Life as an intercounty manager – a job where the outer boundaries aren’t staked

Davy Burke and Ryan McMenamin keen to return despite all-consuming nature of it all

Former Wicklow manager Davy Burke: ‘There’s no point dressing it up – family life really suffers if you’re managing at intercounty level.’ Photograph: Inpho

Former Wicklow manager Davy Burke: ‘There’s no point dressing it up – family life really suffers if you’re managing at intercounty level.’ Photograph: Inpho

 

Davy Burke’s young lad had his first birthday last weekend. They didn’t exactly throw a street carnival for him but they had a thing and it was nice and they were able to breathe out, like first-time parents tend to do at the 12-month mark. Made it through in one piece. Delighted.

For the first 10 months of the kid’s life, Burke was the Wicklow football manager. He left the job in August and it definitely wasn’t lost on him last weekend that they were able to have a different sort of afternoon, now that he is back in civilian life. Small things. Really big small things.

“Usually I would have been on the phone for some of it,” Burke says. “Or for most of it, in all honesty. But I was able to leave the phone upstairs and just be in the moment, which is new for me. It was so much easier because I’m not with a team. Otherwise, there would have been some member of the backroom team looking for me, there would have been a player ringing with an issue.

“There would have been something. You’re not really in the moment. There’s no point dressing it up – family life really suffers if you’re managing at intercounty level. No point dressing it up any other way. There will be three or four days in every week where you are just basically not present. You go to work at six or seven in the morning and you’re not home until midnight. And the other three or four days are a grey area at best.”

For Ryan McMenamin, the purest joy of the week just gone was heading to see his club Dromore play one of the matches of the decade against county champions Dungannon on Monday night. It wasn’t relaxing in any way – Dromore were 2-3 to 0-1 down after eight minutes but fought their way back to take an epic by 2-22 to 4-12 after extra-time. Everyone in the ground was wiped after it. Bliss.

Over the past few months since teams began exiting the championship, 10 counties have either changed or are in the process of changing their managers.

McMenamin was the Fermanagh manager for the past two seasons, having been Rory Gallagher’s right-hand man in the role for the two years previous to that. There were plenty of weekends across those four years where tipping along to a Dromore match in Tyrone just wasn’t an option that was open to him. There’d have been a club match in Fermanagh on at the same time, or a meeting with some county committee or other, or a potential sponsor to sweet-talk. There’d have been something.

“It was just so nice to go to it,” McMenamin says. “It was a great game of football and to be able to sit back and enjoy it was brilliant. My good friend Collie McCullagh takes Dromore and the natives were getting angry around me when we were nine down but then next thing the whole thing came back and it turned into a great game.

“My fingernails were going, I was roaring and shouting and my voice was going. But it was just nice to go as a supporter. I have found myself really sitting back and enjoying games over the last few weeks. Even with Tyrone this year, watching them go to the All-Ireland and knowing I wasn’t involved with Fermanagh anymore. I really had a deeper appreciation for it.”

In the 2021 football championship, the average tenure of the 31 managers was 2.83 seasons. This was up from the previous year’s 2.61. Over the past few months since teams began exiting the championship, 10 counties have either changed or are in the process of changing their managers. It means that when next year kicks into gear, the average tenure of the men filling the bainisteoir bibs will be exactly three years.

The numbers in hurling are obviously skewed by the Victorian reign of Brian Cody in Kilkenny. With him in the mix, the average tenure during the 2021 championship was just shy of five years. Take him out and the average of the others drops to 2.8. There’ll be three new managers in the 2022 hurling championship – Darragh Egan in Wexford, Colm Bonnar in Tipp and whoever Galway eventually appoint.

Burke and McMenamin both did it for two years and they both hope to do it again. McMenamin is currently in discussions with Mickey Graham in Cavan about joining the backroom there for 2022. Burke is taking coaching sessions here and there – the morning we talked he had just finished a pre-dawn work-out with the Maynooth Sigerson team – and was in the mix for the Kildare job in recent weeks. “If any county chairmen are reading this, make sure and say I still love it!” he laughs.

Most people have a vague, general idea of the life of an intercounty manager. Some liken it to being the person in charge of an SME, just without the pay (ahem, in most cases, cough, cough). Others regard it as being a bit like being a school principal, except it’s one where every kid’s homework marks are read out on the national news on a Sunday night. But essentially, unless you’ve done it, nobody really gets it.

Ryan McMenamin is currently in discussions with Mickey Graham in Cavan about joining the backroom there for 2022. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Ryan McMenamin is currently in discussions with Mickey Graham in Cavan about joining the backroom there for 2022. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Nobody ever mistook the Wicklow and Fermanagh jobs for cushy numbers. McMenamin tells a story about playing Tyrone in a challenge match earlier this year in Brewster Park. Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher came over for a chat before the game but he hadn’t time for them. “I was laughing because I had to say to them, ‘Hang on there men, I’ll be in in a minute – I’m just helping my kitman here’. Meanwhile, they had three or four analysts strolling in behind them.”

But the gig is still the gig. Whether you’re trying to compete for the All-Ireland or just looking to win more league games than you lose, the pull on your life is the same. It’s a job where the outer boundaries aren’t staked. You don’t clock off. You don’t check out. Everything else becomes something you fit in around it, if at all.

“When you’re the manager, you worry about everything,” says Burke. “Is this nutritionist coming tonight to do the calliper tests? Where’s the kitman? Is the food here? Is the doctor here? This is all stuff you get consumed with all day, every day. The questions tick along in your head non-stop.

“Most intercounty managers are paranoid, to be honest about it. You’re paranoid about everything. If a fella is three minutes late, you’re automatically worrying is everything all right at home or at work. You’re watching the body language of players, of backroom people. You’re pulling this lad or that lad aside to ask is everything okay? You’re trying to watch everything.

“Because what it comes down to is the players. And in the modern world, they have access to everything immediately. Everything is on their phone in their normal lives – whether that’s social media, whether it’s Netflix or Sky Sports or whatever it is. Your set-up has to match that immediacy. You have to have all the bases covered and you have to be able to give it to them quickly.

The first year you’re in, you’re great. The second year you’re in, there’s someone better being talked about. The third year you’re in, it’s, ‘How did that man ever get that job?'

“Players look for exits. You have to make sure everyone is accountable, otherwise players are going to see through it and they’ll just go, ‘That’s a load of shite, Davy’. And that means constant contact with your S&C guys, with your physios, with your logistics man, with your county chairman. It means doing all your analysis ahead of time and it means worrying all the time. Because ultimately, the set-up is a reflection on me.”

The problem with sport, of course, is that the other crowd go training three nights a week as well. All the worrying you’re doing, the man down the road is doing it too. All the planning, all the analysing, all the organising. And at a certain point, you all turn up at a pitch and a referee throws in the ball. The only bit the outside world can see is the bit you have the least amount of control over.

“The thing with county football is that you are judged nationally,” says McMenamin. “Your week’s work is judged on a Sunday. If you lose a club match, it’s not even the whole of your county that passes any remarks. But if you’re over Fermanagh and you get beat by eight or nine points, it’s in the national papers, it’s on the news, it’s on the TV.

“The first year you’re in, you’re great. The second year you’re in, there’s someone better being talked about. The third year you’re in, it’s, ‘How did that man ever get that job?’ And it’s in the papers and on message boards and on Twitter, which thankfully I don’t go near. But ultimately, everything you’ve done is getting judged on a weekly basis.

“What it means is that a bad result turns everyone to thinking something’s not right. And you have to address that before training comes around on the Tuesday night. So you’re spending Sunday night watching the match again. You’re identifying what went wrong so that you can be straight in on the Tuesday saying, ‘This is the problem, this is the solution’. And then you’re onto the next game, planning for that. It’s always on your mind.”

Life is different now. Before his intercounty management days, McMenamin was a great man for a city break. Short notice, cheap flight, up and away. He’s getting back into it, now that he’s a normal person again. He and his wife got a new Burmese puppy recently so that’s relegated him to the third most important entity in the house. He couldn’t be happier with his status.

“And even just, like, it’s nice on an evening to know I don’t have to sit down and watch a Wicklow match. It’s nice to be able to head down to the village for a couple of pints of Guinness and not be thinking about the Antrim midfield.”

Likewise, Burke is enjoying this period of having nothing to do. Actually, that’s not quite it. It’s more not having everything to do. Or not feeling like he does, at any rate. He is able to make time for the rest of his life, rather than squeezing the rest of his life to make time.

“There’s no doubt you neglect things,” Burke says. “I can only speak personally but I absolutely neglect my own health and fitness and personal wellbeing. I would think nothing of setting the clock for 6am to get up and drive 40 minutes to supervise a gym session with some of my players if that’s the only slot you could get. You will find time to do that without giving it a second thought.

“But would I go and do my own gym session at 6.45am? Probably not. That’s the mental psyche that I’m stuck in. I have no doubt whatsoever that there’s a huge toll mentally and physically on the body because it’s non-stop, you can’t switch off. It’s worry, fear, excitement. It’s all of that.”

And yet, they’ll go again. No question or doubt about it. “There’s no gun to our heads -– we do it because we love it,” says Burke. “You’re trying to make better people, at the end of the day,” says McMenamin.

“That’s the great thing about it. You need to be a good planner and you need to accept that you’re giving a huge amount of your time to it. But you do thoroughly enjoy it too. Otherwise you wouldn’t bother.”

In a complex world, there aren’t many simpler truths to tell than that.

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