Ciarán Whelan: Teams with under-pressure managers are afraid and playing overly defensive
Managing an inter-county team must be a thankless job. At the end of each GAA year, there are only a handful of counties with some element of silverware to show for their efforts.
There is another cohort of counties who have made progress with a couple of wins in the qualifiers or a league promotion. And then there are the remaining counties where the year ended with no measurable progress.
The managers of most of these teams will feel a push towards the exit door by the county board officials, club delegates, or in more recent cases, the players themselves.
Some are journeymen managers with big egos who have more interest in the expenses cheque flowing through to their bank accounts and will move onto their next job.
Whilst others are solid, passionate guys who have put their life on hold and invested a lot of time into the role as intercounty manager and may just not have had the resources at their disposal or that bit of luck that is required.
When it comes to criticism after championship defeats, a thick skin is required because the pundits and the ‘hurlers on the ditch’ have all the answers and the manager is duly ridiculed.
It is even worse when the players pull the trigger to get rid of their manager.
However, I suspect Pat Holmes, Noel Conneely and Anthony Cunningham have had a bittersweet feeling following recent games for Mayo’s footballers and Galway’s hurlers.
The last few weeks have been interesting in watching the various approaches taken by different managers to their respective championship games.
Where the manager is under pressure, that pressure will generally seep into the team performance and players perform with fear.
Also, the most likely default position for managers under pressure nowadays is to revert to an overplayed defensive game which generally fails because it is developed through that sense of pressure over a short time- frame.
Kildare, Meath, Derry and Armagh are prime examples of the teams playing in that category where the end-of-year report will not make pretty reading. Kildare lost their Division 3 final to Clare conceding a couple of sloppy goals.
Plan B was implemented by Cian O’Neill and Kildare developed a defensive system of play for the championship which was unworkable without any quality forwards or pace coming from defence. O’Neill is in ‘Year 1’ of his project but Kildare supporters are an impatient bunch and already there are signs that he is feeling the pressure from within the county by not letting his team play to their own strengths.
Mick O’Dowd in Meath is in ‘Year 4’ of his tenure and he set up his team to limit the damage against Dublin. At no stage during the game were Meath willing to throw off the shackles and have a go at Dublin because he feared a five or six-goal onslaught that would have had more drastic effect when the ‘hurlers on the ditch’ got hold of him afterwards.
Armagh, much-ridiculed and beaten three times in recent weeks, have also played like a team under pressure and again they do not have the quality players to play counter-attacking football.
In contrast to that, you have teams where the managers are not under pressure externally and the mood is upbeat in the county. This leads to a more confident approach from the managers involved who have set up their teams based on their fundamental beliefs. They are more willing to take risks because they have a few brownie points built up and their positive approach will reflect in their team performances.
I do believe the widespread negative reaction to poor defensive football tactics is beginning to impact on the mind-set of managers. Many supporters are now more willing to accept defeat graciously (even of that means being beaten by a higher margin) by having a positive approach to games rather than setting up to limit the damage before the ball is thrown in.
Tipp were always going to be swimming against the tide against Kerry last weekend. Liam Kearns knew that all too well but he set his team up to play to their strengths. He believed he had forwards that could trouble the Kerry defence if they took their opportunities.
In taking that approach he left his defence exposed to a strong Kerry forward line and rolled the dice in the hope they would get a few breaks going their way.
Cavan have received many plaudits in recent months when they abandoned their defensive mindset and set about focusing on what they can offer offensively. It changed the attitude right across the county and supporters began to dream again.
It is easy to point to the fact that their defence went awol last Sunday in the second half against Tyrone but that is part of the learning curve for Cavan. It’s about striking the right balance. The top teams have the quality players to balance their defensive approach with strong attacking options.
Tom Cribbin, the Westmeath manager, has already spoken honestly about his willingness to attack the Dubs on Sunday week in the Leinster Final. It is a style of football that suits Westmeath better. Granted they could still lose by 20 points but he wants to give his team the best chance to express themselves.
Maybe just maybe, we are beginning to see a shift in mindset.
Defence and the non-concession of goals will always be a priority in any team set-up but just maybe some managers are beginning to lead and not follow.