O’Brien’s Meath exit underlines the increasing range of problems that bedevil county set-ups
TEN weeks ago, Eamonn O'Brien was taking the congratulations of delighted Meath supporters who were dreaming giddy thoughts of Croke Park in September while, at the same time, James McCartan was map-reading qualifier terrain hoping to avoid the heavier ambushes.
Meath had hit Dublin for five goals in the Leinster semi-final and, a week earlier, Down had collapsed alarmingly against Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final. The four-point defeat flattered Down who, after an enterprising opening, lost the final 50 minutes by 0-10 to 0-2.
Meath were being talked of as All-Ireland contenders, while Down seemed headed for another season in obscurity.
"It's been the same old thing (criticism) -- that we showed a bit of flair but when the pressure came on we couldn't cope with it and the game petered out," lamented McCartan afterwards.
Today, McCartan is preparing Down for their first All-Ireland final in 16 years while O'Brien is dealing with the shock of being told by his county board that an All-Ireland semi-final place last year, followed by a first Leinster title win since 2001 this season, wasn't good enough. Such are the contrasts which can emerge in the course of a few weeks in the crazy world of modern GAA management.
That Meath have re-embedded themselves in a managerial controversy (remember the strife which followed Eamonn Barry's appointment in 2005?) is a sign of how even counties with a reputation for stability on and off the pitch can lose their common-sense compass.
Nowhere is it more evident than on the increasingly volatile management circuit. Given the cyclical nature of management, this was always going to be a year for change but it has turned out to be even busier than predicted.
Nobody could have foreseen last May that, before the All-Ireland football final was played, contenders such as Galway, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan and Derry would be looking for new managers and that Laois would already have appointed one.
O'Brien, Joe Kernan (Galway), Seamus McEnaney (Monaghan) and Sean Dempsey (Laois) all left under different circumstances, underlining the increasing range of problems that bedevil that manager/county dynamic nowadays.
Kernan quit after being told he couldn't appoint the back-room team he wanted because of the travelling costs involved, leaving Galway with a ready-made explanation for his departure, one which put all the responsibility on him. Suffice to say, the full story is probably a little bit more complicated.
O'Brien may be as much the victim of an anti-county board executive sentiment as a deep-seated opposition to him, in which case those who voted against him must ask themselves if the best interest of Meath football was their sole motivating influence.
The Monaghan County Board must have known that, after six seasons in charge, McEnaney was never going to go allow his name to go forward unless he was certain of getting the job. By opening up the process to other candidates they were effectively ending McEnaney's reign. After all, would you apply for job you already had for so long?
And in Laois a sub-committee of the county board refused to back Dempsey for another term, which ended his two-year reign.
Between county boards (and/or sub-committees) vetoing re-appointments, opening up the process or applying conditions which managers can't accept, players deciding that they no longer want a manager, supporter-led pressure for change and managers making unreasonable demands, the capacity for problems is increasing all the time.
It was a major growth area throughout the last decade and all the indications are that it will swell even more over the coming years. Certainly, if the first season of the new decade is a reliable indicator, that will definitely be the case.
A glance across the provinces shows that over 20 of the 32 counties have experienced manager-related difficulties. Leitrim are the only Connacht county to have remained largely trouble-free and while Mayo's main bust-up was back in the early 1990s, it has been far from smooth in some instances since then. Roscommon have had a few serious outbreaks of trouble, while Galway have had upheaval in both hurling and football.
Kerry are the only Munster county to have had no serious row. Paidi O Se would have liked to continue in 2003 but didn't have the support of key board figures -- otherwise there has been no apparent friction.
Not so in Clare and Waterford, while Limerick and Cork have, unquestionably, been the Anglo Irish Bank of managerial problems. Offaly have had the most trouble in Leinster but there have been sporadic outbreaks in Dublin, Meath, Wexford, Laois, Westmeath and Carlow too, leaving Kildare, Longford, Wicklow, Kilkenny and Louth as the counties who have avoided real confrontation.
Nickey Brennan had some problems with Kilkenny supporters after an NHL semi-final defeat by Limerick in 1997, but all changed once Brian Cody's successful reign began two years later.
Monaghan, Down, Cavan, Donegal and Derry have had difficult times, while in Tyrone the transfer of power to Mickey Harte in late 2002 wasn't without its uneasy moments.
Despite the importance of having the manager/player/board relationship working smoothly, there are still too many grey areas which very often turn into real black spots.
And with success as the ultimate driving force, even when demanded by counties who clearly aren't good enough to achieve it, the coming decade is likely to be even more fraught than its tense predecessor.