckled down and got out the gap in the end but there was war in the dressingroom because we had taken the game so lightly.
Jack O'Connor was raging at the players being so flat and was looking at Pat Flanagan, the physical trainer, for answers. Pat was giving out about the county board because there had been a round of club championship the week before. Seán Walsh was the county chairman at the time and he came back saying sure if ye can't beat Waterford, what are ye at at all?
It was a total circular firing squad, everyone letting off bullets at each other. Here we were after winning and there was a blazing row going on inside in the dressingroom.
But when the dust settled, the problem was clear as day. There was nothing physically wrong with anyone – we just hadn’t prepared mentally for the game. We were mentally flat because we hadn’t done the work.
You can’t apply jump leads in the middle of a game. You have to go in there with the battery charged.
The big lesson of last year’s championship is that you can’t play games with one eye looking down the road. Kerry got caught doing it. Donegal got caught doing it. Monaghan got caught doing it. Someone else will fall into the same trap this time around as well.
They’re out there this week, telling themselves they’re not being complacent and that they know exactly what knock-out football is all about. By the time they find out the reality, it will already be too late.