Seán Moran: Managers can be replaced, players can’t

Managing GAA county teams is becoming an increasingly tricky business

Sports management couldn’t have had a more searching weekend in this part of the world had it set out to conduct seminars. The GAA world contributed the turmoil of Mayo and Galway.

Soccer saw Brendan Rodgers taken out the back at Liverpool and in rugby, Stuart Lancaster has the dismal task of preparing England to take on Uruguay knowing that he has done the one specific thing he was meant to avoid by guiding the RWC's host country to the new depths of first-round elimination.

Team management is one area where the GAA would love to have the advantages of professional sports: clear demarcation lines, professional contracts and above all, control.

Instead it’s an area that has increasingly caused problems for the association. Under-the-counter payments prompted Páraic Duffy’s 2012 discussion document of the remuneration of managers, the first serious attempt to grapple with the issue even if the eventual reaffirmation of amateur status was more a case of a blind eye being turned than a close eye being kept.


In successful – and some cases, not even that successful – counties the senior team is so important in creating profile and interest in Gaelic games that its managers and their staff become an alternative government: difficult to monitor and impossible to control.

This reality is obscured in the most elite counties simply because it’s in the administrators’ interests to maintain harmony and if silverware is in constant supply, no one’s complaining or if they are – about things like ravaged fixtures’ schedules – it’s considered a price worth paying.

Contractual obligation

By definition high-achieving counties have largely content players and underachieving counties don’t.

There are however two essential truths in all of this.

The first is that players as amateurs and unregulated by contractual obligation don’t have to play for anyone if they don’t want. When, as has been seen in Mayo and as may be currently unfolding in Galway, an entire dressing room takes a stand on management, it is impossible to continue.

Put bluntly, managers can be replaced; players can’t. Cork and Limerick hurling proved this in 2009 and 2010 when they attempted to confront player discontent by ignoring those who had withdrawn their availability and ploughing ahead regardless.

The second truth is that however significant a stakeholder a panel of players may be, no successful counties run their teams as a democracy.

The role of manager may be occasionally exaggerated or mythologised but their strengths as strategists and leaders are integral to successful teams and at the risk of caricaturing, their approach is likely to have more in common with dictators than focus-group facilitators.

Good managers want players who can think for themselves and articulate those thoughts but they also want them ultimately to accept a certain vision of the way forward.

Nonetheless players who are both sufficiently intelligent and disciplined to satisfy such requirements are always going to be more likely to raise questions.

Given that one of the Mayo players’ believed 65 demands is said to centre on a role for players in the appointment of a manager, it’s worth bearing in mind the necessary distinction between generals and troops.

Mutiny is also a brave act on the part of players, as dissatisfaction generally arises from failure or underachievement and that can be thrown back at them by those who resent the turbulence created or the hurt caused.

In as much as it’s possible to identify a common theme in these rebellions – which are prompted by various grievances and have equally differing outcomes – it would be that county committees and officers have to be very careful when dealing with these situations.

For instance Limerick officials have protested the negative impact of five years on in the second tier of the hurling league – smaller revenues and fewer opportunities to test players against the best.

But had the county not persisted in standing over Justin McCarthy’s continuing management of the county team there would have been no player strike and no assured relegation in the first place.

The current controversies are also good examples.

Mayo's appointments process a year ago was shrouded in controversy after it emerged the county wanted Kevin McStay to engage with an interview process after the decision to appoint Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly had effectively already been made.

Procedural taint

The issue hasn’t had much airplay recently probably because players had their own reservations about McStay’s proposed management but such a procedural taint was hardly the best start for any management no matter how respected and committed.

In Galway the decision to push for manager Anthony Cunningham’s ratification for a fifth year in the face of expressed player unrest was reckless.

County teams within the GAA, despite frequent references to levels of “professionalism” require far more nuanced handling than businesses.

Ultimately the enterprises depend on the quality of those individuals volunteering to play or manage.

Failure to provide that sort of competent administrative framework continues to prove costly.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times