Sean Moran: How to identify an All-Ireland winning manager

Since Kevin Heffernan and Mick O’Dwyer defined the role, certain trends have emerged

The agonies of management were well summed up by a very experienced practitioner, who had known All-Ireland success as well as tougher times. He described the sun beating down on a packed championship venue and gradually assuming a laser-intensity of discomfort, as the team is getting dismantled.

Already he is being berated by supporters: do something (or other foul-mouthed variations on that theme). Then comes what he termed “the lonesome look” – the slow glance over the shoulder to take in a view of his replacements’ bench followed by the terrible realisation that there are no solutions to be found there.

During the day football and hurling managers have to keep an employer happy; in the evenings they are keeping a panel of three dozen players happy and at weekends the job is to keep thousands of supporters happy.

As a concept, the GAA manager tends to be dated back to the dawn of the Heffernan-O’Dwyer rivalry 40 years ago.


Even if there were examples of individuals, 'trainers'who ran county teams with military command and precision all the way back to the early days of the All-Ireland championships, Dublin and Kerry popularised and made widespread the practice of having one person in authority over a prolonged period.

Commitment involved

Given the time commitment involved, it’s surprising that so many are willing to volunteer for these positions, particularly in counties when the competitive summer can be nasty, brutish and short.

One All-Ireland winning manager reckons that anyone too keen on an inter-county job should be discounted immediately, as the best candidates can often need a bit of arm-twisting. But equally, there have been All-Ireland winning managers who were turned down the first time they applied for the job.

What should counties look for?

The most important aspect is the plan. This doesn't mean the 'three-year plan' or 'five-year plan' beloved of hesitant starters and it is complicated by the fact that plans can't be judged in advance. They either work or they don't and unless they are clearly preposterous in the blueprint – bearing in mind that Jim McGuinness's first PowerPoint presentation pitch for the Donegal job got turned down – that won't become crystal-clear for a while.

There will of course be indicators. Decent plans have interim targets and if they’re being hit chances are the overall programme is worthy of perseverance.

Brian Mullins said about Kevin Heffernan that players began to notice that everything he had said about the consequences of improved fitness levels – the fittest team in Ireland – was coming true. Nothing secures as emphatically what is nowadays known as 'buy-in' as the predicted outcomes of the plan coming to pass.

An applicant's previous record of course can be instructive – but that's not always the case. Brian Cody for instance had no track record of success at club level when offered the Kilkenny job 17 years ago.

What sort of career do successful managers have? The demands on their time are so extreme, only certain types of employment suit. Are there obvious ones? Teaching is often cited as the ideal job with its summer vacations but principals for instance don’t have a great deal of time off.

The profession is still the most popular one amongst All-Ireland winning managers of the past 42 years since the days of Heffernan and O’Dwyer. Supplemented by Cody’s huge haul in Kilkenny, 31 All-Irelands out of the 84 on offer were managed by 12 individual teachers.

Although the hospitality business has had its share with 13, spread among five managers, the second most likely career choice for an All-Ireland-winning manager is financial services with eight managers although just 10 titles.

Successful managers are often busy off the training ground as well but have a flexibility to organise their time.

Other employment areas that have cropped up over the past 42 years include a doctor, three priests, a journalist and company directors.

For a county board however the type of CV that is of most interest is that concerning previous management and coaching success. The most common background for successful senior inter-county managers is that they achieved a level of attainment as underage coaches. Fourteen All-Ireland winning managers had their most successful previous experience with county teams at minor or under-21.

Most prominently in recent years, Jim Gavin, Mickey Harte, Jack O'Connor, John O'Mahony and Páidí Ó Sé all managed under-21 sides that won All-Irelands and Jim McGuinness took Donegal to a final in 2010. The second most common background is experience with a senior county management although not always as manager – 11 of the managers in the period under review had this on their CV and frequently their appointment was a formality. Some, like Jack O'Connor, were successful both as an underage manager and senior selector. This category covers some, like John O'Mahony or David Fitzgerald, who brought different counties to All-Ireland finals before being ultimately successful elsewhere.

There are also however 10 managers who largely sprang out of nowhere – like Liam Griffin, Pat Gilroy and Cody – but who impress the county officials sufficiently to secure appointment. Interestingly just two – Eugene McGee and Joe Kernan – won club All-Ireland titles before appointment to county teams.

So that should be a big help to county boards in future.