Friday 20 April 2018

New men on same mission

Football's latest crop of managers begin their new jobs with contrasting pressures, writes Damian Lawlor

The inter-county football season starts back this weekend and against a backdrop of diminishing team budgets and emigration, seven new managers take to the sidelines today.

The commencement of the FBD League and McGrath, Dr McKenna and O'Byrne Cups sees Fermanagh, Galway, Leitrim (two managers), Roscommon, Wicklow and Offaly all have new regimes, but recent trends suggest this year's batch of newcomers should enjoy the opportunity while they can.

"I genuinely wish them luck," says one current long-serving manager. "With such massive pressure for immediate results one of them could be out of a job by the season's fall. One injury to a key lad, a ropey start to the league or a poor championship run can terminate a job almost as quickly as it started; we saw that in Fermanagh last year. It's crazy."

Leitrim's new joint-managers Brian Breen and George Dugdale won't be used to such scrutiny but will be acutely aware of the consequences if they succumb to London in the championship next June.

With numbers depleted and supply low, it was a brave call from the pair, who had a role in the 1994 Connacht title-winning set-up, to take the job from Mickey Moran for the next two years. They know it won't be an easy ride -- half the panel is based in Dublin; others are studying in Galway with only a third remaining at home.

"We're also losing players at the moment, while London seem to be gaining them," Breen says. "We're already down nine players from last year's championship because of emigration and work commitments."

Apart from seeing how the joint-management axis fares, though the signs are encouraging, Breen and Dugdale must also formulate a new defence as four of the six backs from 2011 have departed for Australia.

Their FBD campaign starts in Ballyhaunis this afternoon against Mayo but the initial focus will be on a solid Division 4 campaign to prepare for the burgeoning London challenge in Ruislip on June 3. With Mayo coming so close to losing across the water last summer, a shock is definitely on the cards so there will be no honeymoon period for the new men. Resources are scarce and the county board remain heavily reliant on supporters' clubs. Playing numbers remain low, with traditionally only around 50 players in the entire county being realistic prospects for the senior team.

Surprisingly, though, the outlook is a lot brighter in Fermanagh, a county that was ravaged by civil war last season as John O'Neill survived just one campaign. His replacement, Peter Canavan, the most high-profile of this year's managerial inductees, takes charge against Antrim in the McKenna Cup this afternoon in a gig that could be an ideal start to his inter-county career.

Some day, he'll want the Tyrone job and having already cut his teeth with home club Errigal Ciarán he now takes a team little is expected of. The 2011 internal dispute ultimately saw 11 players quit and O'Neill replaced and under Canavan they remain rank outsiders for progress, rated at an outside 40/1 to land a provincial title this season. Yet, their first target, escaping Division 4, looks achievable -- if they beat London, Clare and Kilkenny in the first three games, they are half-way there.

Who knows what shape Down, with the likes of Martin Clarke missing, will be in when they meet Fermanagh in the championship? The victors then face either Monaghan or Antrim in the next round, another winnable fixture.

Canavan has included key players who refused to play under his predecessor. Shane Lyons, James Sherry Niall Bogue, Mark Little, Liam Lynch and Seamus Quigley are all back. Other defectors are either injured or have emigrated. Ryan McCluskey, meanwhile, has abandoned his soccer career with Dungannon Swifts to rejoin Canavan's squad and has been rewarded with the captain's armband.

While Canavan's name was nailed down from the start in Fermanagh, the same could not be said for Gerry Cooney in Offaly. A two-time All-Ireland winner with Meath, Cooney was eventually appointed manager of the Faithful County after a convoluted three-month process.

They play Westmeath in the O'Byrne Cup today, but for all the playing and coaching landmarks in his career, he was only installed after initially walking away from the protracted saga which followed Tom Cribbin's resignation last July.

The delay in replacing him provoked serious frustration, especially among members of the panel.

"There were great Offaly men looking for the job as well as a good Dublin man," said Ciarán McManus who retired partly due to the delay in making a new appointment. "It's disappointing that Stephen Darby and Tom Coffey in particular didn't get a chance early on and I'm disappointed for them. That just added to it, it was part of my decision to retire."

As well as McManus, Karol Slattery also quit while marquee forward Niall McNamee is still mulling over his future after becoming dismayed with the mess in replacing Cribbin.

It upset Cooney too, but he was coaxed back into contention. An intriguing character, he reached the top as a footballer and later worked as an addiction counsellor before buying a farm in Namibia. He could do well here, possessing a deep knowledge of the club scene and acting as selector in 2006, when Offaly last reached a Leinster final. Despite all the baggage, he reports he is happy with players' attitudes.

The county board suffered a deficit of €70,000 in 2011 so team budgets will be tight. Outside the boardroom there's a pretty daunting summer date with Kildare looming on June 16.

Thus, the league has to be the priority but with a new-look and experimental team Division 3 could be an exceptionally tough learning ground. Offaly face Longford, Roscommon and Antrim in the opening exchanges with 13 of the squad that faced Limerick absent. Scott Brady has been left aside, while Thomas Deehan, Brian Connor and John Reynolds are all unavailable. Kilmacud's Brian Hanamy has recently joined under the parentage rule.

Morale in Wicklow looks to be higher. Within a year the county board has turned an €185,000 deficit into a €9,000 surplus and are now focusing on life after Mick O'Dwyer.

Lately, we've seen a trend of 30-something managers, dynamic figures like Jason Ryan, Jim McGuinness, Kieran McGeeney and Glenn Ryan, increase their stock in the game but Wicklow have demonstrated there is still room for the experienced clubman. Harry Murphy starts out his tenure against DCU today after delivering seven county titles in 11 years for Rathnew.

Replacing O'Dwyer is intimidating, but Murphy knows players in the county inside out and held trials before the start of October. He has big shoes to fill but isn't fearful.

"You'd be wasting your time trying to compete with somebody like Micko and what he has achieved," he said. "It's up to me to put my own stamp on the team now and try to make further progress."

Promotion from Division 4 is the target. For all Micko's good work, the league was never a priority but Wicklow could do with climbing a tier now. Like Murphy, Galway's new leader, Alan Mulholland, has also had time to get used to his position. After delivering All-Ireland minor and under 21 titles for the county, the Salthill-Knocknacarra boss has raised the bar for himself, but he must be given time.

There hasn't been much talk of a senior football All-Ireland out west for a number of years, but Mulholland's pedigree is rich. His regime got off to a winning start as they beat Sligo IT in the FBD League on Wednesday night and, interestingly, only four members of the Galway team that started July's All-Ireland qualifier loss to Meath were present.

Mulholland has so many young players, about 40 in total, to consider that he must now use the FBD and National League competitions to analyse his resources. Until last week, separate groups worked in Tuam and Galway city but until Wednesday their field time was zero.

Galway will most likely have to beat Roscommon and Sligo to see Connacht final action but a new team, peppered with pace and young talent, will be formidable.

Roscommon, too, are blessed with youth, but apart from the anticipation that brings, their new boss Des Newton has the added weight of replacing Fergie O'Donnell. However, he wanted the job and with St Brigid's prominence allied to the Connacht title-winning senior and under 21 sides of 2010, there is hope. A Dublin-based school principal, he worked with Paddy Carr at Kilmacud last year. He won an All-Ireland under 21 and two Connacht titles as a player and needs a bright start to help meet expectation levels.

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