Sunday 22 October 2017

Vincent Hogan: The picture painted by Holmes and Connelly is one that would simply be unimaginable in Dublin or Kerry

Former joint Mayo managers Pat Holmes, left, and Noel Connelly
Former joint Mayo managers Pat Holmes, left, and Noel Connelly
Mayo joint managers Noel Connelly (left) and Pat Holmes lifted the lid on their departure from the Mayo set-up. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

No doubt Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly will be told they should have kept their counsel, that the hurt communicated so powerfully across these pages last Saturday took matters beyond the customary equilibrium of GAA business.

There'll be plenty inclined to lecture them that Mayo could do without the turbulent press brought about by shining a light into places some of their bigger players, palpably, will not welcome. But to what end should Holmes and Connelly have stayed silent? To protect the sensitivities of players they categorically believe need to re-appraise their relationship with the county team?

The extraordinary candour of their interview with Martin Breheny clearly wasn't the product of any reflex appetite for recrimination.

If it had been, they'd scarcely have waited 14 months to ventilate what registered as an absolute conviction that Mayo's story, so typically full of anguish and neurosis, may have its roots in something akin to a preserved adolescence afflicting certain marquee players.

The picture painted should be troubling to Mayo people, surely desperate for an understanding of the county's persistent heartache that might run deeper than recycled guff about bad weather still being pushed their way by some vexed priest in a Foxford graveyard 65 years ago.

Mayo have played in ten senior All-Ireland finals since 1989 and won none.

Mostly that statistic is faithful to a hard truth that, usually, they've just not been quite good enough to win the Sam Maguire. Yet, in 2014 and '15, Mayo drew All-Ireland semi-finals against the eventual champions, losing in replays. James Horan stepped down as manager after the '14 defeat to Kerry. Holmes and Connelly were forced out by player power after last year's fall to the Dubs.

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1 October 2016; Mayo manager Stephen Rochford and Dublin manager Jim Gavin shake hands following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Rochford and Jim Gavin

This year, Mayo made the final against Dublin under Stephen Rochford, drew again, yet - excruciatingly - came up just short once more in a replay. Three years then, three management teams, three championship draws against the eventual All-Ireland champions and, each time, a replay chance gone abegging, sand between their fingers. It's fair to say then that Mayo's recent winters have been tortured.

Holmes's and Connelly's appraisal proved about as diplomatic as a glass bottle flung against a concrete wall in their interview with Breheny and some, undoubtedly, will regard their words as unpalatably harsh for a group that has been so consistently close to crossing the Rubicon.

There is no doubting that those words came freighted with deep personal hurt at the nature of their removal - under threat of strike from the players - in October of last year. Yet it is the specifics of their story that made this a ground-breaking interview.

Most GAA coverage today communicates a sanitised, vacuum-sealed message where, by and large, the only GAA copy we get to read is that directed by PR people who see art in banality and triumph in evasion. The interaction of players and management with the outside world has become filtered down to something so wooden and vacuous, you cease to expect even the flimsiest evidence of independent thinking.

Holmes and Connelly hauled themselves out from under that institutionalised greyness to say the kind of things no management team has ever said about players before.

In doing so, did they break some kind of moral code? Did they corrupt the supposedly sacred understanding that what goes on in a dressing room stays in a dressing room? Maybe so but their candour also reminded us that all that modern po-facedness and thought-control now de rigueur with big GAA teams is bound by a Constitution of zero legal status.

Remember, the essential message of that threatened strike last year was that Holmes and Connelly's management simply could not be reconciled with the professional standards which the Mayo players had long come to demand of themselves.

As Connelly indicated in Saturday's interview: "It really cast aspersions on our reputations. For two or three months, it was a horrible feeling."

The conventional expectation would have been that they accepted that feeling with private stoicism, public equanimity. That they just got on with their own lives and their own worries beyond football.

Yet Holmes and Connelly had things to say and no assumed culture of omerta was going to silence them.

The picture they paint is one that would simply be unimaginable in Dublin or Kerry.

That is one of almost casual insubordination from senior players wielding such inordinate power in the dressing room; they seemed to regard management as some kind of junior department in the Mayo operation.

It is certainly impossible to imagine Jim Gavin fielding calls from players mid-season seeking to participate in a TV documentary, to influence team selection or, worse, complain at not being chosen to start over another player on the basis that they "always started when fit".

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Kerry improved all summer long while keeping their old guard involved and engaged. It was brilliant management of resources by Eamonn Fitzmaurice. Photo: Sportsfile
Kerry boss Eamonn Fitzmaurice

Imagine Eamonn Fitzmaurice's probable demeanour towards a complainant about the pre-match meal before a National League game being put back by 15 minutes because Palm Sunday Mass proved longer than expected.

When some notes on opposition player analysis, drawn up before the drawn game with Dublin last year, got left behind in the team hotel, it was subsequently portrayed to media as some kind of administrative glitch reflecting poorly on management despite it being an individual player who had neglected to take them with him.

The energy invested in petty complaint speaks of a handful of players convinced that they, not Mayo's joint managers, should have wielded the real authority.

And that impression finds breathtaking expression in the players' letter to Mayo County Board on October 1 last year, seeking not just the removal of a management team they claim did not meet their "extremely high standards", but demanding equal weight of influence with the board in appointing a replacement.

Furthermore, the letter stipulates a deadline of 5pm on October 5 for the meeting of their demands to stave off the threatened strike.

Maybe the starkest line reads "the experience and knowledge gained by the players from competing at the highest level in this sport over five years will be an invaluable asset to the county board in selecting a management team".

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Another great Mayo mystery has been the consistent underperformances of Aidan O’Shea in big games’. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Mayo's Aidan O'Shea

Contradicted Remarkably, when Aidan O'Shea was asked in a Newstalk radio interview last November if the squad would seek any input into the appointment of a new manager, his response contradicted the contents of the group's letter. "No, I don't think that's really allowed in the GAA," he said.

At no time, did the players see fit to identify specific reasons for their coup against Holmes and Connelly, not even after the subsequent appointment of an independent mediator.

Most GAA interviews today are just hustle job. Compilations of empty soundbites to be stapled to some commercial message and the all-important photograph. We have become conditioned to accept the superficiality of this arrangement as being in the best interests of all concerned.

Which is why Saturday's excoriating article with the two Mayo men carried such a remarkable efficacy. It called out a group of players like no former management team has ever done before.

And it declared starkly that there might just be a thread of self-harm running through the story of Mayo's relationship with heartache, Holmes's bluntness certainly swinging through the idea of recurring misfortune like a wrecking-ball. "Unless the egos are controlled and outside influences are left outside, it (winning an All-Ireland) won't happen," he says flatly. Three summers running, this group has had one foot on the mountain-top and failed to cross it.

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