Malachy Clerkin: Staunton’s fatal misstep at the heart of Mayo mire

Leahy may not be a great manager but words like ‘unsafe’ should not be thrown around

Cora Staunton in action for Carnacon. Photograph: Oisín Keniry/Inpho

Cora Staunton in action for Carnacon. Photograph: Oisín Keniry/Inpho

 

On all the available evidence, the nub of the issue in the Mayo women’s football row appears to be that Peter Leahy probably isn’t much of a manager. All the best practice in running sports teams these days talks about a player-centred approach, facilitation, enabling players to express the best of themselves, all that good stuff.

By his own admission, Leahy favours a more direct way of going about the gig, an old-fashioned, frank-talking, top-down authority kind of thing. There are black and white and grey areas in all situations, but from everything we have heard, the least we can infer is that Leahy can be confrontational in his dealings with players and direct in his language around them. To put it mildly, that hasn’t yielded the desired results here.

Sarah Tierney’s account of her experience as team captain this year is precise and to the point and doesn’t paint Leahy in a flattering light. If we take it at face value – and there’s no reason not to – Leahy is a manager who doesn’t entertain questioning of his methods or even just suggestions by his captain as to the best way forward.

Dealing with these situations in an aggressive manner went a long way to alienating Tierney, who was an All Star defender, a strong voice in the dressing room and one of the linchpins of his team. We can he-said-she-said the situation from here to eternity, but that’s not good management.

Not a crime

This matters and it doesn’t matter. There is, after all, no crime in being a sub-par manager. Leahy is entirely within his rights to go about the Mayo job any way he sees fit. If players don’t like it, they’re free to walk away – as they have in this case. It’s then up to him to decide whether or not he’s part of the problem. He clearly doesn’t think so – again, that’s his right and his prerogative.

Ordinarily, that would be that. In all truth, there’s really nothing wildly interesting in a group of players falling out with their manager. Eventually, either the manager leaves or the county board brokers some middle ground and everyone gets on with their lives. What makes this situation different is the fatal misstep first taken by Cora Staunton in her Newstalk interview and then doubled down on by the players on Monday night.

Saying there are issues around player welfare is one thing. Calling life under Peter Leahy “not a safe environment” and “unhealthy” moves everything on to a different level altogether. The Mayo LGFA was right to call that sort of language outrageous in Tuesday’s statement. It’s just so loaded when used in the context of a male authority figure in a female dressing room.

The players themselves appeared to recognise this on Monday night and yet they still refused to retract it. “Ultimately our issues related to a lack of communication, being undermined, intimidated, feeling isolated and eventually helpless in the entire situation,” their statement read. “The whole experience had a significant impact on our mental health. We used the terms ‘unhealthy’ and ‘unsafe’ and accept, and take responsibility for, the implications of this language but for us, these are relevant terms and stepping away was the right decision.”

No easy task

This is where the rubber meets the road. If the players are happy to take ownership of words such as “unhealthy” and “unsafe”, then the onus is on them to show their work. That’s not an easy task, clearly. Any environment is made up of a thousand small events, each of which feels smaller still when taken in isolation, thereby making them easier to dismiss.

In the heightened atmosphere of a losing team, personal interpretation dictates everything. At what point does a stern talking-to cross the line into verbal intimidation? How can the location of that line be obvious to both parties? How do you find black and white in a sea of grey?

Into that mix, the situation is obviously complicated by the fact that we are talking about not just player-manager relationships here but male-female interactions as well. At the heart of the matter, that’s a big part of why we’re still talking about this situation two months after the players walked out.

Cora Staunton in action for Carnacon. Photograph: Oisín Keniry/Inpho
Cora Staunton in action for Carnacon. Photograph: Oisín Keniry/Inpho

When people don’t know the specifics of a situation but they hear young women talking about feeling unsafe under the direction of an older man, they need clarification very quickly. If it is left vague, the connotations become intolerable as people fill in their own blanks. Little wonder Leahy used the term “close to slanderous” in response and that the Mayo board’s statement talked of them “taking advice” on the matter.

Case not proven

This is why it’s difficult to justify the players standing over words such as “unsafe” and “unhealthy”. Sarah Tierney’s account goes furthest toward providing concrete examples of the kind of thing the players had a problem with. On any reasonable reading of it, Leahy comes across as a not particularly likeable figure and the environment around the Mayo team in the early part of 2018 undeniably sounds unpleasant.

But “unsafe”? Or even the slightly watered-down “unhealthy”? Unless we’re missing something, that case is nowhere near proven on the basis of what has been said so far.

By the sounds of it, Sarah Tierney was absolutely right to walk away from a situation where her manager was at loggerheads with her as team captain and where she didn’t rate his stewardship of the side. But on what they’ve put into the public domain, it feels like quite a reach to suggest that her safety or that of her team-mates was ever in question.

Two months after the walkout, this whole situation is mired in claim and counter-claim. Unless there’s another shoe waiting to drop, it feels impossible to find a route out that doesn’t include some sort of walk-back by the players on that specific language. As of now, they haven’t done enough to stand over it.

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