'I'd love it as a full-time job'
Most GAA managers do it for the love of the game, not for any financial rewards, writes John O'Brien
B ACK in 1996, RTE screened a half-hour programme that looked at a day in the life of two rival inter-county managers, John Maughan and Bosco McDermott.
The camera followed them on the day Mayo played Galway in a Connacht final in Castlebar, two men descending into nervous wrecks before our eyes. It was part of a series that carried the slightly unnerving title, Don't Drop Dead. Mercifully, nobody did.
The series dealt with people who spent their lives trapped on "a merry-go-round of stress" and, in the heat of championship battle, they found two compelling specimens. Watching McDermott's journey from hope to despair and crushing disappointment as the life is squeezed out of his Galway team made for particularly riveting viewing. At the end we hear him repeating Kipling's words about triumph and despair and how every manager needed to make those celebrated words their mantra.
You were left wondering why anybody would be mad enough to want to become a manager in the first place. So much despair. So little reward. Nearly 15 years on, the merry-go-round spins faster than ever, barely pausing to eject those unable to keep up with the frantic pace. The stakes have increased to almost intolerable levels. Even more despair. The same small rewards.
So why do they do it? Sometimes we see the hunched figure patrolling the line, engrossed in the action, or outside the dressing room afterwards, surrounded by cameras and dictaphones, and assume that there is a certain chase for glory going on, a sizeable ego to be stroked. Yet the glamour posts are so few, the muddy winter fields so plentiful, that the notion of major ego-trips seems out of kilter with the nature of the job.
"Ego doesn't come into it," says Tom Carr, recently resigned as manager of Cavan. "In fact, I think it's the last place you'd want to be. It doesn't matter who you are, you're going to be heavily scrutinised and criticised as long as you're in that position. Since I've been in management I'd say I've had 80 per cent criticism and 20 per cent praise. If you start worrying about your ego, then you know it's time to get out."
It is 11 years since Carr took the hardest job in the business and became Dublin manager. He was young then and remembers leaping in head-first without thinking what the consequences might be. The years since have taught him valuable lessons and made him wiser, but the compulsion to be involved, the thing that drove him towards management, hasn't been diluted. Despite the knocks and the setbacks his enthusiasm hasn't waned.
"It's a number of different things," he says. "As a player, I'd operated at a high level all my life and always felt that's where I wanted to continue. I felt I had something to offer. I could make a difference. I still get a great buzz out of it. Just the sheer enjoyment of being around players and working with them. Ultimately, you have to love doing it. That's the key. If you don't enjoy it you'll be found out very quickly."
Carr doesn't believe there is such a thing as a prototype GAA manager. We see Mick O'Dwyer in his 75th year and marvel at his continued obsession but recognise that he is a one-off phenomenon. At the other end of the scale, we see Liam Sheedy spending three years of his life driving Tipperary to the hurling summit and then, once the flag is planted, happy to step off the treadmill and concentrate on civilian life again.
Between those extremes, though, there is a hardcore group of managers content for their public personas to be defined in terms of management. Recently, Val Andrews replaced Carr as Cavan manager for his second stint with the county. Luke Dempsey is in his second spell with Carlow while Eamon McEneaney, too, is back for another go with Monaghan. Tomás ó Flatharta has swapped Westmeath for Galway. Mickey Moran enters his third year with Leitrim, the fifth county he has managed in a long, colourful career. For most of them the dream of a provincial, let alone an All-Ireland, title remains hopelessly unrealistic. Yet they drive on regardless. In the 1990s, Dempsey guided Westmeath to their first minor and All-Ireland under 21 titles and it was inevitable he would test himself at the highest level. He had three years with the Westmeath seniors, four with Longford, enjoyed both experiences and was happy to leave on his own terms. The same as he hopes with Carlow.
"I suppose it is a sort of addiction," he says. "If I hadn't got this to go with my teaching, I'm not sure what I'd do. I don't play golf. The time people give to golf I spend coaching. If not a county, then I'd be managing some other team. If football was a profession, it would be my job. I'd love it as a full-time job and will do it as long as I'm able."
As Carlow manager, Dempsey knows what people think. They see the county's history -- 66 years without even a Leinster final appearance -- the hopelessness of the task and wonder at his sanity in going there. What he sees is a hugely promising panel of minor and under 21 players and the chance, maybe, to build a team for the future around them, to leave them in a better shape than when he arrived.
He scoffs at the cynical notion that any of them would be in it for financial reward. "Simply not true," he says. "Not in my case or any manager I know." What he likes is the fresh challenge that each year brings, the opportunity to reinvent yourself and aim for a new target. "There's always motivation. If you've had a good year, you want to consolidate. If you've had a terrible year, you want to put it right."
Chasing glory isn't always the thing. Talk to Moran about his 30 years in management and it isn't the turbulent years with Derry or the nearly-year with Mayo in 2006, but the three years he has spent with Leitrim, that engage him most. "I suppose this could be my last venture down this road and I feel lucky to be involved with Leitrim," he says. "The people are great, the clubs are supportive and there's no hassle. They're a joy to work with."
Above all, Moran loves their humility. At present, Leitrim don't have a purpose-built training ground and have to travel to various other counties for training sessions. They put up with the adversity and plough on. They have a grant now and hope to have two purpose-built pitches installed for next season. He sees foundations being laid for the future and such small things cheer him up. Progress doesn't have to be measured by medals and titles.
You listen to their stories and realise that, for all the gloomy prognoses, they aren't a dying breed. Right now, Tom Carr is between jobs. He says he isn't hankering to be back. He's 50 and has a family to keep him busy. He's experienced enough to know too that if a job comes around, it has to be the right one and for the right reasons. He won't dive in again for the sake of it.
And yet he knows that when the new year dawns and training starts again and League squads are being put in place, a part of him will ache to be out there. On the wet and muddy pitches where he feels most alive. He knows he will be helpless in the teeth of this assault on his emotions. It is in his DNA. It is simply how he is.