THERE are times when the GAA president of the day is handed a hospital pass in the form of a media question – does he chicken out or take the hit? Liam O'Neill tends to take the hit.
On Monday last at a press conference someone asked him about dummy team selections, a sleeked manager strategy in evidence over the opening two rounds of the league. It is not in his nature to give a dishonest answer. Dummy teams raised, he felt, a wider issue: the cult of the manager.
Yes, it was the same O'Neill you heard rhapsodising on the late Kevin Heffernan a few weeks ago, extolling the charisma and force of personality that helped forge a thriving new GAA demographic in Dublin. Heffernan and Mick O'Dwyer were the recognised founders of the GAA manager cult, the original of the species, but it would be glib to accuse O'Neill of wanting it both ways.
He is old school on the manager question and favours some redefinition of the role that would restrain what he sees as an overbearing and unhealthy sway among current county bainisteoirs. Dummy teams are the latest sign of these gentlemen redrawing the constitution, violating old customs and placing added burden on the county committee men who appointed them, whose guiding, if often onerous, principle is to promote the aims and ideals of the Association.
Dummy normally has more endearing connotations, namely the art of duping opponents with a delightful sleight of hand. It is not a routine skill in hurling or football, but an intermittent delight, served up now and then, the more audaciously served up the better. Most coaches would probably counsel against it because it carries risk and panders to the daredevil; if it fails it can render the practitioner and his team decidedly silly and indulgent.
But think of Owen Mulligan in Croke Park in 2005 when he sold a beauty in front of a full house. Who could not be charmed by the trickster act that left in an instant a good many of the Dublin defence obsolete, all perfectly within the rules.
The dummy device in the case of O'Neill's comments at last Monday's press conference is less worthy of acclaim but becoming a good deal more commonplace. The dummy in this instance arises where a manager fools the public, the media, and the opposition by naming a team that is deliberately misleading.
One of those counties the journalists asking the questions might have had in mind may be Cork who have a puzzling fixation with this smoke and mirrors behaviour in team selection. For their match against Kildare last weekend there were three late changes from the team released to the public. All three were relative newcomers who presumably the management were trying to protect. The three who were demoted weren't injured or late withdrawals – all three came on.
In the opening match against Dublin, the league's showpiece introduction to the new season, the league winners of the last three seasons were also out to mislead. Michael Shields, Graham Canty, Alan O'Connor and Ciarán Sheehan had all been due to start, according to the team released, but they were withdrawn prior to the throw-in. Canty, O'Connor and Sheehan were all used as subs.
Why a team with three league titles back to back and an All-Ireland from 2010 would require this element of subterfuge is hard to understand.
Of course, the media has a dog in this fight; it might be termed a vested interest. But it is not difficult to conceive a day when the media will decide to stop publishing team selections, thereby limiting preview coverage of the games, because they can no longer believe what they are being told. This will also have repercussions for broader coverage. Who will be willing to take a punt on, say, Fintan Goold playing and writing a piece on him? The safer bet in these cases will be to veer away from the competition altogether and reduce the emphasis on it. That is not likely to sit well with sponsors, local or national. There are other issues such as match programmes which contain false information and yet are being sold to the public as supposedly reliable guides.
Cork are not alone. In the days before Cork's opening league match, their opponents Dublin announced their team – two of those included didn't start: Declan O'Mahony and Kevin McManamon. In their place were two new players Emmet ó Conghaile and Paul Mannion.
For the Kerry game a week later, they announced one change, Philly Ryan for Mannion in the full-forward line. Newspapers dutifully carried the news. Closer to the match there were rumours of late changes. Those were confirmed with three changes from the advertised team, ó Conghaile not included as named, and Ciarán Reddin getting a first start and Tomás Brady too. Of the three originally named and left off, two came on. Again there appears to have been a policy of guarding new players from advance publicity but Liam O'Neill would argue that this is excessive and seriously undermines the future credibility of the county team announcements.
"It's more of this thing that the manager of the county team is somehow divorced from the county and from the organisation, that they have a right and that they're an entity in themselves," O'Neill stated. "That's because we've built up the cult of the manager and we've allowed the cult of the manager to build. Even in the media, it's now Mick O'Dwyer's Clare. Clare were there for a long time putting out teams.
"Now suddenly it's Mick O'Dwyer's Clare, it's Kieran McGeeney's Kildare. It's Jim Gavin's Dublin. The brand has been there a long time before any of these fellas got in charge of it. We've allowed that to build up."
Managers have infamously trodden on local fixtures, helped by complicit county boards, for many years with championships and league competitions chronically neglected and made play second fiddle. In the 1990s, a county senior football championship was delayed by three months so a suspended county hurler, who also played football, could be eligible to tog. In Meath last year, the minors' progress to the All-Ireland final seriously hampered the local senior championship even though the link between the two was tenuous. Meath's experience is mirrored in many counties.
Two years ago, several managers wrote to RTE looking to challenge their usage of a radio commentator, feeling he was not getting a fair crack of the whip. This was an extraordinary example of managers using their influence beyond the Pale. And their vocal denunciations of various reform packages and disciplinary campaigns are by now almost cliché.
O'Neill has expressed his reservations before about managers and their expanding roles. Interviewed by this newspaper two years ago, he said: "County managers are in charge of the most important brand in a county, the county team. Strong counties don't have to have managers that are bigger than the county boards; this comes from the tiers below that, who have a county chairman who has only five years and wants to achieve something.
"So they take in the big manager, import him in, and once you do that you then become his slave. Because in your five-year term you can't fall out with him and be the one who lost the manager. So you are at that disadvantage the whole time. The balance of power shifts."
At last Monday's press conference, O'Neill touched on the same area. "I would prefer to see a situation where we change the notion of team manager, that the county board would appoint a manager as happens in other codes and you have a 'team manager' and the fella with the name is the coach.
"Then we could have a situation where you could say to the county board, 'your nominee is the manager, he's the person for making sure the team is announced'. At the moment we haven't tackled that issue. We've allowed the cult of the manager to build up to a stage where they're almost independent agents."
That might seem far-fetched and somewhat idealistic but he is not a maverick voice. "Certainly in some counties, yes, managers have too much power," said the GAA's director-general Páraic Duffy when preparing a report on illegal payments to managers. "They dictate club fixtures, put pressure on weak county administrators, call matches off and there are managers who clearly are being paid. Those abuses are there and we have to deal with them . . . I wouldn't want to get the impression that I'm targeting all managers. But yes there is a problem in some counties where the manager has too much power."
The selection of dummy teams isn't a major issue in itself; it is a further demonstration of managers flexing their muscle, not appearing bothered by the wider implications. Whether county chairmen will flex their muscle in turn and demand more honesty remains to be seen.
In the meantime, those following the games will be treating team announcements with growing scepticism.