Inter-county football management is now a tougher job than ever, writes Damian Lawlor
LAST April, just three months after taking charge, Gerry Cooney stepped down as Offaly football football manager.
The start of Cooney's tenure coincided with a pre-arranged visit to Namibia and without him the team struggled to find their shape. Upon his return, however, there was no take-off in their fortunes either. Cooney, a highly-rated coach, oversaw a disappointing league campaign; they were relegated to Division 4, losing six games, four by a total of 38 points.
Those setbacks had come on the back of a heavy defeat to Kildare in the O'Byrne Cup, so from the start the Meath native was swimming against the tide. He came into a county struggling for stability, oversaw a miserable run with his team missing key players, and within a few weeks it was curtains.
This weekend, 12 newcomers kick off their tenures as inter-county senior football managers, hoping for a much different fate.
The likes of Jim Gavin, Mick O'Dowd, Emmet McDonnell and Niall Carew are all in charge of new regimes and it will be an intense and challenging period of their lives. They'll have to deal with an enhanced media glare, the pressures of man and time management, tight financial constraints and varying expectations of success.
Most pressingly, though, the 12 who kick-start their campaigns must do so without some key players who will be college-tied for the next seven to eight weeks.
At the end of his last stint with Donegal, former manager Brian McEniff saw at first hand the demand from colleges for some of his leading players.
"The first obstacle that managers will face is colleges looking for his star players, although I'd have no problem with that," he emphasises. "I'd always encourage anyone to play top-class football, be it McKenna, Sigerson or Trench Cups. My Donegal players were in huge demand from Sligo IT and Letterkenny IT, meaning that I had to cast the net wide and field a new-look team for the McKenna Cup.
"But that was great – it allowed me to introduce Michael Boyle (current sub 'keeper), Neil McGee, Neil Gallagher and Ryan Bradley to the inter-county set-up. The whole college dilemma is in the spotlight again in Ulster, particularly with Queen's University not fielding in the McKenna Cup, but at this time of year fielding a team without your main players can have its advantages."
While McEniff's key stars were college-bound, Donegal shipped a heavy defeat at the hands of Monaghan and the manager took a lot of flak for that. But with his reputation already assured and bags of experience gained, McEniff's position was safe. Not all the managers who set sail this weekend will enjoy that comfort blanket.
Inevitably, Jim Gavin will be in the spotlight more than any other. He will be without up to a dozen college players when the Dubs play Carlow in the opening round of the O'Byrne Cup today.
Gavin has no problem with colleges having first option on the players, but he could do with getting some decent, early results under the belt at the same time. That won't be easy with a third-level championship running almost parallel to the start of the inter-county season.
"There's a lot of chaos over the first few months of the year and that's something that has to be looked at," Gavin says. "Having so many competitions at this time of year, in terms of player welfare, it wouldn't be the way I'd do business.
"Players training for Sigerson, trying to peak at the back end of January and February, are on a completely different training cycle than county players would be. I need to be very conscious of the workload that players are putting themselves under."
They will kick off the season, however, with former world champion boxer Bernard Dunne in tow. Dunne, who helped the Waterford hurlers during Davy Fitzgerald's reign, has been added to their back-room team to play a motivational role with the Dubs, strengthening a relationship that goes back to when Gavin was under 21 manager. He will act as the team's sports performance and lifestyle coach.
Bringing in experts from other sports is a road that many modern-day managers are now going down but it's quite a fine line between bringing in an outsider who can play a meaningful role and one who upsets the delicate balance. Gavin and Dunne clearly have a good understanding and demarcation lines have been made clear from the outset, meaning that Dunne will have no influence on tactics. Not every manager will enjoy such a smooth, clearly-defined connection with his backroom team, however.
A couple of seasons back, at half-time during a business-end championship game, one 'expert' took to the floor to speak to the team. Some of the players couldn't believe that the speaker, whom they clearly had little respect for, was holding forth during a match of huge magnitude. One player had to be restrained from telling him to sit down.
As they learn to become accustomed to their new role, managers are increasingly likely to experiment, introduce new voices and look left of centre for support staff. They'll have to make sure to get it right.
"I was brought into the Louth set-up as a consultant in 2010," McEniff says. "Peter Fitzpatrick brought me in and to this day we remain great friends and I look out for all their fixtures and go to games when I can. But for the Leinster final against Meath I really felt Darren Clarke should have been started, and I said as much to Peter.
"For one reason or another Darren didn't start. I felt strongly about it but I was not the manager so I bit my tongue. You have to know the boundaries. That's why, generally, bringing in someone from the outside is a bold move.
"Usually in the GAA, an outsider is under instant pressure anyway because people warm quicker to home-grown coaches. So, if you're looking for expert consultants they'd better be the real deal or the players will see through them – and you – very quickly."
With a high profile, and having led the county to their first ever All-Ireland title, McEniff was constantly in demand from the media while in charge of Donegal. It's another facet of the job that young managers will have to grasp quickly.
In 2009, Dublin fell to Kerry by 17 points, a result that could see the best of managers fall immediately on their sword, but the fact that Pat Gilroy had established a good relationship with the media certainly helped spare him a public assassination. He had opened good communication channels with the press, and allied to the fact that the players rowed in behind him, it bought him space to successfully finish his project. That hasn't always been the scenario.
"For any young manager, once you have the players onside, you need a couple of things to go in your favour," McEniff adds. "A few early results and a decent working relationship with the media is paramount, especially the local press.
"It's just a bit of cop on. You'll get criticism from them – but deal with it. If a few of the early games don't go well, having the press on your back will hardly help. You need breathing space. So have a press night two weeks before a championship game and bury it there. Take calls when you can and don't shoot yourself in the foot. The media is part and parcel of inter-county management now. Players can benefit from a high profile too."
During his inter-county managerial regime McEniff never had to worry about the dual player issue, and it looked like the concept was dying a death anyway. But it's becoming a problem all over again in Dublin, Tipperary, Limerick and Wexford. The likes of Gavin, Aidan O'Brien (Wexford) and Peter Creedon (who is about to start into his first league campaign with Tipperary) will have to manage this predicament carefully in the coming years. Lee Chin and Ciarán Lyng, for example, have already signalled their intention to play both codes for Wexford in 2013. That will bring its own challenges.
New Waterford manager Niall Carew will also see at first hand the issues that dual players bring. Carew has already impressed his players with his attention to detail and no-nonsense attitude since taking charge recently. But he comes from Kildare and worked with the Lilywhite senior footballers for the past five years. In that time they enjoyed holidays, training camps and bonding weekends. There were many perks to being a Kildare footballer and few distractions for players.
In Waterford, however, many players are dual players and hurling will have first call on splendid young footballers like Brian O'Halloran from Clashmore. In addition, some players give their entire commitment to club football, preferring to win a Waterford title rather than linking up with the county team.
Another growing problem is financial constraints.
With 40 years' experience as a GAA administrator, alongside his managerial career, McEniff understands only too well the huge financial pressures that counties are under.
"I can see both sides of this one," he says. "Counties are under massive pressure and yet managers want the best resources and backup. We had it up in Donegal. It took Jim McGuinness a while to get the senior job but he produced the most professional set-up that Gaelic football has ever seen and the results are there for all to see.
"Financially, county boards should sit down with their managers and a player representative and have things down in black and white," McEniff adds. "You need to be aware of the overall restrictions but you want to bring your team up the ladder as well. Good communication might not pay the bills but it will make everyone sing from the same hymn sheet and that's a start."
Many new managers on the block feel they are already hamstrung by austere budgets. Overall expenditure on county teams has averaged €19million in the last two seasons and Croke Park is demanding a crackdown as that level of spending is unsustainable. Managing the trade-off between expense and expectation is now a huge dilemma for managers.
Counties are obliged to form a committee of officials, managers and players to meet at the start of the year and look at budgets. If this doesn't happen it can easily lead to a misunderstanding.
With so many variables to consider it's hardly surprising that, Mick O'Dwyer apart, there will be no 60-something manager on the sidelines in 2013.
Frank Dawson bucked the trend when he replaced Liam Bradley at the age of 56, but most counties are looking at appointments of managers just either side of the 40 mark. Meath have opted for 38-year-old Mick O'Dowd, Gavin is 41, Louth's new boss Aidan O'Rourke is 36 while Offaly's Emmet McDonnell is the youngest of the lot at 33.
It may be a young man's game, but these managers will need a wise old head on their shoulders at the same time. Some challenge.