Friday 30 September 2016

Damian Lawlor: Shambolic appointment process sowed seeds of discontent in Mayo

Damian Lawlor

Published 04/10/2015 | 11:00

Former Mayo joint-managers Pat Holmes (left) and Noel Connelly: ‘From the early weeks of their tenure there had been whispers that the players were unhappy’that
Former Mayo joint-managers Pat Holmes (left) and Noel Connelly: ‘From the early weeks of their tenure there had been whispers that the players were unhappy’that

The best outcome was a quick resolution, and thankfully for Mayo football that is the case. Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly, two honourable men, have stepped down. But when it comes to disputes like this one, outcomes are rarely resolved without serious consequences. The hurt from this episode will linger for years. Friendships, relationships and trusts have been damaged. Some will never be repaired.

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Mayo are a top four side, pushing hard for an All-Ireland title, and despite last week's events they remain an attractive side for an ambitious manager.

The players' unhappiness only became public last week but it had been bubbling away for some time beneath the surface. On Tuesday, local media carried reports of a player heave, and some of the reports looked to be loaded against the players.

By Wednesday, the Mayo County Board executive was in fire-fighting mode. They have a good relationship with the players, and on Thursday night, two board officers and player representatives met. But while a compromise was sought - one that Holmes and Connelly, may or may not have welcomed - there was absolutely no backing down by the players: they wanted change.

The meeting lasted just 10 minutes. Twenty-eight players turned up, all wearing official Mayo tracksuit tops. They arrived and left together, heads bowed, making no comment. It was a brief but clinical show of solidarity. Two players were out of the country, two others in Dublin. But even those players who had voted in favour of keeping the co-managers were present. The message was to the point: the players had tried to do things properly, trying to keep their affairs private until details were leaked to the media. From that point, the departure of the two managers was inevitable, the only surprise being perhaps that it came the very next day.

At the initial meeting of players, the vote had been 27-7 in favour of a new management. The players kept that meeting quiet, met the management and it was suggested that the managers could resign for their own reasons, without any need for player concerns or grievances to be made public. But it didn't play out like that and the squad were furious when news of their vote subsequently appeared in the local media.

‘Could the management be blamed for Keith Higgins, the best Mayo player of his era, getting torched by Paddy Andrews?’
‘Could the management be blamed for Keith Higgins, the best Mayo player of his era, getting torched by Paddy Andrews?’

When it was revealed that players such as Lee Keegan had not voted for change, players grew angrier. The seven who voted for Holmes and Connelly had valid reasons for doing so but those public reports on Keegan's stance only galvanised the panel. From there they pledged to put forward a united front; hence the steely show of unity on Thursday night.

The players felt things were below par from the start, although both managers dispute that. When Holmes and Connelly came in, they did so as All-Ireland winning managers, having guided many of the current seniors as under 21s in 2006. They pledged to step things up from James Horan's time in charge and while they may not have fared much worse, they certainly didn't fare better.

Their approach was entirely different to Horan's, in many aspects more traditional and robust. From the early weeks of their tenure there had been whispers that the players were unhappy, but ultimately the squad waited until after the All-Ireland final to take action.

Perhaps the roots of this dispute trace right back to when Horan stepped down and Kevin McStay was thought to be the frontrunner to replace him. McStay was asked last year on The Sunday Game if he wanted the job and said he would be interested if he got a call. On the Saturday after Mayo lost to Kerry, the media also contacted Holmes and asked if he wanted the job. He said it was not for him. Journalists also contacted John Maughan and others to inquire of their interest. Noel Connelly was contacted and replied that he was already training a team and wasn't getting into a discussion on the matter, that it was not a runner.

Ultimately, though, the two men who ended up managing Mayo were among those who had said they didn't want to do it. McStay, the only man to put his hand up for the job, was overlooked. Instead he and Liam McHale will work with Roscommon for the next three years. That episode left a sour taste.

This formed part of the backdrop to Thursday night's meeting, when the board hoped a solution could be found. But they quickly found out that you can't shake hands with a clenched fist.

Insiders say there was no major falling out, merely a gradual erosion of confidence in the management team. The players acknowledged that there are plenty of good people in both the county board and management set-ups but reiterated how they felt that this appointment wasn't right from the start. Within two to three months they felt they had taken a big step backwards, and tried to communicate that.

It was a big statement to make. After all, Holmes and Connelly delivered a Connacht title this year and oversaw a comeback against Dublin in the drawn All-Ireland semi-final. The introduction of Andy Moran from the sideline helped fuel that fightback. And when they had Dublin on the rack it was the players themselves who failed to push on in the replay. But the players argued that if things were not right behind the scenes, it was evntually going to catch up with them.

Board officials and the management duo were aiming to press captain Keith Higgins (pictured) and vice-captain Cillian O’Connor on the reasons as to why faith has been lost
Board officials and the management duo were aiming to press captain Keith Higgins (pictured) and vice-captain Cillian O’Connor on the reasons as to why faith has been lost

The squad had been closeted within a high-performance environment created by Horan, and their expectations were high. Senior players met with Holmes and Connelly last October and listened as the new bosses went through their plans, and alarm bells sounded immediately when they were informed that a new medical team had been appointed. The players looked for certain members of the old backroom team to be reinstated, and in fairness members of the old guard were brought back, with some of the incoming team being told they were not now needed. One member of those reinstated, however, stepped away soon after his return, citing work commitments.

From there, the panel said they were unhappy with the manner of communication from the top down, claiming that there was a lack of organisation within the camp and bemoaning the fact that squad players were not allowed travel on match days, yet the 24-strong backroom staff were. For their part, the co-managers would argue that the large backroom was purely to cater for the squad's needs.

Attention was also drawn to the fact that so many members of the backroom team were in the dressing room on match days, with the players complaining that there were too many people within their circle of trust on match days.

Before they played Dublin, some of the team could not conceal their disbelief that the game-plan and tactical notes on Dublin, had been left behind at the team hotel.

There were a number of heated arguments between management and players during the year as players demanded higher standards. Against Galway, eight of the extended squad did not tog out and were left without tickets to get into the game. But the county board wasn't made aware of this until after the game, and maybe the same applies to management.

Mayo captain Keith Higgins speaks to his team before the Dublin game
Mayo captain Keith Higgins speaks to his team before the Dublin game

Gradually, confidence in the set-up drained, although the players remain adamant that they tried to front up by telling management and board members of their concerns. They also said that the coaching, and the strength and conditioning expertise, to give two examples, were top class. So when the entire backroom team of 24 people were listed in local media reports it came across as if the players had no confidence in any of them. This only angered the players more.

Most of the players are in their mid-20s. If they are to win an All-Ireland it will have to be in the next two to three years, or else another generation of Mayo footballers will depart without the ultimate prize - perhaps the most promising generation of all. The stakes are high.

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