First-year county bosses find the upside to the downside
Derry’s Rory Gallagher and Mike Quirke of Laois on the unique problems and opportunities
Rory Gallagher: ‘The getting-to-know phase is something we’re missing out on to some extent.” Photograph: Evan Logan/Inpho
Everyone’s lockdown is different, everyone’s lockdown is the same. It’s 12 weeks since intercounty football paused mid-sentence and everyone was told to hold that thought. For established teams and managers, there isn’t a lot to do but ride it out and keep everything topped up. But for those teams who changed manager over the winter, what was already a game of catch-up has been hit by a headwind they could never have conceived of.
Across the four provinces, a dozen managers have had their first season in the gig hijacked by the ultimate force majeure. Some, like Jack O’Connor in Kildare, had been appointed at the end of last summer and were six months and more into their time in charge. Others had a much shorter spell in which to get anything done – Dessie Farrell had been Dublin manager for 11 weeks (including Christmas) when everything stopped.
Rory Gallagher was handed the reins of the Derry job at the end of August. Having taken the winter in reasonable shape, they were sitting third in Division Three when the music stopped. The spring ground, the good weather, all the good vibes that championship brings has been lost since then. But most of all, for a new set-up, the last three months would have told him so much about his players. And vice-versa.
“The downside, definitely, is that as a first-year management team, the getting-to-know phase is something we’re missing out on to some extent,” Gallagher says. “Most of the backroom team stayed on so we’re lucky in that way. But when you’re talking about myself and [assistant] Enda Muldoon – and especially with me as the place where the buck stops – that is a downside.”
Last weekend would have been a big one in the Gallagher household in Killybegs. His oldest daughter was due to make her first communion, Derry were down to play Armagh on the Saturday night and Donegal would have had Tyrone coming to Ballybofey on Sunday. Three huge days in their year, all to be stuffed into 24 hours. Instead they did what we all did, the same as we did the day before and the day after.
Getting stuck in suspended animation is the temptation, of course. For Gallagher though, the instinct is to find the positive. For all that Derry had been going okay, they were still coming from a lower base than most of their Ulster rivals. In sport, there is never enough time. So it would be a bit perverse to be complaining now about having too much f it.
“If you take the first three games that would have been played in the Ulster championship – Cavan were to play Monaghan, Derry were to play Armagh and Tyrone were to play Donegal. On any realistic reading of it, most people would have had Derry the sixth-ranked of those teams.
“We feel that physically, because of the age profile of our team and because of the outstanding work done particularly by Donegal, Tyrone and Monaghan as the benchmark going back over seven, eight, nine years and more, we would have been going into the championship with ground to make up on the conditioning side of things.
“So we have an opportunity now with no games, no club football, no county football, no collective training, for our boys to use the time and opportunity to make up some of that ground. The more established teams aren’t going to get any stronger or fitter through this period but we certainly can. If we were a business, our share price has room to rise here, whereas some of the bigger ones don’t have that room. They were more ready for the championship than us.”
First-year Laois manager Mike Quirke has made it his business to look on the bright side too. A strong start to their Division Two campaign had begun to stutter a little but they were ready to see it out strongly and maybe, if the wind was with them, still grab a promotion spot for themselves. They’d have been playing the winners of Laois and Longford this weekend in a Leinster quarter-final. All kaput, for now. And maybe for good.
“It’s all very strange, very new,” Quirke says. “It doesn’t matter how experienced or inexperienced you are as a manager. This is my first year but we’re all dealing with something here that nobody has ever seen before in the GAA. So from that point of view, I don’t feel like I’m in a deficit in terms of experience because it’s something everybody is working out as they go along.
“In terms of relationships, I actually think I’m learning more about guys through this. We’ve done things like talent shows and whatnot and I think I got a better sense of some of them through those things than I ever would out on the pitch. I just think this time is time where we’re not going to be demanding performance in training or pushing them constantly, which means that you can have different conversations with them.
“You’re not under time constraints, you’re not pushing to get injuries patched up or get their heads focused. This is a time now that is more about people, talking to them about their family or their job or whatever it is. This has afforded us the time to develop those relationships better than if you were going full-bore preparing for championship.”
A team is an ephemeral entity when there are no games to play. If they’re not meeting up, if they’re not competing, it is obviously difficult to keep up the illusion that they’re a team at all. Gallagher isn’t a technophobe, not exactly. But he can’t abide the Zoom thing and won’t submit to it.
“Naw, I just don’t like them. I phone the lads instead,” he says. “We took a less-is-more approach from early March. Clearly, the strength and conditioning coach and the medical team have been doing what they need to in terms of rehab and whatever else. But in general, we’ve left the boys to it. We were able to get the majority of them set up with home gyms by taking some equipment out of Owenbeg because it isn’t getting used. Add in the fact that we have six players from Slaughtneil who badly need six, eight, 10 weeks without anybody torturing them. We stayed more in touch with the younger lads, just over the phone.
“Young players these days, there’s next to no chance of them letting themselves go. A lot of them, I’ve found, are using this as an unbelievable opportunity to nearly train as a professional. There’s no end goal in sight, yeah. But I don’t buy this idea that there’s a lack of motivation. You’re motivated to be the best for yourself, for your club, for your county when it gets going again. Those are the type of people we want.”
Likewise, Quirke and his backroom team released the Laois panel to their daily lives back near the end of April. They will take it up again when there’s a sign of something changing. It’s not the way he envisaged his first year of intercounty management going but there’s no multiple choice on offer here.
“We finished up as a collective three weeks ago,” Quirke says. “We basically said we’d take a three-week break and see how things were and we’ve extended it now for another month. Everyone is on their own individual programme but we were doing collective stuff online and we’ve stopped all that. We’ve stopped the need for them to be reporting back to us as well, in terms of their numbers and their training and all that.
“Physically, if anything, we were trying to hold some of them back. Fellas had so much time on their hands that they were just looking to do work and to run and keep going. So we were saying to them, ‘Look, the best-case scenario is games in October. You don’t need to be training for four or five months for that scenario.’ So we’ve told them to strip it back, give themselves a break, chill out, get a bit of perspective. If the numbers keep going in the right direction, we can ramp it up when the time comes.
“I have no control over whether we do or don’t play championship. That’s part of the reason why we had shut down before ever we got a directive from Croke Park. We just made the decision that there was no point keeping fellas flat out. We started training last November 15th. So you couldn’t keep going all the way through October. Whether it happens or not, there’s bigger things at the moment.”