Friday 15 November 2019

Revolutions on the sidelines

The increased power of managers has put them on a collision course with the GAA, writes Damian Lawlor

L AST Sunday, following a win over Laois, Kieran McGeeney rejected suggestions that he was responsible for the resignation of Kildare county chairman Pádraig Ashe because of a clash over club fixtures.

Ashe cited personal reasons as the basis for his departure, but speculation swept through the county that the pair clashed over domestic schedules. It prompted a strong rebuff from McGeeney.

"Next thing I'll be blamed for The Famine, Fianna Fáil . . . If anything goes wrong anywhere it's all 'McGeeney did this'," he said. "People like to make things out that county managers are the most important and most powerful people. We don't get a vote on anything. To me, Pádraig Ashe worked very hard at his job and should be given space. He obviously had different reasons for quitting. He said there were personal reasons and I think everyone should respect that."

While there is confusion about the manner of Ashe's exit, it still can be said that confrontations exist across the country behind administrators and managers, and it's not always the latter who survive.

Last year, Eamonn O'Brien delivered a Leinster title for Meath but was let go, the Galway football board wouldn't allow Joe Kernan re-appoint his entire backroom team and so he walked. The Monaghan board wanted Seamus McEnaney to interview for a job he'd held for six years, while Seán Dempsey was cut loose in Laois. These managers -- and more -- left their roles under varying circumstances last season, highlighting the many complexities that currently define managerial and county board relationships.

The scrutiny attached to managers these days is intense. Paul Caffrey, former Dublin manager, made that point recently, reminding people that he had not signed a contract with the county board and that journalists were not comparing like with like when they critiqued GAA bosses. "I think anyone who is stepping into management has to have a thick neck and if you're not prepared for the criticism then you need to find something else to do," he said.

And yet, despite the obvious drawbacks and intense levels of scrutiny, there's a keen sense that the inter-county manager's clout is actually growing. In fact, last year Pat Spillane argued that the increased media coverage only strengthened managers' bargaining power.

"I think that the cult of the manager has taken over in recent years and managers have been given too much power and prestige to be honest," he said. "If the manager wants no club matches for four weeks he gets it and if he wants a foreign training camp, he gets it. Things like media bans are more to do with keeping the manager happy rather than protecting the players," he said.

Down through the years, the county board chairman or secretary ran the show, kept club games flowing and held a tight rein on finances but in recent times the job specification of a manager has radically changed the chain of command.

Over the past decade management has essentially developed into a full-time job. Appointing outside managers is in vogue and can lead to a very attractive financial package for the recipients. Former Offaly manager Eugene McGee recently estimated that €20m per year is paid to managers.

The reality now is that managers exert influence in all sorts of ways. One in three ignore the winter training ban; many try to freeze club fixtures for their own benefit; the cost of their burgeoning backroom teams strips county boards of money that could be spent in games development, and so on. This year, 18 out of the 32 counties in the football championship will be managed by outsiders and nine non-natives are in charge of the 14 Liam McCarthy teams. The outlay will be massive.

"Certainly in some counties, yes, managers have too much power," says the GAA's director-general Páraic Duffy. "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."

Duffy's views on this subject are well known and despite the fact that he has prepared a report on the issue, it appears the administration won't be rushed into rattling managers' cages on this issue, possibly because they know how murky the waters will be. "Firstly, I want to make this important point about managers," Duffy says. "I don't want to be seen to be manager bashing. There are some really good managers out there who sit down with their county boards in terms of training, expenditure, fixtures -- there are some very enlightened managers. I don't want to just paint a wide brush and say 'all managers are this . . .' Because they're not.

"But I wouldn't want to get the impression that I'm targeting all managers. For example in Monaghan, between the Cork league game and the Down league game, Monaghan played a whole round of club league fixtures. As it turned out, Eamonn McEneaney lost Gavin Doogan to injury. But yes there is a problem in some counties where the manager has too much power."

But why let momentum on his report slide just because others on the Management Committee don't share his opinion on under the counter payments?

"I don't think that's fair to say," he says. "We wouldn't all be of one mind, which is normal, and I'm sure different people have different opinions, but my responsibility was simply to produce a discussion paper and I have done that. It was up to them to look at it then.

"Of course I'd have hoped that there'd be more progress," he admits. "It's a difficult one. I wouldn't say it's an attractive issue, but it can be addressed. The trick is to get consensus going forward and I accept that, to date, we've made no obvious progress."

And yet the issue won't go away. With the Revenue Commissioners expected to crack down on cash businesses this year, the spotlight's glare will burn even brighter. (In their defence, most managers can probably demonstrate to the tax man that it can cost them up to €35,000 a year to train a team, especially those who travel great distances to prepare their squad.)

Overall, though, the best road to transparency is to consider Con Hogan's recommendation that super coaches be allowed. Last year, the Tipperary board sought to employ current manager John Evans as a full-time director of football but Croke Park objected. Allowing the appointment would have streamlined the board's affairs and the template could then have been rolled out to other counties.

As it stands right now, though, another season of confrontations appears inevitable until leadership at all levels is shown. As Duffy notes: "We still need strong leadership from county officers in defending the rights of clubs and confronting county managers who are unreasonable in their demands to have first call on players for inter-county panels."

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