Tuesday 20 February 2018

Big-name bosses find themselves in the line of fire

Pressure mounting on 10 high-profile managers as stakes rise ahead of Championship throw-in

After an excellent start to his reign, Anthony Cunningham now finds himself under pressure
as Galway boss
After an excellent start to his reign, Anthony Cunningham now finds himself under pressure as Galway boss
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The round-robin section of the Leinster hurling championship is already in its second round, but in terms of dramatic provincial knock-out action, this weekend is the calm before the storm, which is set to hit the GAA's shores next Saturday.

By 6pm tomorrow week, one Ulster and three Leinster counties will have been blown out of the provincial football championships, and left depending on the qualifiers for survival in the All-Ireland race.

It's a tense, exciting time for players but at least they can rely on the squad ethic to sustain them, whereas managers are essentially on their own.

They are all surrounded by large support networks nowadays, but ultimately responsibility rests with them to have everything in order.

It's an attritional business, as demonstrated last year when the football championship was followed by a managerial turnaround of 15, the highest in many years.

Hurling was much more stable, with Ger Cunningham replacing Anthony Daly in Dublin as the only change among the top counties.

Does that mean that there will be wholesale changes this year?

Only time will tell how many casualties 2015 will bring. However, whether the season leads to few or many changes, there's no doubt than there are varying degrees of pressure on managers this season.

Here's the top 10 in the stress stakes:

1. Anthony Cunningham (Galway)

Who would have thought in 2012 when Galway demolished Kilkenny in the Leinster final and later drew with them in the All-Ireland final that by the start of 2015 championship, maroon-and-white stock would have lost so much of its value?

Galway find themselves seventh favourites to win the All-Ireland, having endured two miserable summers where their only wins were against Laois, both after very tough struggles.

Whether justified or not, the failure to build on the 2012 surge turns the attention on Cunningham. Now in his fourth season, he needs get something out of this season.

The Leinster opener against Dublin on May 31 is crucial. A defeat there could deplete confidence reserve to dangerous levels.

2. Mickey Harte (Tyrone)

It might seem daft to suggest that a man who presided over three All-Ireland senior title wins in six seasons in a county which never previously landed the big prize is under pressure, but time moves on and so do expectations.

Tyrone's relegation from Division 1 last month isn't a major issue in the overall scheme, but if they were to lose to Donegal tomorrow week and run aground early in the qualifiers, it would leave Harte in an uncomfortable position he hasn't experienced since taking over in late 2002.

The successful U-21 management, led by Feargal Logan and Peter Canavan, look like obvious replacements if a vacancy arose. Whatever happens, Harte deserves to be allowed make his own decision. He has earned that right.

Of course, if Tyrone beat Donegal, the season could take off for them.

After all, Tyrone beat Mayo, drew with Kerry and Dublin and lost to Cork by a point, so they are not as far off the frontline as some would have you believe, even if they took only one point from three outings against Ulster rivals Monaghan, Derry and Donegal.

3. Eamon O'Shea (Tipperary)

The succession stakes are already settled, with Michael Ryan replacing O'Shea at the end of the season.

That was decided last autumn and is designed to complete a smooth changeover, with Ryan, who has worked with O'Shea and Paudie O'Neill since the start of 2013, slotting into the No 1 seat.

O'Shea isn't one to regard management as real pressure, compared to the demands of others aspects of life. Nonetheless, every manager has an ego, indulged only by winning.

Tipperary have competed for seven titles (two All-Ireland, two Munster, three Allianz League) under O'Shea, winning none.

There have been close calls but, in many ways, that only makes it more disappointing. Nothing less than an All-Ireland win will make O'Shea's tenure successful.

4. Noel Connelly/Pat Holmes (Mayo)

Under pressure in their first season? Surely not. Actually, yes.

And very much so. Having won four successive Connacht titles and reached two All-Ireland finals in the last four seasons, leading the team to the ultimate glory is the only way any Mayo management will be deemed successful.

Connelly and Holmes weren't brought in to rebuild the squad, but rather to provide the finishing touches that would facilitate a visit from Sam Maguire for the first time since 1951.

Their first season may present the best opportunity to achieve that because if Mayo were to replicate the close calls of the past few seasons or - even more ominously - slip back, a significant rebuilding job would be required.

5. Jimmy Barry-Murphy (Cork)

In fairness to Cork, they give their managers every chance and don't react to setbacks as if they are automatically down to the manager.

Given the highly competitive state of hurling at present, one Munster title win, an All-Ireland final defeat in a replay and three semi-final appearances is fairly consistent at the mid-point of the fourth season under JBM, but Cork have also had some dismal days (2012 and 2015 League finals, 2014 All-Ireland semi-final) which don't quite tally with the county's pedigree.

The listless performance against Waterford last Sunday was particularly worrying for Cork, which makes the re-match in the Munster semi-final on June 7 so crucial to their season.

A win would restore them as genuine All-Ireland contenders, but defeat could wreck their campaign.

It really is that important to the squad and to JBM's managerial rating in his second coming.

6. Jason Ryan (Kildare)

It's simple really. If Kildare have a bad championship, it's unlikely Ryan will attempt to remain on. Kildare's demotion from Division 1 to 3 in successive seasons leaves him with little wriggle room, even if they were unlucky on both occasions.

If Kildare beat Laois or Carlow in their Leinster quarter-final, they are likely to face Dublin in the semi-final so it seems certain that the best they can hope for is to enter the qualifiers in Round 2. They have a good qualifier record and will need to maintain it if they are not to be in the market for a new manager later on.

7. Brian Cuthbert (Cork)

Topping Division 1 in successive seasons looks impressive but, unfortunately for Cork, both were followed by collapses against Dublin, the second coming in a dismally poor performance in the League final two weeks ago.

And then there was the wipe-out by Kerry last July, a setback which hit at the heart of what the new Cork set-up was all about. The big challenge for Cuthbert this summer is to restore stability.

A win over Kerry in Munster would eradicate most of the bad memories. However, another heavy defeat - either against Kerry or later on - has to be avoided all costs.

8. Brian McIver (Derry)

When Derry reached the Division 1 League final 13 months ago, their upward graph seemed sustainable. It didn't turn out like that.

They were relegated last month and are heading into the championship with bad memories from last year when they were eliminated from the qualifiers by Longford.

Derry will need to be a whole lot more stable this year - otherwise McIver's reign could come under question.

9. Tomas O FlaTharta (Laois)

Laois turned their League campaign around just when it looked as if they were headed for relegation to Division 3 and eventually survived ahead of Kildare and Westmeath, both of whom beat them.

However, the manager is still under scrutiny and will be judged on how his side fare this summer. A short campaign could mean the end of his tenure.

10. Davy Fitzgerald (Clare)

How can a man who led his county to an All-Ireland title in 2013 be under intense scrutiny?

Answer: expectations are so high in Clare now that anything less than another All-Ireland win will be seen as a failure by supporters. In fairness, that's how Fitzgerald sees it too.

But then, pressure has always brought out the best in him, both as a player and manager. That will stand to him again this year.

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