GAA managers: 'Possibly half-mad. Certainly obsessed'

Era of long-term inter-county manager has passed due to the growing demands

Tyrone’s manager Mickey Harte and Kevin McStay, manager of Roscommon at the All-Ireland senior championship quarter-final. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Tyrone’s manager Mickey Harte and Kevin McStay, manager of Roscommon at the All-Ireland senior championship quarter-final. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

Mayo and Kerry are among the very few teams with a chance of ending Dublin’s All-Ireland dominance next summer. Both counties will appoint a new manager over the autumn. Whoever gets those jobs will be under intense scrutiny both within the county and beyond. His day-to-day life will change instantly and radically.

Although Mickey Harte will start his 17th term with Tyrone next year, the era of the long-term manager in Gaelic football appears to have passed. The trend is towards youngish managers and the turnover is quickening all the time. The role – the “job” – has become fascinating and bewildering in its demands. The archetypal figure – the silhouette of Kevin Heffernan or Mick O’Dwyer, solitary and mysterious – doesn’t really exist anymore. The contemporary manager is at heart of a teeming operation, answerable, it seems, to everyone and all of the time.

“Possibly half-mad. Certainly obsessed,” summarises Stephen Wallace of the common characteristics of inter-county managers. “Like a disease, an addiction,” says Séamus McEnaney of the lure of the game. “Like running a small organisation or a company,” says Colm Collins.

Has the atmosphere and attitude towards managers ever been more fractious and impatient? Has the championship arena ever been more unforgiving in its analysis and evaluations?

With the spectacular exception of Dublin manager Jim Gavin, whose feat has been to keep a superb generation of players sharp and innovative and, it seems, increasingly greedy for even more wins, even more titles, virtually all other inter-county managers are operating under the intense pressure where no game is easy but winning is everything. Generally, their experiences are the same.

Vague ambitions

For the handful of elite counties with reasonable chances of provincial titles and more vague ambitions of an All-Ireland, the obligation to win is intense. It starts in the first round of the league and ratchets incrementally from there. For those in the middle-tier, the dogfight to improve one’s station in life is relentless.

In the third and fourth divisions, the task of the manager becomes arguably even tougher as he fights against a sort of resignation that this is where the team belongs. Most managers probably give 50 hours a week to their role – excluding the sleepless hours when they can’t stop thinking about it. When the team enjoys a sporadic moment of celebration, the glory – rightly – goes to the players. When they lose, the blame inevitably finds its way to the guy in charge. Many supporters are convinced they know as much if not more about their team and the game in general.

Plenty let the managers know about it. The fundamental business of training the team is the most simple and enjoyable aspect of the role but accounts for maybe eight hours of the week. The rest is phone calls, meetings, videos, problems, travelling and preparation.

“I heard Jack O’Connor, someone I’d have great respect for, saying on the radio that basically, you wouldn’t want to be working,” says Wallace, reflecting on his term with Offaly.

“And unfortunately that is the case. The easiest part is being on the pitch for those few hours a week. After that: physios, doctors, consultants in the Mater, guys trying to get off work, bank managers and plumbers, guys with exam issues, college lecturers, the media. It is constant. It would be just fantastic to roll up on a Tuesday night for a two-hour session, have a bite to eat and roll home. That would be fantastic. But it’s not how it works.”

Wallace was probably one of the more conspicuous managerial casualties of the 2017 season when his three-year term with Offaly was ended, controversially, in the first 12 months when he was sacked by the county board. Wallace’s position was, the county executive argued, compromised when he was given an eight-week suspension after video footage emerged in which he became involved in a melee during a game involving Ardfert, his club in Kerry. When the Offaly seniors then lost to Wicklow in the Leinster championship in May, he was promptly dismissed.

“I went in with what I thought was a very specific plan over a three-year term to build up a new Offaly team based on giving young fellas game time. And then we lost a football game. And regardless of the sideshow that went on regarding my suspension, which was wrong and I shouldn’t have done it and was stupid . . . but that was not why we lost. We just happened to lose to a team that played better than us on that day. One day shouldn’t – and won’t – define my managerial record.”

Fair point

It’s a fair point. Wallace has a highly accomplished record: seven All-Ireland titles won at U-21, junior and intermediate grade with Ardfert and Kerry as either player or manager.

“We are a small dual club in north Kerry,” he says of Ardfert’s accumulation of three All-Irelands (2006/2007/2015).

“We wouldn’t be renowned. But we had a massive buy-in from players. We had guys who didn’t see their wives of girlfriends for those seasons. I think that in some teams, there is this attitude: we are what we are and can only be what we are. That can be frustrating. I mean, only one team can win Sam Maguire next year. By definition, then, everyone else is a loser. But are they? What is winning? Is it just games or is it improving and moving a team a step up the ladder the next season?”

Wallace points to the spate of managerial turnover this year alone. Éamonn Fitzmaurice stepped down from his role with Kerry, noting in his statement that by taking himself out of the equation, it would remove some of the “over the top criticism” directed at a highly promising but very young side. Stephen Rochford left Mayo after feeling that he didn’t have the full backing of the county board. Mattie McGleenan guided Cavan back to Division One in the league but stepped away after the championship.

“Brendan Guckian up in Leitrim did a super job but was told he had to interview to get the position back.” says Wallace.

Offaly manager Stephen Wallace: “The easiest part is being on the pitch for those few hours a week.” Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
Offaly manager Stephen Wallace: “The easiest part is being on the pitch for those few hours a week.” Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

One of the bigger surprises was the departure of Kevin McStay from Roscommon. In his three years, the team won a Connacht title, were promoted to the first division and qualified for the inaugural Super 8s: it is hard to see what else they could have achieved. In a detailed statement outlining his reasons, McStay acknowledged those successes while also painting a startling picture of the realities of the role. He laughs now as how he recalled noticing that on Monday last, he had just two calls on his phone: one from and one to his wife. It was, he says, “a world record” of cellular inactivity. When he was a manager, the phone never stopped ringing. Between players and backroom, there were 50 people in the group.

“Just trying to give everyone a few minutes here and there,” he explains, eats up an inordinate amount of time. The manager is the reference point for everyone. “If I hire a guy to provide a service to the team, he doesn’t ring the treasurer wondering when he gets paid. He rings the guy who hires him.” The finances involved in getting – and keeping – an inter-county show on the road is a constant low-grade stress. McStay believes the financial model is effectively broken and needs reform: that county boards cannot continue to meet the annual cost of running senior teams. “We were suggesting as a county: pay the mileage and pay the catering at central level. Get that massive stress out of the lives of the county officers.”

Clare manger Colm Collins says the managerial role is “like running a small organisation or a company”. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
Clare manger Colm Collins says the managerial role is “like running a small organisation or a company”. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

The rapid turnover of managers means that that Collins of Clare, who has committed to a sixth season, is now the fourth-longest serving manager in Gaelic football, after Harte, Gavin and Monaghan’s Malachy O’Rourke.

“This was not in the plan!” Collins laughs. “It was not in the plan. It just snowballed a bit for different reasons. One of the main things for staying on is that this brilliant group that has been working together might be broken up and they are too good and have done so well. Then the fact that the players wanted to stay on too convinced me.”

Clare have quietly become one of the glittering success stories of the recent era and Collins’ influence has undoubtedly been central.

“There is a lot made of the cult of the manager and the one person. I do believe it is important that the buck stops somewhere. But one of the things that make my job easier is the fantastic people in the background. None of the excellent set-ups would exist without these people doing their job so well. And we do feel there is a lot of improving we can do as a team.”

McEnaney stepped away from senior management last year after one season with Wexford. This year, he took the Monaghan minors to an Ulster title and an All-Ireland semi-final, where they lost a nail-biting game to Kerry. “It felt so easy for me to train a minor team compared to a senior inter-county side,” McEnaney says. They trained at six in the evening – to allow for the players to get their homework done. It meant that he was home at eight. McEnaney wanted to see if he could connect and communicate with a group of teenage footballers. “Nobody will test you like a 17-year-old,” he says. “And I got great enjoyment out of working with them.”

Former Monaghan manager Séamus McEnaney: “It felt so easy for me to train a minor team compared to a senior inter-county side.” Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Former Monaghan manager Séamus McEnaney: “It felt so easy for me to train a minor team compared to a senior inter-county side.” Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Because he is a hotelier and restaurant owner, he would usually hear where his players were out every weekend. “And I’d cod them. They’d never figure how I knew.” The oppressive intensity that can come with running a senior team wasn’t there.

McEnaney sometimes worries that the concept of fun has left the inter-county scene and makes no apologies for believing in its importance. “I always say: enjoy it as you go along. Celebrate the wins.” And he wonders, too, at the size of some backroom teams. “For me, 10 is enough people. Statistical data is important but you can become a slave to it. I think the analysis can sometimes bring the responsibility away from the manager, too.”

McEnaney knows his views on management are contradictory. There is nothing pleasant about managing your county if a game is going badly and you are close enough to the stands to hear what is being said. Family members are often in ear shot also. “I’ve been around a lot of tough bends in life in general and feel that I am tough as nails when it comes to pressure. But management is a seriously pressurised job. Your family is affected. Your lifestyle is affected.”

He spent seven years with the Monaghan senior team, culminating in a thrilling quarter-final match against Kerry in their pomp. McEnaney memorably described the sensation of losing that game, by a point, to “having your heart ripped out without anaesthetic”. Then he did two years with Meath. When he finally took a break, he was struck by the sudden return of calmness in his life and by the fact that the big show rolled on regardless. “For the first few months I was thinking: what the f**k was that last 10 years all about? But then, after a time, you get back to thinking, well . . . maybe I will go back in with a club. Listen, it’s a bad disease.”

Triumph

Monaghan is a stone-mad football county. Down in Waterford, hurling takes pre-eminence. Tom McGlinchey has just stepped down after giving four years to the Waterford football team. Division Four teams experience the opposite of a spotlight: they exist in a kind of obscurity. One of the huge challenges for a manager is to convince the squad that they are relevant; that they can set goals and improve. McGlinchey’s term was a triumph. They lost out to Cork by just a single point in last year’s championship before getting a championship win this summer. They won the McGrath Cup. They were consistent in a way results didn’t often reflect, losing 14 out of 21 games by three points or less.

“A day like we had in Wexford Park was hugely enjoyable. What made it enjoyable for me, without sounding flowery, is bringing in new players and seeing an improvement. And you like to think you had some part to play in that. Players you worked with for four years and they might contact you afterwards and just say thanks. Or just going into a league match and you do your research and prepare the team and maybe things you might have anticipated about the opposition works out and you get your match-ups right and it works out on the day.

“And the fact that you don’t come away from training saying: what the hell am I doing down here. And I never did. I knew what I was signing up for. Yes, there is a lot of time involved and it eats into family time but I wouldn’t swap it for anything in the world. It was four years and it was sometimes long and tough and there were times you might be down on yourself, but I wouldn’t like to overegg what we do either.”

McGlinchey used to drive four hours round trip for every training session. He put in untold hours. The team got little national attention. He was fighting against the “Waterford are Waterford” syndrome. In counties where tradition is strong, so too is the expectation: an impatient demand for success. One of the GAA clichés is that teams train and behave “almost like professionals”.

But it’s as if a mass delusion has taken place to behave as if that is the case. It’s as if everyone is complicit in forgetting that the inter-county scene is still, in fact, amateur. One of the consequences of this is that the concept of “the manager” has changed beyond recognition. One of the clichés of the championship past is that Gaelic may be “broken”. It’s nonsense but the old idea of the manager is well has shifted into something else. Facilities have never been better, costs have never been higher, players have never been as athletically tuned, coaching has never been as thorough and Gaelic football has never been so heavily criticised.

Roscommon manager Kevin McStay believes the financial model for inter-county teams is effectively broken and needs reform. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Roscommon manager Kevin McStay believes the financial model for inter-county teams is effectively broken and needs reform. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

“The standard is very, very high,” McStay says. “Probably the highest of all time. The style mightn’t be great but the standard is very good. You don’t see shock results anymore because nobody catches any other team. That’s because all teams are very well prepared.”

Dublin’s remorseless excellence continues to raise the bar. It’s hard to know what more managers and inter-county teams can do to keep on improving. It feels as if every county set-up is operating in fifth gear, accelerator to the floor, the credit card maxed out just to keep the fuel tank full and no time left to even think about fun, let alone have it. And a cursory look at next year’s betting shows that teams are striving furiously to compete for a prize that, for the vast majority, is simply out of reach.

“We have brought it this far and probably further than we intended,” says McStay. “And is somebody going to call halt?”

All-Ireland Betting 2019: Dublin 2/3. Kerry 9/2. Tyrone 9/1. Mayo 12/1. Galway 12/1.Donegal 14/1. Monaghan 25/1. Kildare 50/1. Roscommon, Cork 100/1. Cavan 150/1. Tipperary, Armagh, Meath 250/1. Laois. Down, Fermanagh, Clare, Longford, Derry 500/1. Sligo, Offaly Carlow, Westmeath: 1000/1. Louth, Antrim, Limerick, Wexford 2000/1. Leitrim, Waterford, London, Wicklow, New York 5000/1.

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