Peace blueprint is the best way to prevent player revolt
The bitter experiences of recent years shows players need a say in picking managers, writes Damian Lawlor
T HE call in October 2008 took John Meyler by surprise. He had been in charge of the Wexford hurlers for two years and thought things were going well.
Despite a couple of trimmings by Kilkenny, he had brought a bit of stability to the team. He could see that steady progress was being made -- reaching the All-Ireland semi-finals in 2007 and the quarter-finals a year later, when they were unlucky to lose to Waterford.
But it took just one phone call to show how much his tenure counted for. The message was blunt: the squad had met and they wanted change. Meyler, a lecturer in Strategy at Cork Institute of Technology, is usually the first to spot a curveball but he never saw this one coming.
"It was quite simple. I got a call from the Wexford chairman saying that I was not wanted by the players-- that 26 out of 28 of them wanted me gone," he recalls. "Immediately I said, 'what's the point in staying, so?' I turned my car around and drove home. Trying to stay on with them was not going to achieve anything. Deep down I knew what was happening to me wasn't right but there was no point in staying on.
"In the weeks beforehand, there were one or two little murmurs from the lads but nothing major. I spoke with them after we were beaten by Waterford and they said I should have done one or two things, this and that, but I still had no inkling. I thought we were on track; that if we improved by another couple of per cent it would have made a huge difference. I'm not one to run away but when it turns on you like that there's no other choice but to leave. When you're not pulling with the players, you're wasting your time."
With the exception of Richie Connor's departure from Offaly last year, very few have taken the approach of 'go if you're not wanted'. In fact, there has been much bloodletting in other counties where such episodes have escalated out of control.
Gerald McCarthy's dispute with the Cork hurlers was as nasty as it was protracted, Mike McNamara's relationship with the Clare players deteriorated to a huge extent before he left. Meanwhile, Justin McCarthy continues to tough it out in Limerick although only one outcome looks inevitable there.
Last week, Munster Council CEO Pat Fitzgerald described the trend of teams revolting as "disturbing".
"We would now hope that with the national agreement between the GAA and the GPA these issues will become less frequent. I personally support this agreement," Fitzgerald said in his annual report. "However, I must make a few clear points. I respect any player who wishes to remove themselves from their respective inter-county panel. However, I believe the terms 'strike or picket' have no place in the GAA vocabulary. Players who leave their inter-county career should respect others' viewpoints as they expect others to respect theirs. We must be more proactive with our players at inter-county level; the day of expecting players to play and shut their mouths are over and rightly so."
In the past, there have been sporadic fallings-out with teams and managers like Babs Keating and Offaly, but the craze of hurlers and footballers calling time on managerial reigns has only been seriously mounting in recent years.
Take the 2008 season. By the time July unfolded, eight inter-county managers had already walked away from their jobs following difficulties with players. In the past two years, the number of high-profile bosses to endure a squad stand-off has been unprecedented. But that rate of attrition will only continue until some mechanism is devised to deal with these disputes.
The GPA will sit down with the GAA in the next few weeks to conclude their formal recognition agreement. In the process they'll try to identify a template to stop player-led rebellions.
Two weeks ago, Croke Park officials refused to get involved in mediation with the Limerick players and county board because they felt the only way to solve the issue was removing Justin McCarthy. They don't want to be known as managerial grim reapers in future disputes, hence the negotiations with the GPA to try to produce a charter to prevent these strikes.
"We are going to take our time over this issue," said GPA spokesperson Sean Potts. "It needs to be cast-iron and it's not something we're going to rush into, only for people to find holes in it and ignore it. The bottom line is that we feel prevention is better than cure. So the charter or template we come up with will be designed to stop these disputes occurring before they do. If that means letting former players have a say on the selection process of a new manager in tandem with county board officers, so be it.
"The GPA wants to stop the rising number of player-driven disputes that are arising in counties because it doesn't look good for anyone involved in Gaelic games. That means coming up with a template that has to be obeyed -- there's no point in having a mechanism where a strike breaks out if there's a dispute or two.
"Players are aware of the growing importance of their rules and of their rights too, so we need to nip all their issues in the bud before things are let fester and a strike breaks out. The key to this new template will be constant communication between all parties. Another aspect will be to make sure all parties are on the same wavelength before a manager is appointed. We have to ensure that county boards don't appoint a manager on the basis of low costs and at the same time ensure that players don't have a gripe about a certain guy just because they're not getting game time or they're close to the end of their careers."
Meyler agrees that nipping things in the bud is the way forward but is not sure if players will adhere to this new system when it eventually occurs. Players looking at themselves in the mirror is not a frequent occurrence, he feels.
"When I was getting some feedback from the Wexford lads after my last season, they said I should have done this and that but eventually I said: 'Lads, you have to look at yourselves too'. When I was over the team I would find myself up at home watching videos until 4.0 in the morning and blaming myself for losing a game. But players don't really look at themselves in the mirror and that's not right either."
Now in charge of Kerry, he's taken a few lessons from the Wexford experience. "The only way forward in all of this is for three board officers to meet with three or four senior players, guys who have been there for four or five years, and let them thrash it out with the county board in September when it comes to appointing a new manager. Don't leave it until January anyway because it's too late.
"I hate to see what's happening and it seems to be mostly in hurling counties. Christ, we need teams to put it up to Kilkenny but Limerick are one county less for them to tackle this year and sure Cork were one county less last year. In going on strike those two counties more or less told Kilkenny to go away and have the title again, that they would make it a little easier for them."
Meyler feels inter-county panels are looking at the likes of Kilkenny, Tyrone and Kerry because they're model counties, the trailblazers. They compare and they're not happy. So they revolt. "From what I see, there are two types -- a revolt with a cause and then you have a revolt led by fellows who are hitting the 30 mark and know the manager might be on the verge of getting rid of them. They are just hanging on, trying to get another few years out of it. Either way, the only route out is for the senior players to sit down with the county board before they appoint a new manager and take ownership of the situation. In Kerry, I meet with a few of the senior players as often as I can to make sure we're all on the same wavelength.
"And you can't go cracking the heavy hand anymore. One of our guys played against Derry last Sunday. We came home from there and he was working all Monday night and only finished on Tuesday morning at 2.0am. You can't expect miracles from these lads with the work situation the way it is. Years ago you might have been able to show lads the door for not coming training but we have to understand that jobs are really precious now."
Interestingly, the Wexford native, whose son David is making a name for himself at Premier League side Sunderland, feels that it's not just a manager's head that is on the line these days.
"People expect you to bring a state-of-the-art backroom team with you now because it's happening in other counties. The backroom team is almost more important than the manager now."
That may be so. But there's still only one head that faces the chop when things go wrong. So the quicker the GPA and GAA identify ways to stamp out these revolts, the better.