Wednesday 7 December 2016

Joe Brolly: Intolerance of losers a fatal flaw

Joe Brolly

Published 10/04/2016 | 17:00

Kieran McGeeney came to Eamonn Coleman's funeral. He was a great friend of Anthony Tohill and so was invited by Anthony to sit at the players' table for a bite to eat after the burial.

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I was sitting beside my old comrade Brian McGilligan. We were eating and reminiscing when Kieran - out of the blue - fixed me with that Clint Eastwood stare of his and said: "You were an awful waste of talent Joe." The chatter at the table stopped abruptly. I didn't know where to look. "You could have achieved so much more, if you'd taken it seriously." There was silence for a second, then big McGilligan nudged me and we burst out laughing. "You're wan crazy bastard McGeeney," said McGilligan. Only Kieran wasn't joking. He was deadly serious. Sitting amongst a band of Derry brothers, after the death of one of our own. It took a lot of balls. But then Kieran never had any trouble in that department.

Being a great footballer is not necessarily a credential for management. Jose Mourinho was never a professional footballer. His career puts me in mind of a great line of Joe Kernan's. The two of us were speaking at the National Coaching Conference several years ago in Croke Park. He had one of his sons with him, who I didn't recognise. We were having a bite to eat together afterwards and I said, "Does this boy play football?" "Naw," said Big Joe, "he's going straight into management."

Mourinho, having played a bit of amateur football in the Portuguese second division, decided that playing was not for him. Instead, he became a PE teacher, studied sports science and in due course became a professor of soccer. Likewise, Arsene Wenger was a pub player, playing for a number of amateur clubs before studying for and obtaining a manager's diploma.

The flipside of this is summed up by a classic story about one of the gods of modern English soccer, Peter Shilton. In the twilight of a glittering career, he was named manager of Plymouth Argyle in the old third division. Under their goalkeeper-manager, they went on one of those roller coaster rides that only go downwards. Displays got worse and worse. Morale collapsed. By March, the cold hand of relegation was on their shoulders. Shilton realised something dramatic needed to be done. So, he gathered the squad for a motivational speech. This would be his greatest hour. His Henry V moment. Like that legendary king before the Battle of Agincourt, he would rouse his small force with such words as would assure a glorious triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. As Shakespeare's Henry put it: "From this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."

Only it didn't turn out quite like that. An impassioned Shilton finished his oration by raising his fist aloft and assuring his men they would "rise, like a pheasant from the flames". At which point, there was an awkward silence. "What's the matter?" said Shilton. "It's phoenix, boss. Phoenix from the flames," said one of the players. Shilton paused to take this in, looked at the ground and shook his head. "Shit," he said, "I knew it began with an F."

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Roy Keane is another one who falls into the Shilton category. Danny Higginbotham, who played under him during his term as Sunderland manager, fondly recalled some of Roy's man management techniques in his autobiography Rise of the Underdog. Before they took the field for a crucial game against Aston Villa, after a run of six defeats in eight games, Roy gathered the team around him in the changing room and said, "Listen lads, basically, you're shit. Try and enjoy the game. You're probably going to get beat. But just enjoy being shit."

After another bad result, Higginbotham recalls Keane being enraged in the dressing room. He stood over one player shouting. "You're the reason I'm driving up and down the f*****g country to find another player, you're not f*****g good enough." He then moved on to another player and roared, "Your attitude is shit. You're not good enough." The finale of that talk will not be found in any sport psychology manual: "Next week we've got our last home game, against Arsenal. You know at the end of the season when you walk around the pitch, thanking the fans for their support? I'm ringing Umbro and getting you some hooded jumpers, because you're a f*****g embarrassment, it's a joke and this is not going to stay this way."

I thought of Keane last weekend when Armagh were relegated to Division 3. I have often seen similarities between these two great competitors. Keane demonically driving Manchester United on. McGeeney demonically driving Armagh on to defeat superior opponents. A player with a modest skill-set somehow dominating Croke Park and breaking his opponents' will.

The two men also share an intolerance of 'losers' and cannot understand how a player can allow this to happen. Which inevitably translates into disappointment with their teams, a disappointment that cannot be concealed. For a manager, this is a fatal flaw.

McGeeney leaves no stone unturned in his quest for success as a coach. But after seven years with Kildare, they had won nothing and had never beaten a top team. The players looked worried on big days and couldn't relax. On many occasions, they created the opportunity to win big games then blew it. Against Down in 2010. Against Donegal in 2011. In extra-time in that Donegal game they went four up but still lost. Because they didn't believe in themselves. They didn't believe in themselves because the manager didn't believe in them. When he subsequently scoured the country looking for a forward, importing Seanie Johnston from Cavan to play club hurling in Kildare, he was saying to his squad: "Basically, you are shit." The great man was disappointed. The players simply couldn't match his standards.

Who could?

Since he took over in Armagh, a similar pattern has been established. Resources have been lavished on the group. Their training regime has been on a par with any professional team. Nothing, insofar as Kieran can see it, has been left to chance. Yet against Donegal in last year's Ulster Championship they were humiliated. After 10 minutes the game was over. By half-time they had managed a point or maybe two. They lost by nine but that was very flattering. Galway put them out of their misery in the qualifiers. Now, relegation to Division 3.

I think that, like Keane, Kieran can't see why things aren't working out. His solution is to demand more. Like Keane, it is clear that he thinks his players are not giving anywhere near enough. They disappoint him. Which is why he recently said that "county footballers are not elite athletes at all." He doesn't seem to have reflected on the impact of this statement on players who have devoted their lives to the Armagh cause.

Kieran isn't stupid. He knows pheasant doesn't begin with an F. But deep down, he thinks that basically, his players are shit. Which is why they prove him right.

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