Dara Ó Cinnéide is a very bright lad, one of the brightest I ever played with – although that might not be saying a whole pile.
Paddy Bawn Brosnan once had the famous saying about the old Kerry teams being made up of a few farmers, a few fishermen and a college boy to take the frees.
Cinnéide was that college boy and he took the frees for Kerry and for An Ghaeltacht. Because of that, he was more particular than the rest of us about the footballs we used, especially as the winter came in and the weather got bad.
One year, during an especially cold club championship, he came in after a training session and was giving out that the balls were like blocks of ice. He suggested to our selector Tony Ó Sé that maybe it might be an idea to keep them in the hot press when he had them at home, so that they'd be easier to kick when we got out on the field. Tony turned around to me, in horror.
“I thought you were always going on that this fella was supposed to be a bright lad!”
“What do you mean?”
“Sure it won’t matter if I put them in the hot-press. As soon as I take them out of the boot of the car, they’ll only get cold again!”
That’s winter football. It makes fools of the smartest of us. The skies were clear and the weather was decent for the two big provincial final shocks but it was still cold-weather football. The ball didn’t go as far, the handling wasn’t as good, the sod made things a whole lot less sure-footed than it would have been in the summer.
Tipperary and Cavan both grabbed their opportunity through ability, determination and clever planning. They adapted, Cork and Donegal didn't. Mayo have come through Connacht the hard way, beating Roscommon in the Hyde and Galway in Salthill. The job done by management in all three cases has been off the charts.
Power knew what he had as soon as he walked through the door
David Power, Mickey Graham and James Horan have had different roles to play. Power came in to finish off the job he started with the group of lads he brought to a minor All-Ireland in 2011. Graham came into a Cavan set-up where there was a load of fellas who had good futures behind them. Horan was coming back to a dressing room he had ruled before. You need different skills to do all three jobs.
Power knew what he had as soon as he walked through the door. He didn't need to be told how good Conor Sweeney or Michael Quinlivan or Steven O'Brien are – he needed to find a way to bring them back to their best. They hadn't shown it in a few years – why not? Were they not being challenged enough? Were they resting on their laurels? Power's job was to find out.
I was impressed by the way he delegated from the start. It takes a lot of humility and a good bit of thinking outside the box to ring Paddy Christie and ask him in as coach. And let's be honest about it, given the direction Tipperary had gone in over the past couple of seasons, he must have done a fair selling job to Christie as well.
I always look at these things through a player’s eyes. The Tipperary players have known Power since they were kids. They know his good points and his bad points. They have heard his voice, on and off, for well over a decade. If I was one of them, I would want to do well for him. But good intentions only carry the thing so far. You need substance too.
Power bringing in Christie from the start was a statement of intent. Right lads, you know me, you know who I am. You don’t know Paddy but you know his work. He wouldn’t even have to say that Dublin have at least four Ballymun players on the pitch every time they go out and a couple more in the subs. All of them went through Paddy’s hands.
The job is made easier when you have good players but you still have to make them believe this is all possible. Tipperary have had plenty of chances to slip out of the championship in the past month but they took it in their own hands to stay going. The players did it but the management have to take huge credit.
Same in Cavan. I played against Mickey Graham and he was always a hardy, defiant lad, much more influential than his size would have suggested he should be. He has put a bit of that steel into Cavan since he went in last year.
They hadn’t been to an Ulster final in the guts of 20 years and now they’ve been in two back-to-back and won one of them. When a county does that, you have to celebrate it, yes. But you also have to ask what were they at for all the years that went before.
They had the odd good run, fair enough. Under Terry Hyland, they made it to an All-Ireland quarter-final against Kerry. But all I kept hearing every year was that they had these under-21 players coming through who had won four Ulster titles on the bounce. Where were they? None of them really stood out anytime I watched them.
Graham obviously felt they were underachieving and came in and did his own thing with them. I love the story of Killian Clarke getting in touch during lockdown to say he was thinking of coming back to the panel and Graham basically telling him that he looked overweight in the club championship.
The message was clear – this isn’t the old Cavan where the dressing room had a revolving door. If you want to come back, you’ll have to earn it. Clarke has been one of their best players throughout Ulster. That’s down to him but it’s down to Graham too.
The smartest thing Horan has done is to change everything up
As for Horan, any manager coming back for a second spin of the wheel has a whole other aspect of the job to try and negotiate. If you’re being asked back for a second time, it means you had some level of success the first time. Otherwise they wouldn’t let you darken the door.
It means you come back in with some level of authority and respect already under your belt. It happened in my career with Jack O’Connor coming back in 2009 three years after his first stint had ended. We knew Jack, Jack knew us. He had written a book in the meantime so that was a bit of a speedbump that everybody had to get past. But above all else, the fact that we had won together before meant we could see our way to winning together again.
I was in my later year and I was taking on a bit of water. I was subbed off against Dublin in the quarter-final, same against Meath in the semi-final and against Cork in the final. The last three games of my career and I didn't make it to the final whistle in any of them.
And in my head, I wasn’t one bit happy about it. We were beating Dublin well that day and I was feeling good. I didn’t need to be coming off the pitch. I was enjoying it. I wasn’t slowing down. We had the game where we wanted it.
This is where the dynamic of a returning manager comes into play. If Jack had been in his first year, if he hadn’t won his All-Irelands with us already, that could have turned into a tricky situation. I’m not saying I’d have stormed out or anything, that’s not what I mean. But somebody who didn’t have his experience might have shrunk from making that call. Someone less sure of themselves might not have done it three games in a row.
Jack was able to handle his older players and he was able to bring through new faces as well. Tadhg Kennelly was back from Australia so that was bringing a bit of excitement and energy to the place. But most of all, the older players – and there were a few of us coming near the end – we had our eyes on the prize. We knew we were good enough to squeeze out another All-Ireland and we knew Jack knew that too. Everybody does what they can to keep the boat pointed in the right direction.
Mayo didn't win an All-Ireland under James Horan but he has walked back into a dressing room where he has natural authority because of the gains he made in his first attempt at the job. The older guys know they owe whatever success they have to the change in attitude Horan brought in at the start of the last decade. Mayo football changed for the better because of him – so he doesn't have to pick his words carefully when he arrives back on the scene.
The smartest thing Horan has done is to change everything up. The Mayo teams of old lived and died on their half-back line. It was Colm Boyle, it was Lee Keegan, it was Donie Vaughan, it was Chris Barrett. But he has come in and won a Connacht Championship with Keegan and Barrett in the full-back line and Boyle and Vaughan not even in the picture.
That kind of thing is vital for a returning manager, especially one that didn’t win the All-Ireland. Horan wasn’t coming back and saying, “look, we have a tried and tested line-up that only needs another few inches to get over the line”.
No, he changed it all up, brought in a heap of new players who straight away are devoted to him because he has given them their debuts. And because his stock with the older lads is solid, there’s no dissent in the ranks.
Like Jack O'Connor with me all those years ago, Horan can field a team without Boyle and Vaughan and Seamie O'Shea and Keith Higgins and not be torturing himself second-guessing it. A different manager in his first year would be bringing pressure on himself with all those changes but Horan can do it.
Winning helps, of course. Just as it helped Power and Graham. This weekend will presumably see the end of the year for two of them, with Dublin beating Cavan and – I would guess – Mayo beating Tipperary. But all three counties are a work in progress and 2020 has been a solid building block on all counts.