Thanks to Mick O’Dwyer I’m a very positive person. Even in the depths of this pandemic my glass remains half full.
’Dwyer had a unique ability to make all his players walk tall. He had us all convinced we were the best in our positions, bar none. He never spoke about the opposition or stopping their star players. It was all about believing in ourselves and our team-mates.
This positivity comes in handy in the depths of winter in south Kerry when you are confined to a five-kilometre radius of your home.
Every day I think of Seamus Heaney’s famous line: ‘If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.’
I believe that when we emerge from this crisis – and we will – society will be a better place. And we as individuals we will have changed for the better too. Covid-19 has forced us to reset our values, something which was long overdue.
We GAA people can take a lot of positives from how the association adapted to the challenges posed by the pandemic. The split season for inter-county action and club games is a brilliant idea and retaining it is a no-brainer.
Finally, we are focusing on the grass roots and making sure that the club is truly the cornerstone of the GAA.
Best of all, though, has been the drop in the obscene sums of money being wasted on inter-county training.
No topic has exercised me more in recent years.
Why should such a disproportionate amount of a county board’s budget be spent on so few – after all, inter-county players make up about one per cent of the GAA’s total membership?
It was very much a case of the tail wagging the dog with dictatorial team managers spending scarce cash like there was no tomorrow. So how did we get to this sorry mess?
My first experience of inter-county management was when my uncle, Jackie Lyne, trained Kerry to win back-to-back All-Ireland titles in 1969 and 1970.
He wore a golf jacket over his shirt, arrived at training with a bag of balls and got on with the job.
Mick O’Dwyer was a one-man band as well – trainer, coach, psychologist, logistics man, fund-raiser and statistician, all rolled into one.
However, what both O’Dwyer and his Dublin counter-part Kevin Heffernan did differently was to bring a more professional approach to team preparation – particularly in terms of getting players fitter.
As a result of the intense rivalry between Dublin and Kerry during the 1970s the cult of the manager was born in the GAA. No longer was it merely Kerry versus Dublin: it was Heffo’s Heroes and Mick O’Dwyer’s Army.
With the benefit of hindsight, it wasn’t a positive development. Just look at what this cult spawned. First of all, counties tried to emulate Kerry and Dublin by aping their fitness and training regimes.
Unfortunately, most counties overlooked the small issue of skill.
Record numbers of laps were recorded at inter-county training sessions as players turned into a generation of Forrest Gumps. There’s a famous story told about players asking their manager could he vary the training after they had completed countless laps of the field.
Without batting an eyelid, he said they could turn around and run in the opposition direction.
This approach didn’t bring success. Decades later it proved a Godsend for orthopaedic surgeons as many of these players had to have knees and hips replaced. Next up was the cult of the physical education teachers.
Hands up, I’m a qualified PE teacher myself, and I knew most of these teachers who became team managers. Some of them never played Gaelic football and frankly in their college days had shown damn all interest in the GAA. But they had all the buzz words, the terminology and knew the proper name for every muscle.
Best of all, they could organise drills. They left us with the unforgettable double legacy of bibs and cones. The ‘far-away hills are greener’ approach was the next fad, and it persists right up to the present day.
Maybe it was Eugene McGee’s success in managing Offaly to win the All-Ireland in 1982, and stopping Kerry from achieving the five-in-a-row, which popularised the notion that the outside manager is the messiah.
A fair few of these characters were the equivalent of the snake-oil salesmen that operated during the gold rush in California in the 1800s. They traded on false hopes.
Has anybody stopped and checked the record of outside football bosses? Apart from Eugene, the only other ‘outside’ manager to land an All-Ireland was John O’Mahony with Galway.
It’s not a great return given the massive investment.
But, inexplicably, securing outside management is now an accepted part of the GAA landscape, particularly at club level. Before long, the outside manager was bringing a coach and gradually the back-room teams expanded with medical people like masseurs, physiotherapists, a team doctor, and of course my favourite – the psychologist.
True story – one year one of our biggest rivals down here in Templenoe recruited two psychologists.
One worked on relaxation techniques, getting the players to close their eyes and imagine they were walking on the banks of a river on an idyllic summer’s evening.
Meanwhile, his colleague worked on motivating them just before the game. So, his last act was to blast the dressing room with Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ as they raced out on the field.
We hammered them!
By the noughties the GAA was on a slippery slope, thanks in part to the philosophy of English rugby coach Clive Woodward. Ulster coaches noted that Woodward’s analysis-by-paralysis strategy could be transferred to Gaelic football.
This safety-first approach manifested itself in the form of the blanket defence.
Its proponents will point to the results it achieved. Ulster teams won five All-Ireland titles between 2002 and 2012, three to Tyrone, and one each to Armagh and Donegal. However, none of the teams managed to retain the title and such was the quality of the Tyrone players that I’m inclined to think they would have won All-Ireland titles, regardless of what system they deployed.
Armagh underperformed after their debut win in 2002. That was a team that really should have won more than one Sam. And Donegal proved to be a one-trick pony. Opponents quickly learned how to cope with their system.
Thankfully, most counties have abandoned this negative approach. Not so with many clubs who, like North Korea, cling to a failed regime.
Then there were the gimmicks. Every winning team had watched ‘Any Given Sunday’ on the journey from their hotel to Croke Park. It was all about those extra inches. Funny enough, we never heard about the teams who watched Al Pacino’s speech and lost.
Training camps became the norm and before long teams were heading to Spain, Portugal, the Canaries, and New York. No expense was spared. All the while, team managers were building mini empires and introducing new rules.
Closed trained sessions, training at secret venues, banning players from speaking to the media, dummy teams… I could go on. The list is now nearly as big as their back-room teams.
In last year’s All-Ireland final there were 29 named as being part of the Dublin management/ back-room team – whereas Mayo had a mere 18. Titles ranged from Performance Development coach, cameraman, two Performances Consultants and a three-man Analysis team on the Dublin side, to a Values and Behaviours Coach and Player Welfare official with Mayo. The mind boggles.
So, we’ve reached the ludicrous situation where, in some counties, there are more on the back-room management team than on the playing squad. We finally reached breaking point in 2019 when vouched inter-county expenses totalled a jaw-dropping €30m.
Four counties – Tipperary, Mayo, Cork and Galway – spent more than €1.5m. Dublin, Kerry and Limerick spent more than €1m each. Armagh, Roscommon, Donegal, Wexford and Tyrone fell just short of the €1m total.
Only Leitrim, Louth, and Wicklow spent less than €500,000.
The runaway train was heading towards the cliff edge.
Everything changed in 2020. The inter-county season shut down between March and mid-September, and when it resumed Croke Park enforced strict limits on spending.
So, the good news is that there was a 37 per cent drop in inter-county spending last year, with a total of just over €18m. Mind you, some counties have a bit of explaining to do. Cork, for example, didn’t contest either the All-Ireland football or hurling finals at senior level, yet were the biggest spenders with a bill of €1.1m.
All-Ireland hurling champions Limerick were next in the list, spending just over €1m, while Dublin and Galway spent just less than €1m. As mentioned earlier, the cult of the outside manager is still with us. Derry, Antrim, Down, Fermanagh, Louth, Kildare, Offaly, Laois, Carlow, Wicklow, Waterford, Leitrim, and Sligo all have outside bosses this year.
Furthermore, other counties have boosted their back-room team with high-profile personnel – some of whom must travel huge distances.
I fear the GAA hasn’t quite grasped this nettle fully yet. I would urge them to consider the formula floated by Connacht Council GAA boss John Prenty last week.
He suggested that county teams meet three times a week; back-room staff be restricted to 12, match-day panels to 26 and the size of the overall squad to be set at 32.
I would go further and propose that all inter-county expenses must be sanctioned by Croke Park; the length of the pre-season be cut, and outside managers be banned.
The Chinese used two brush strokes to write the word crisis – one stands for danger, the other for opportunity.
The GAA now has a once in a lifetime opportunity to stop the inter-county runaway train. They cannot afford to fail.