At Crossmaglen, Tony McEntee is my boss, but not on Saturday, insists Oisín McConville

Cross purposes: Wicklow manager Oisín McConville. Photo: Sportsfile

Colm Keys

On the Sunday evening of the weekend of round six of the Allianz National Football League, two Division 4 managers had a conversation without an inter-county reference between them.

For two childhood Crossmaglen friends and Rangers team-mates there was different business to discuss. Tony McEntee is the club’s coaching officer, Oisín McConville their U-12 manager. But their words never strayed over into what Wicklow or Sligo had done against Carlow or Wexford 24 hours earlier.

“He’s my boss in Cross,” laughed McConville. “The interaction we’d be having would be about footballs, cones, bibs and pitches! Maybe it’ll be slightly different when we get to Croke Park,” he added, referencing Saturday’s Division 4 decider.

They crossed paths in an earlier league game which Sligo won convincingly but for McConville, it’s still “surreal” to be standing on a sideline down from a man he grew up with and shared so much success with during a dominant spell as Crossmaglen made an indelible mark on the club landscape.

“Go back to six or seven years of age, the two of us and others kicking ball on the square in Cross,” recalled McConville. “It’s a huge novelty for the two of us to be standing on the sideline across from each other, not saying a word.

“Unless we do have a few words! There’s a nice bit of buzz about the town. A bit of slagging.”

McEntee and McConville have both been joint managers of Cross senior teams that have swept through Armagh and Ulster, though in McEntee’s case he went further with back-to-back All-Ireland titles in 2011 and 2012.

His experience of inter-county football is greater too: three years with Stephen Rochford in Mayo and now three years out on his own in Sligo.

For McConville, inter-county management has been a real eye-opener, something he admits he wasn’t fully prepared for.

He describes the last five months as frantic, largely unaware of the investment of time required.

“I had no idea just how much work would actually be involved in running an inter-county team. I have to be perfectly honest,” he said. “I underestimated that. But you learn on your feet and that’s probably why I made those initial mistakes, not being ‘football-ready’ whenever that ball was thrown in in Carlow that night. We were behind the curve.

“We just hadn’t enough done going into those early games and we almost paid the ultimate price for that.

“Anyone who saw Wicklow in the Sligo game (second round) could have thought, ‘Well, there is absolutely no hope of these boys going up’. We then had a break the week after that and we played London and that game at the right time.

“We weren’t all that pretty and we probably should have won it a lot more comfortably than we did but you could definitely see a semblance of something coming together.

“Since then we’ve been very good in how we have gone about things. The lads really dug in when it was likely that promotion was still in our hands.

“There was real change in how our boys went about things. There was no time to sit down and say, ‘Hold on a second’. We might have got one day during the break where we sat down and discussed what was expected and what everyone wanted.

“At that stage we were four weeks into the league. That’s how much we crammed into those last four or five weeks.

“I have to give a lot of praise to the players to take all that on board and run with it in that space of time.

“I don’t have to run about blaming myself now because we did get up in the end. It worked out for us.”

Their big wins came against Laois and Leitrim in the fourth and fifth rounds and, ultimately, it was that head-to-head advantage over Laois that bounced them back up to Division 3 so quickly.

“There is a unique opportunity there because of the age profile of the team. They are extremely young lads and I do have to remind myself of that,” said McConville, who has managed club teams in Monaghan and Meath as well as Dundalk IT since moving on from Crossmaglen.

“We could have convinced ourselves that the best option was to bed in for a year, that it wouldn’t be the worst thing if we didn’t go up.

“But it’s a lot more attractive to players playing in Division 3 than Division 4.

“The fact that we have gone up, that’s great, but we need to make sure we get the maximum out of the rest of the season.”

A Saturday evening league final against Sligo, even with McEntee on the other side, won’t take precedence over a Leinster Championship game against Carlow eight days later, McConville insists.

With injuries they’ll adopt an ‘if in doubt, leave them out’ policy.

For all the frantic nature attached to the schedules, McConville is convinced of one thing – that the players love it.

“They love the fact that they are playing week to week,” he added.

“It’s not ideal if you pick up a couple of knocks but again that’s what we are training 35 lads for, we’re not training 11 ornaments.”