Saturday 29 April 2017

Colm O'Rourke: Who would be a manager when dice are so loaded?

Johnny Magee’s struggles with Wicklow are mirrored in plenty of other counties. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Magee’s struggles with Wicklow are mirrored in plenty of other counties. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

We are only two weeks into the Allianz League but it is already clear how increasingly difficult it is to manage an inter-county team. Part of the reason is that players are less accepting of low standards and less tolerant, and there is no doubt that the effort required relative to the chance of some tangible reward is turning players off in big numbers.

Into the mix is thrown a manager who in the vast majority of cases is doing his very best for all the right reasons but who takes more flak locally than many highly-paid managers in the Premier League. As I watched Arsenal abjectly surrendering to Bayern Munich on Wednesday night I could not help but think that a manager of an inter-county team would get some abuse if his players downed tools and turned in such a spineless lack of effort in a League match. There seemed to be no individual or collective pride; county and club teams would normally fight much harder for the cause.

This is not a sly dig at Premier League stars. Arsenal are a team I have long admired under Arsene Wenger. I have gone to see them play often and feel the Frenchman made an enormous contribution to changing the culture of the game. If players won't play for him, is it his fault? The very basic requirement of any player in any sport is that they give of their best. Personal pride should dictate that.

In the GAA players now just vote with their feet when they are not happy. Look what is presently happening in Down and Derry, where there are many players unavailable, and recent defeats would hardly entice anyone to want to get involved. Roscommon have had problems recently, and someone said 'don't mention the war' and 'Mayo' in the one sentence. Galway had difficulty getting players to commit last year, Wicklow have the same this year, and then there is Cork - a different kettle of fish altogether. And the list is hardly complete with these counties.

There was a traditional code of loyalty to the county team which has largely broken down. Of course, some have no such problems. Dublin and Kerry are the obvious ones in football, and Kilkenny in hurling. In these counties players are quite happy to sit out an apprenticeship on the bench in the knowledge that if they get their chance it will be on a team that will probably win an All-Ireland during their career. If they get taken off they don't sulk too badly no matter how they feel inside because there will be plenty of other big days to come.

That bears no comparison to Wicklow, where Johnny Magee recently said he finds it difficult to get players to commit to the county side. There are 20 other managers - at least - like him. Many players take a cold, hard look at things and say to themselves that they would be better off training a couple of nights per week with their club and enjoying football at a lower level. With clubs it is still a pastime, a social affair where teams play each other at their own standard and have a chance of winning something.

Compare that to county football where players train four, five or six times a week, where there is no chance of a social life and where sport becomes a similar time-user to work. County football also means that those in busy, high-powered jobs are out. You need to be a student or a teacher and probably not married - well, certainly without children - or you probably cannot give the time required. Smart time management can help, but most county managers feel that without giving it a serious amount of time they have no chance of bridging the gap to the top few.

In this way the manager is trying to put his fingers in a lot of dykes. He is trying to convince players to put in this superhuman effort, but many are not convinced that there is a link anymore between effort and reward. The response to this from official level is to have an elite championship involving eight teams after the provincial finals. A team coming through the qualifiers has already lost a game and this means they could also lose another in the round-robin stage and still end up in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Do Dublin, Kerry , Mayo or Tyrone need any more games in Croke Park in August? Do they need more lives on top of the one they've already got courtesy of the qualifiers? If any other county apart from this four bring home Sam Maguire then I will be shocked and bewildered. There is nothing wrong per se with an elite championship but it is an indication of the thinking at the top that those who need competition most are being completely abandoned in favour of the rich - who can generate the biggest crowds and therefore more money - at a time when revenue from games is falling.

The obvious answer is to try something like Carlow and Laois are proposing, even if I do not agree exactly with the specific proposals. At least they are trying to help everyone irrespective of which side of town they come from. Players in weaker counties have to be given incentives to play. Simple things like games in Croke Park and a chance to compete at their own level in the championship is the basic minimum they are entitled to. But if they vote for the Central Council motion in preference to what Carlow or Laois are proposing then they get what is coming to them.

The result will be a more divided GAA structure at county level. Players from many counties will be even less willing to commit as they will rightly see that the dice are loaded even more against them. When a team like Tipperary gets to the last eight some year everyone at official level sings and dances, claiming that this shows how the meek can inherit the earth. It is all smoke and mirrors. The poor will remain downtrodden.

What has this to do with managers? Well, everything actually. If the system is absolutely unfair then the modern player who may love playing for his county might also do a bit of thinking and decide the balance between effort, enjoyment, reward and time spent is completely skewed the wrong way. When I see decent men like Eamonn Burns in Down and Damian Barton in Derry who have given so much to the game as players being hung out to dry as managers then I think there is something seriously wrong in the game. And there will be others before the League finishes.

I watched Derry play Meath in Navan last Sunday. It was the worst Derry team I have ever seen, but I would place no blame on players or management. The players showed up and the management are doing their best no matter what mistakes are being made, or were made in the past. Most managers of 25 other teams are not far off these positions. They are caught between the unrealistic expectations of many supporters and county board and are dealing with players who do not have the blind loyalty of the past, which is no bad thing in itself. Managers and players need help in the form of a new and fair championship structure. Don't hold your breath.

In the meantime, managers will take the flak. Players will get sour because they can't beat Dublin or Kerry, a disaffected rump may easily stir up trouble and the fall guy is the manager who, in the vast majority of cases, is getting nothing for it. Go figure the justice in all that.

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