So many games are played off the field

 

And so, after all the huffing and puffing, Dublin hand the reins to Paul "Pillar" Caffrey. That a man nicknamed for a boyhood fascination with caterpillars should end up with the big job seems apposite - for this has been a process which has crawled along for some time without signs of metamorphosing into something with wings.

It has been a bad week for the Dublin County Board, but there have been worse weeks and this weekend with a manager installed and a press conference in the pipeline on Monday to announce expenditure of €1 million on Gaelic games promotion in the city, things are getting better. Not only will it be all too easy to forget the events of the past month, but some of those directly involved are notoriously slow learners. They were never going to learn anyway.

When the smoke clears a little we will see that lots of the heat given off by the Brian Mullins business was merely the by-product of the combustible mix of personalities and needs involved. First, it must be considered that this is Dublin, where the absence of success only marginally detracts from the glamour of the county football team. Some rules. Everything is magnified in Dublin. Nothing ever ends well. Ask Paddy Cullen. Ask Pat O'Neill. Ask T Carr and T Lyons. Ask that supporting cast who have thought over the years that they had the job but . . . It's Dublin! All molehills become magnificent alps. All delays become impossible sagas. All rumours become gospel. All things turn to dust.

This time around we must factor in the reasonably urgent need of the aforementioned Dublin team to get a manager appointed and some direction pointed to them. Kerry are back training once a week already. The gym memberships of the Dublin players have lapsed. Time was moving on.

Also, there is difficulty in separating the widespread animus of GAA people in the county to blazers in general and John Bailey in particular from the cool facts of the business. John Bailey is John Bailey and always will be. This time, however, perhaps Bailey recognised that either the Brian Mullins package was too hard a sell or that Mullins was insisting on such a package because he wanted out.

Consideration is made murky by Brian Mullins himself. He is a figure of such stature within the game and within the county that any apparent failure by Bailey to accommodate Mullins automatically confers on the latter a distinct scent of burning martyr.

They are two different things, though. There is the general delay. And there is the failure to appoint a man who was at the time the sole candidate for the job.

Here's a thought. In the case of Brian Mullins, it could just be that both Mullins and Bailey are right and that those two rights made a wrong. Mullins may indeed transpire to be the best manager Dublin never had. Bailey may indeed have been right that the county board wasn't ready to accept some of the demands being made of it.

That's not an interesting story, though. In the vacuum left by their failure to make a deal we have been handed the opportunity to give the Dublin County Board the sort of going over the FAI have just got. Nobody should ever pass up on that. The situation as we find it generates its own pleasing stereotypes. In one corner the legendary former player whose will and talent were the building blocks for the modern era of football - a complex man full of contradictions, a guy who dislikes media intrusion intensely, but who appeared as a staple of the GAA's first reality TV adventure.

In the other corner a voluble, all-too-controversial county chairman for whom the index of his well-being is measurable in the column inches and airwave minutes devoted to him.

All that goes to sex up the current situation until it has the appearance of crisis. Not just a crisis, but a lingering crisis. All last week, when the wisest option would have been to let the story roll over and die, John Bailey was cropping up in media outlets blissfully not caring whether he was absorbing blows or firing brickbats.

So much smoke, lots of heat and little light. The small fact at the centre of things, though, is that things could actually have been much worse. All parties to the Mullins deal may have dodged a bullet. There is little doubt that there would have been difficulty in getting the candidacy of Mullins past the club delegates to the Dublin County Board. The all-or-nothing package offered by Mullins was too much for many people to swallow.

Last weekend, when contacted in Donegal to be told that the county board were withdrawing the offer for him to manage the Dublin senior team, Mullins was offered a fig-leaf for his dignity. In deference to his stature within the game, he would be permitted to announce that he had pre-empted matters and had withdrawn from the affair himself.

Mullins did that with an enthusiasm that surprised some of the parties in the county board and, by midweek, Bailey was snatching away the fig-leaf in unedifying circumstances.

So Mullins didn't officially withdraw first, but perhaps the all-or-nothing package was his exit strategy. Mullins may have realised too late that this was no match made in heaven. The best wisdom on offer might have told him to reverse out quickly.

Mullins has his faults, but none of what has happened is his fault. At club and county level he shows an enduring willingness to put back into the game as much as he took out. There is no doubt that throughout the past few weeks Mullins has acted with decency and honesty. His interview with the county board was not as had been suggested, previously, marked by any rancour or fractiousness. His dealings since with the board have been courteous and professional right to the end. His problem is perhaps that he is a football man and not a politician. He doesn't tolerate fools (well, blazers and journalists) gladly and his brief glimpse of the overwhelming tide of fools, blazers and journalists that he would have had to deal with may have been enough to prompt him into improvising an exit strategy.

After all, had he - after all the rumours concerning the wooing of figures from outside the capital - still wished just as passionately to go ahead and work with the Dublin team there were ways surely of trimming bits and pieces of his masterplan. Wriggle room, as they say.

We'll probably never know the full truth. But if Mullins was looking to jump while appearing to be pushed he will have come to understand the same things that the natural politician Bailey appreciated a little earlier. The first occasion that he would be asked to suffer a biblical plague of blazers and journalists would come quite soon. The package was unlikely to get past the county board. There would be problems down the line. Not very far down the line.

The first sticking point would have been Mullins himself. A towering, gloriously strong footballer in his time (he is ranked by most people among the top two or three players ever to wear the Dublin jersey), Mullins is a strong and sometimes abrasive personality who has had mixed results in management.

He was part of a triumvirate which had the misfortune to let Meath out of the bag in Leinster back in 1986. His achievements with Derry during his tenure there were not so emphatic as to end argument about his potential and a talk he gave to the Dublin team during the championship this year is said to have rocked some of the more delicate souls back on their heels.

And while capable of producing great wit and charm, the competitive edge has always driven him. His last game for St Vincent's was a famously dour occasion and even in his role as a dedicated and passionate juvenile mentor with club sides he has managed to radiate a hostility which hasn't helped his popularity with rival clubs in the city.

None of these factors would detract from Brian Mullins' ability to manage the Dublin team, but would almost certainly impact on all the political hoopla which would be the preamble to a long-term placement in the capital.

Then there is the broader background. Being from St Vincent's would make any candidate a hard enough sell to many Dublin GAA people who have been reared on a diet of resentment towards the Marino club. One or two county board delegates were quick to whisper this week that they had heard a (somewhat ludicrous, reds under the bed) rumour that Mullins was opting not to name his selectors until after he himself had been ratified so he might just slip in a few pals from St Vincent's and be done with it.

If St Vincent's have been unpopular down through the years the club could give lessons in dealing with it to UCD right now. By comparison with the college teams, St Vincent's bask in a warm pool of universal love and happy acclaim.

The details of the widespread dislike of UCD in Dublin GAA circles are another day's argument - suffice to say many influential clubs have tired of sending out good teams to lose finals and semi-finals to UCD outfits made up of scholarship boys from the country. Co-opting the county football team into the overall apparatus of the college was never going to be an easy move.

WHICHEVER ESTIMATE you believe the fact remains that committing such a large sum of money over three years to the Department of Sport in UCD was going to be difficult for clubs to swallow.

Mullins was mentored through large and important parts of his career by Kevin Heffernan and he remains close friends with both Heffernan and Mickey Whelan, two men who have had an abiding interest in radicalising the scientific approach to the game.

It should have come as no surprise that Mullins (a Thomond graduate as well as Head of Sport in UCD) would have embraced the philosophy of sports science wholeheartedly. It was the lack of political astuteness which cost in the end.

Mullins is correct in his assessment that sports science plays a significant role in the development and success of modern county teams, but even the most optimistic estimates of how much the UCD deal would cost seemed expensive given that most counties use the services of freelance people to provide their smattering of science input.

The sports science programme used by the Cork board in recent years cost less than 30,000 per year and Kerry sources indicate the football team's expenditure on that area loosely described as "sports science" was just as modest.

Kerry manager Jack O'Connor used the services of sports physiologist Pat Flanagan from the Institute of Technology, Tralee throughout last season. Flanagan attended all training sessions taking most of the exercises.

The team used the ITT facility on three occasions during the year for full physiological testing for the entire squad and the total cost - including full reports, comparisons and statistics delivered in booklet form each time - was under 2,000.

By comparison, a deeper and more expensive immersion in the world of sports science would have caused Dublin's club delegates to point out that the county team has seldom lost big games through lack of fitness. Until sports science develop free-scoring forwards the expenditure involved seems too much.

As it is, Dublin spent on the senior football team last year, (the hurlers, who are backed also by psychologists and physiologists cost about 140,000) and the feeling among many is that the benefit-to-cost ratio of success begins to become less attractive when that cost goes much higher.

It should be pointed out too that the Dublin County Board aren't exactly parsimonious Luddites here. The advice of Lisa Regan from UCD has been used by county teams in the past.

The Dublin hurlers employ the services of John Leahy as coach, Jim Kielty and Will Heffernan as fitness and conditioning coaches as well as a sports psychologist and a physio. That for a team with very limited revenue potential. There've been few substantial complaints from Dublin football managers in recent years that they weren't given what they wanted in terms of training and expertise.

The other points of contention are baffling only in so much as there appeared to be no movement on any of them. Mullins dislike of media intrusion and the proposal that a PR person handle all matters connected with his running of the team (with another PR figure Fintan Drury being called in to hose down any flaming controversies) scared county board people already bruised from a year of criticism over Tommy Lyons' insistence on only naming his team an hour before throw-in time. It was felt that media relations were a function of the county board and the county manager and not something to be farmed out to a third party. The examples of Joe Kernan, Mickey Harte, Jack O'Connor and many other media-accessible managers were taken on board.

"It's seen that dealing with the media is part and parcel of the job," said one source "The team is a flagship for the game in the city. There wasn't going to be any hope of getting a PR person or of getting a secretary-cum-administrator for the team." The team training camp was another of those non-issues which somehow became a bigger deal than it should have been. The county board made a valid point in worrying about the timing of a January training camp.

Given that Mullins came with only Padraig Dwane of Thomas Davis as a selector and it was going to take two weeks or so to fill the selection panel, it was felt that, by then, it would be past time to inform players of the need to take time off for a training camp. Besides, who would be informed? Last year's panel? Would Dublin end up taking away players to training camp who would be disposed of in the spring?

The county board were happy to fund a training camp in the spring. Beyond that, it was made clear that expenses would be no problem and video analysis costs would be no problem. The three-man committee charged with finding a manager needed room to manoeuvre, however. Mullins adamantly refused to provide that space. The process ended.

Which isn't to say that the county board were totally right. The situation in Dublin is like a magnified version of the difficulties facing the association as a whole. As the game becomes more professional there is ongoing tension between the players who play it, the volunteer politicians who administer it and the paid officers who run things on a day-to-day basis.

The calibre of paid executive in the GAA is high. In John Costello for instance Dublin have one of the brightest and most able minds in the GAA. The demands placed on county chairpersons and club officers and convention delegates etc, are such, however, that the quality of people drawn to such things is sometimes low.

There is much criticism in Dublin of John Bailey but Dublin keeps re-electing John Bailey, who, like an old pork barrel candidate, recites all the good things he feels responsible for and ascribes collective responsibility for all the bad things. This week, Bailey would have been wisest to keep still and, in deference to the time and effort put in by Brian Mullins, allow the man to walk away with the last word.

In terms of damage limitation there was little to be gained by Mullins being perceived as having pulled the plug. The task remaining for Bailey was unchanged. Bailey had to wade in, however, and, if his popularity dipped yet again, his profile rose accordingly - no bad thing for a man with broader political ambitions.

For the time being, peace breaks out. Tommy Lyons, who got away the line of the week proposing that a gallery of former players with access to media columns be appointed because they seemed to have known everything for the last 18 months, will be bemused that three of his old management team remain involved (Paddy Canning has been appointed to the under-21s.)

There has been some daft talk about continuity which is merely an attempt to make a virtue out of a necessity. Dublin need some freshness and some forwards. They need to be left to get on with things.

Bailey's world is one in which Pillar Caffrey has been living for some time. He knows his way around the beat and he knows the players, even if there is a residual feeling of disappointment among some of the squad about how faithfully Caffrey served as Tommy Lyons' lieutenant. When things turned sour with Lyons they'd hoped Caffrey would be a lightning rod for the sort of dissent which players feel inhibited about articulating.

Chairman Bailey knows that it's swings and roundabouts. With Caffrey and a selection team on board and with the one million bucks to splurge he gets the chance to preside over some happy press conferences. Meanwhile, the Dublin hurlers struggle to get a team to training, the city is awash with unimplemented blueprints, the problem of discipline keeps rearing its ugly head and it's 10 years since a senior All-Ireland visited the capital.

Business as usual.