An in-depth analysis of the four managers hoping to guide their teams to an All-Ireland SFC semi-final today
The off-field planners could be the crucial difference between success and failure in today’s Croke Park double-header as four managers take on the challenges from distinctly different angles, hoping to join Kerry and Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-finals.
JIM GAVIN – THE HIGH FLIER
First to the facts of Dublin under Gavin in league and championship.
It’s an 86 per cent success rate, delivering two All-Ireland, four Allianz League and four Leinster titles since the start of 2013.
At the same stage of his career, Mick O’Dwyer, by far the most successful manager in football history, had presided over one All-Ireland, one league and four Munster titles successes.
Brian Cody had exactly the same haul with Kilkenny hurlers at this stage of his fourth season, although it quickly expanded and, 14 years later, his overall success rate stands at a remarkable 86 per cent.
It’s unlikely Gavin will repeat Cody’s longevity as a manager but such is the feel-good factor in Dublin nowadays that supporters are convinced the good times will roll on indefinitely.
Gavin is synonymous with one of the most exciting periods in Dublin football history but, as a military man, he would probably be the first to acknowledge the ‘lucky general’ theory.
He took over at a time when Dublin had escaped the plateau on which they were stuck for a long time. It was high enough to look down on the rest of the Leinster but not on the likes of Kerry, Tyrone and Mayo.
All changed in 2011 when Pat Gilroy led Dublin to a first All-Ireland title for 16 years and while they failed to defend it in the following season, it was still very obvious that their stock was on the rise.
In addition, it was an era when the opposition to Dublin in Leinster was heading into possibly its deepest ever trough, the bottom of which may not have been yet reached if this year’s campaign is any guide.
Gavin played his part in Dublin’s initial surge, leading successful U-21 teams, but the real heroes were the clubs and the development process that fed so much talent into the system.
Gavin was the obvious successor when Gilroy opted out at the end of 2012, stepping into a role which had riches beyond the dreams of all other managers.
Still, talent in itself brings no guarantee of success but, conversely, no manager can make All-Ireland winners out of mediocre players.
Gavin’s job was to streamline the Dublin operation, which he has done most effectively.
His targeting of the 2013 league, something Dublin hadn’t done for a long time, gave an early indication of his determination to apply the Cody philosophy that every game – in whatever competition – was worth winning.
It was the start of something really big which, on all available evidence, is still some way from being completed, irrespective of whether Dublin win a fourth All-Ireland title in six seasons this year.
STEPHEN ROCHFORD – THE ROOKIE
He might well have suspected that the law of averages would make a mischievous intervention.
Mayo had beaten Galway in their previous five championship meetings and since the history of this great rivalry has rarely featured such dominance by either county, the odds against it continuing this summer were shrinking. So when Mayo were overtaken and beaten by Galway in Castlebar in June, Rochford may well have thought: ‘What the hell am I doing here – the gods are against us.’
Brought in as a replacement for the Pat Holmes/Noel Connelly partnership after a ruthless coup by the squad, Rochford’s task was clear – win the All-Ireland. That’s the unforgiving criteria by which every Mayo manager is now judged.
Losing to Galway wasn’t exactly part of the grand plan, leaving Rochford in a strange place as he looked ahead to the qualifiers. The mood music in Mayo wasn’t very tuneful as they faced up to the possibility of the post-revolt season dissipating into nothing.
In a sense, the squad is still on trial. The qualifier draw could not have been kinder, offering Mayo home games against Fermanagh and Kildare, followed by Westmeath so they arrive at the quarter-final door with many unanswered questions.
In normal circumstances, getting to a quarter-final would be an acceptable return for a first-season manager. That’s not the case for Rochford, who knows that defeat today will leave Mayo facing an overhaul.
He really would have no other choice to but to undertake a sizeable cull, complete with all the risks that involves. The alternative scenario is that Mayo win today, hoisting themselves right back into All-Ireland contention.
It’s at that point that Rochford would face the ultimate test. Mayo would be strong favourites to beat Tipperary in the semi-final, leaving them in the final for the third time in five seasons.
Could he be the man to provide the winning touch that eluded John O’Mahony (1989), John Maughan (1996-’97-2004), Mickey Moran (2006) and James Horan (2012-’13) over the last 27 years? Today, he pits his wits against Mickey Harte, who has been prowling sidelines with Tyrone for the past 13 years but unlike most rookie managers, Rochford does so as an All-Ireland winner with Corofin in last year’s championship.
He has had a difficult start with Mayo, dodging relegation from Division 1 on scoring difference before surrendering a five-year grip on the Connacht Championship.
And yet the All-Ireland dream remains alive, same as it was at this stage of the season for the past five years. Rochford’s challenge is to mastermind a different ending.
MIKEY HARTE – THE VETERAN
“Where does this rate against your previous Ulster title wins?”
“Absolutely the best. It’s the best of them all because of the famine that was there for six years and because of what had gone before when maybe Ulster titles were taken for granted,” said Harte.
His message was clear in the immediate aftermath of last month’s Ulster final win over Donegal. Tyrone had grown accustomed to winning Ulster and All-Ireland titles pre-2010 and might even have become presumptuous about their right to do so.
Harte had taken criticism from time to time, including from some players who left the panel. Nor was he immune to public questioning too as the seasons passed without a title.
Harte didn’t say it directly but one suspects that his post-Ulster final comments might have been a gentle reminder to Tyrone supporters that of the 14 senior provincial titles won, he had presided over five.
All three of Tyrone’s All-Ireland titles were also delivered on his watch, yet his approval rating had dropped considerably as Donegal and Monaghan became the dominant powers in Ulster.
So even as Harte stood amid hordes of back-slapping Tyrone supporters after the Ulster final, he made a point of putting the success into context.
“We got back-to-back titles in 2009-’10 and nobody cared a jot. Now you see what it means to them. This is a reality check for people. These Ulster titles are important and they don’t come around easy,” he said.
Things change quickly in supporter-land. Harte has, in a short time, gone from being the man whom some thought had stayed on too long to the master empire-builder embarking on another major project.
Now, there’s giddy talk in Tyrone of reaching the All-Ireland final at least, with Mayo seen as a dwindling force and Tipperary not seriously regarded as big-time contenders.
Harte isn’t aboard that dismissive train but, in his quieter moments, he must be thinking that a land of opportunity is opening up.
He has always been very good at extracting the maximum from available resources, even managing to reach two All-Ireland semi-finals through the qualifiers in the last three seasons. In both cases, Tyrone beat the Ulster champions in the quarter-finals.
So while Monaghan were provincial winners in 2013 and last year, Tyrone could justifiably argue to be the best in Ulster after beating Malachy O’Rourke’s men in both quarter-finals.
Curiously, Tyrone have a mixed record as Ulster champions in quarter-finals. It started pre-Harte days when they lost to Derry in 2001. They won in 2003 (Harte’s first year) and against in 2009 but lost to Meath in 2007 and to Dublin in 2010.
Now Harte is back for what will be Tyrone’s 11th quarter-final under his guidance, beating by two the combined total of the other five managers still in the All-Ireland race.
Now that’s experience.
RORY GALLAGHER – THE REGENERATOR
Jim McGuinness wrote after the Ulster final of Donegal’s “one-dimensional game plan that does not pose enough problems for opposing teams.”
Apparently, they went into the game against Tyrone “with only one strategy” and had fallen “into the same trap that caught them in last year’s Ulster final.”
According to McGuinness, there wasn’t enough variety in Donegal’s game.
“They are not playing the long ball or getting ahead of the ball or running the ball aggressively. All the support is from behind.”
There was more. Tyrone had “that indefatigable look. Nothing fazed them.”
Also, McGuinness felt “their drive and mentality was coming from something bigger or beyond themselves. They have a cause or an emotional attachment which was bigger than a game of football.”
Put it all together and you had Tyrone, reinforced by some spiritual force, beating one-dimensional opposition falling into old traps.
Now if all this were true, perhaps McGuinness might explain how ‘one-dimensional’ Donegal led ‘indefatigable Tyrone’ after 71 minutes before conceding three points?
Whatever about his praise of Tyrone, it appears that McGuinness is happy to throw critical digs at Gallagher, who replaced him at the end of 2014.
They were, of course, the closest of allies when Donegal won the 2012 All-Ireland title but the partnership didn’t last and now Gallagher has McGuinness jabbing from outside the tent.
It’s an uncomfortable situation for Gallagher since McGuinness is a revered figure in Donegal, still basking in the glow of the 2012 All-Ireland.
His comments carry considerable weight in a county which now expects success.
Narrow defeats under Gallagher in successive Ulster finals have inevitably sparked frustration which is increased by McGuinness’ provocative comments.
Succeeding McGuinness was always going to be very difficult for Gallagher, especially after the manner in which their relationship ended, but he has done well.
Predictions of a period of upheaval post-McGuinness proved wide of the mark and while Donegal have won no title under Gallagher, they remain at the top end of the market.
He has regenerated the panel quite well too, a process underlined by the fact that of the 33 players profiled in the Ulster final programme, 17 were aged 23 or under.
That’s being done with an eye to the future which, presumably, will involve Gallagher, who is doing well enough to be given a vote of confidence to drive on.