Sunday 24 March 2019

Holmes/Connelly on Mayo revolt: Aidan O'Shea's selection email, Seamus lobbying for Hennelly and clashes over mass times

Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly, (inset top) Mayo line up before 2015 semi-final clash with Dublin and (inset below) Aidan O'Shea after defeat to Dublin this year
Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly, (inset top) Mayo line up before 2015 semi-final clash with Dublin and (inset below) Aidan O'Shea after defeat to Dublin this year
Connelly and Holmes break their silence 14 months after the player heave that left them bewildered and ‘cast aspersions on our reputations’. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Croke Park: Saturday, September 5, 2015, 6.04pm

Lee Keegan gallops towards Dublin's 20-metre line, odds shortening all the time on one of the highest-scoring half-backs of his generation hoisting another point. He lines up his kick but this time the connection is faulty and the ball drops gently into Stephen Cluxton's hands.

The Mayo team stand together before the drawn 2015 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. Picture credit: Dáire Brennan / SPORTSFILE
The Mayo team stand together before the drawn 2015 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. Picture credit: Dáire Brennan / SPORTSFILE

Mayo's chance to open up a five-point lead in the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Dublin has passed. Nonetheless, they are in a very good position and remain so for the next 10 minutes, by which stage they still lead by four points heading into the final quarter.

Having hit an unanswered 1-4 in the final 10 minutes of the drawn encounter, it means that they have outscored Dublin by 2-16 to 0-11 over the previous 63 minutes of both games.

Surely, this time, Mayo will complete the task and book a place against Kerry in the final. No, they won't. Dublin hit them for 3-4 in the final quarter, countered by a mere two points as Mayo's resistance crumbles.

In the space of 17 minutes all had changed utterly for Mayo, their season's ambitions wrecked by that inexplicable implosion. As supporters left Croke Park, mulling over the misery of yet another failed campaign, they had no idea of the drama that was about to unfold.

The majority of Mayo players remained in Dublin that night and, as the inquest continued, a heave against the Pat Holmes/Noel Connelly management team was first mooted by a few players.

And so began one of the most controversial periods in Mayo football history as the attempt to force a change of management gathered momentum. The point of no return was reached on October 1 when the squad delivered a letter to the Mayo County Board, demanding the removal of Holmes/Connelly after just one season in charge.

The squad offered no reasons for their hardline stance, but were already reaching for the nuclear button by threatening to strike if management weren't removed and they weren't given 'adequate input' into the appointment of a successor.

Holmes/Connelly, who had been appointed on a three-year term after James Horan stood down following the 2014 semi-final replay defeat by Kerry, resigned on the following day, announcing their decision to the Mayo executive "with heavy hearts".

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1 October 2016; Mayo manager Stephen Rochford and Dublin manager Jim Gavin shake hands following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Stephen Rochford (above with Jim Gavin) replaced them on November 30.

Other than their brief resignation statement, the ex-managers have made no public comment on the affair until now.

Holmes and Connelly are acutely aware that their decision to do this interview will be queried and various motivations attached.

Why do it and why now, more than 14 months after their departure?

"We're doing it because we sincerely believe it's in the best interests of Mayo football. Also, Mayo football people deserve to know the complete story. Mayo have been in ten All-Ireland finals since 1989 and won none. That won't change until attitudes change," says Holmes.

"If some egos aren't checked and outside influences curbed, the problems will continue.

"Players have got to concentrate on playing football and being as ruthless as it takes to win.

"They've got to allow management to manage and keep outside influences away. If they don't, it's unlikely they will be successful.

"In time, memories of the trips abroad and all the other perks will fade and it won't matter how many Twitter followers you had during your playing days. The only question that counts for players on top teams is: have you All-Ireland medals? As of now, no Mayo player since 1951 can answer 'yes' to that."

Egos?

"We're talking about a small number within the panel. The rest are fantastic and there are fine young players coming along but the danger is that they will be held to ransom by a few inside and outside the group," says Holmes.

Connelly adds: "If a small group within the squad are allowed to dictate the way they tried to when we were there, it's not good for Mayo football.

"If that situation is still there, the likelihood is that they will win nothing. That's the bottom line as we see it.

"In our days playing for Mayo, we wouldn't have stood for a small group calling the shots or having all the say. They would have been told fairly quickly where to go.

"As for speaking out now rather than any other time, we didn't do it during the year because we didn't want to impact in any way on Mayo's chances of winning the All-Ireland. Now that it hasn't happened, we think it's time to speak out."

Holmes/Connelly took over at a time when Mayo had won four successive Connacht titles, reached two All-Ireland finals and five semi-finals (including one replay) under Horan.

They knew that replacing a manager with whom the players were very familiar would present its own challenges but they were also very excited about the possibilities opening up in front of them.

And it wasn't as if they were new to inter-county management. Holmes managed Mayo in 2000-'02, during which they won an Allianz League title, which remains the county's only national senior title since a similar success in 1970.

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Keith Higgins of Mayo dejected after the match. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo's Keith Higgins after defeat to Dublin

He and Connelly were joint-managers when Mayo won the 2006 All-Ireland U-21 title with a team that included Keith Higgins, Seamus O'Shea, Barry Moran, Colm Boyle, Tom Cunniffe, Ger Cafferkey, Chris Barrett, Michael Conroy and Enda Varley.

The new management's approach was based on the philosophy that if Mayo hadn't won an All-Ireland title over the previous 64 years, it was unlikely to change unless some adjustments were made.

"We felt it was time to wipe the slate clean and move on from hard luck stories like refereeing decisions, injuries, the curse, the venue, the media, etc.

"We wanted to remove all excuses, stand on our own feet and go out and win the All-Ireland. The best team wins the All-Ireland so if you don't win, you're not the best.

"This Mayo squad is often lauded for being 'consistently competitive' but 'consistently competitive' doesn't cut it in Dublin or Kerry.

"If Mayo want to be considered in the same league, they must measure success in the same way, which is with the number of All-Ireland medals won.

"If they want to be different than Mayo players who have represented the county since 1951 and won Connacht medals, then they must take the next step."

Before the start of the 2015 championship, Holmes and Connelly met senior members of the squad to get their perspective on why they believed that they had failed to win the All-Ireland in previous attempts.

"They told us that tactics and match-ups were wrong, opposition analysis was poor, there was a lack of adaptability and they had no defensive plan. They also highlighted some errors for goals and also occasions when they had turned over the ball too easily.

"Apart from the last two points, the losses were attributed to factors outside their control."

Management felt that the squad needed to be more ruthless, referencing the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final replay with Kerry as an example of how Mayo were browbeaten into submission.

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Mayo’s Andy Moran in action against Kerry trio Marc O Se, Declan O’Sullivan and Pa Kilkenny during last year’s epic All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay
Kerry and Mayo in action in 2014

"Kerry bullied Mayo in the Gaelic Grounds that day. They went out to win whatever way they had to," says Connelly.

"Even some of the Kerry players who you wouldn't normally regard as being particularly aggressive had an edge to them. Mayo didn't stand up to them as much as they should have.

"It was a point we made to the squad from the start. You can't allow yourself to be bullied, like what happened that day."

Holmes/Connelly say that most of the squad bought into the philosophy that without some changes being made, the chances were that Mayo's All-Ireland drought would continue. However, some didn't.

"A few players took exception. They seemed to have a problem with the message we were giving," says Holmes.

They recall how one player stood up at a meeting a few months into 2015 and said, "These fellas don't think we're good enough", which elicited a response from another: "Sure if we were, we'd have All-Ireland medals by now".

At another stage, management enlisted the expertise of psychologist Des Jennings, who had been involved with Armagh when they won the 2002 All-Ireland title. He too said that Mayo weren't ruthless enough, an assessment which later drew a comment from a player that he had a "serious problem with anyone coming in from outside the county and saying that".

Following their appointment, Holmes/Connelly received a message from Dublin-based Noel Howley, who had long been associated with Mayo supporters' groups and who had also been involved in much of the organisational logistics during the Horan era. He told the new management that he would undertake any job, big or small.

However, they could not come to an agreement and a parting of the ways followed.

A new logistics operation was put in place, which management were entirely happy with right throughout the year.

There was also a slight tweak to the medical team when one member opted out after a difference of opinion about his responsibilities. Management wanted him to stay but he chose to leave and was replaced by a chartered physiotherapist.

Shortly afterwards, management were approached by three players, who said they wanted the departed medic to return. They were informed that he had left of his own volition.

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Connelly and Holmes break their silence 14 months after the player heave that left them bewildered and ‘cast aspersions on our reputations’. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Connelly and Holmes

"We were told, 'You'll have to reinstate him'," reveals Holmes. "We said: 'How can we - he walked away - it was his choice'. We were then told that we would have to adhere to his demands, to which there could be only one reply: 'It doesn't work like that.'

"A small minority of players hit on our medical team as much as they could after that."

A third chartered physiotherapist was brought in later on. Her feedback was so positive about the other two that she felt she wasn't even required.

Holmes/Connelly believe that the change in the logistics operation discommoded a few players that were used to the cosy relationship to a degree where the pettiest of issues were seized upon.

Complaints were raised over the timing of a pre-match meal prior to a league game against Cork in Páirc Uí Rinn.

Mass had been arranged for those who wanted to attend. Since it was Palm Sunday, Mass took longer than usual, leading to the pre-match meal being put back by 15 minutes.

"One player made a big fuss of that, as if it was hugely important. It was just an excuse to complain about something, to have a dig at the logistics operation," says Connelly.

There was also the case of a league game in Derry. Holmes/Connelly explain that a few minutes were lost when the coach went through, rather than around, a town between Letterkenny and Derry but that it was irrelevant as, on arrival, they were delayed for a number of minutes before getting access to the dressing-room. Mayo won the game.

The first Holmes and Connelly heard of this as an issue was when it appeared in a newspaper article after the heave got under way. The pair are convinced that some small changes in the set-up were seized upon to underpin a wider case and that complaints were made without any consideration for the reputational damage they might have caused.

"The point we're trying to get across is that because a small group of players didn't get their way with the medical person and the logistics, they realised straight away that they could not dictate how things would be run. They didn't like that."

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Aidan O’Shea pictured in his American football attire. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Aidan O'Shea appeared on The Toughest Trade

A specific issue arose with Aidan O'Shea and Rob Hennelly in February. They were invited to take part in the The Toughest Trade, a documentary where GAA players tried their hand in a professional sport overseas, with a reciprocal arrangement involving foreign sportsmen coming to Ireland to sample GAA life. O'Shea was due to link up with Sunderland FC.

Holmes/Connelly objected, pointing out that the season had started and there could be no distractions.

"I contacted the producer of the programme and asked: 'Why are you ringing Mayo footballers? Why aren't you calling on Kerry or Dublin players - they're the ones with All-Ireland medals'," says Holmes

"He said they were looking for a particular type of character. I asked him not to contact Mayo players as our season had started and winning games was all that mattered to us.

"Aidan rang me later on and complained over what had happened. I explained to him that he would be in a lot more demand if he had an All-Ireland medal and that all his efforts should be focused on that goal."

Mayo won three, lost three and drew one of their 2015 Division 1 games but since the championship took priority in every way, management were quite happy heading into the summer campaign.

The mood was generally good among the squad. Holmes/Connelly said that a training camp in Portugal in April went especially well. In the course of that week, the squad had a meeting on their own and, according to management, brought back a few points which were sorted out.

When they returned home, Holmes received the following text from Alan Dillon: "Thought the week was brilliant. Much stronger unit leaving. Without doubt, the best camp I've been on. 56 days to Salthill (v Galway). Hard work and focus begins. One of five (games to win the All-Ireland)."

The feedback to management had been positive about most of the season up to then. New gym equipment had been installed in MacHale Park, wide-angled cameras were used to improve analysis, GPS monitoring checked tiredness levels in match and training situations.

A team bonding expert, who had worked with the successful 2010 Tipperary hurling team, was engaged to undertake a workshop in Murrisk.

In their letter to the county board in October, the squad claimed that certain standards had not been met by management, but other than small issues, there had been no complaints during the season.

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"They deserved a lot better" said Cunniffe. Photo: Sportsfile

Defender Tom Cunniffe (above) said in an interview with this newspaper 10 days ago that some players had stated at the initial meeting where the heave began that it was the "most enjoyable year they had and that everything had been done to the highest standards".

He said he felt that it should have been possible to find a way through whatever perceived issues the players had without forcing management out.

Holmes/Connelly were happy that everything was in order for a successful shot at winning the All-Ireland title in the run-up to the Connacht opener against Galway in June.

First, though, they had to deal with a few objections to the team selection.

They say that when Dillon didn't make the starting 15 for the Galway game, his attitude changed. He challenged the team selection and questioned the logic of starting Andy Moran ahead of him. It was explained to him that all selection decisions were based on a number of variables, including form and the opposition.

They also revealed that they were approached by Seamus O'Shea, who asked that Rob Hennelly, rather than David Clarke, get the goalkeeping slot as he preferred Hennelly's kick-outs. He was told it was management's job to select the team and his job to play.

Later in the season, management also received an email from Aidan O'Shea in the week before the All-Ireland quarter-final clash with Donegal, expressing his and other players' surprise that a certain panel member was not making the match-day squad of 26.

Mayo beat Galway in the Connacht semi-final and followed up with wins against Sligo and Donegal, taking them into an All-Ireland semi-final clash with Dublin. Trailing by 2-12 to 0-11 past the hour mark, the Westerners launched a brilliant recovery which yielded 1-4 and a draw.

They put themselves in a great position to win the replay, only to collapse in the final quarter in what turned out to be the final outing for the management partnership.

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Dublin's Michael Fitzsimons skips past Mayo's Cillian O'Connor during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Cillian O'Connor in action against Dublin

A few weeks after the defeat by Dublin, team captain Keith Higgins and Cillian O'Connor sought a meeting with Holmes and Connelly. They met on Sunday, September 27, when Higgins informed them that a vote of no confidence in their management had been carried 27-7 at a squad meeting.

Management asked for specific reasons behind the heave but weren't given any. They also asked who had called the meeting but weren't told that either.

They enquired about the counting of votes and were informed that Higgins and one other person, whom he declined to name, had checked the ballots.

"We asked if all the players were present and were told that seven were missing but they had voted online," says Holmes.

Connelly pressed for an explanation as to why such drastic action had been taken.

"I said, so you're prepared to destroy our reputations and not give us any reason whatsoever. Keith replied that he wasn't in a position to do that. And that was more or less that," says Connelly.

Three days later, the squad delivered a lengthy letter to the county board, making a series of demands. The letter offered no specific reason for the coup. Instead, it remained in more general territory, claiming that management did not reach "the extremely high standards" the players had set for themselves.

It was accompanied by an assessment that "the experience and knowledge gained by the players from competing at the highest level in this sport over five years will be an invaluable asset to the county board in selecting a management team."

That was followed by a stipulation that as well as being represented on the selection panel for the new management, the squad would have the same number of representatives as the county board.

Also, if anyone outside the board were to be appointed on the selection panel, it could only be done with player agreement.

Then came the strike threat, which was to be implemented if the board declined to remove management and/or not accede to the demand for equal representation on the panel charged with finding a replacement. A specific deadline for agreement was given as 5pm on October 5, just four days after the letter was handed in.

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‘Surely every county player, for a start, should be guaranteed at least one game in Croke Park every year?’

Stressing a desire to "resolve this dispute in an amicable manner and out of the glare of the media and public", the letter urged the board "to deal with this in private and not in a public arena".

The need for confidentiality had also been stressed at the first two players' meetings but it didn't hold, as outlined by Cunniffe in his interview.

"A big article appeared in a national newspaper where reasons for looking for a change of management were given. That had to come from someone who was at the meetings talking to people outside the group," said Cunniffe.

"That disappointed me - it wasn't the way we said we'd do our business and just wasn't right."

Cunniffe also said that forcing Holmes and Connelly out was wrong.

One of the issues raised in the article referred to by Cunniffe centred on an allegation that notes on opposition player analysis, which had been given to the players for the drawn Dublin game, were found in the team hotel by a member of the public.

Holmes spoke to the players the following Wednesday evening after training and emphasised the importance of making sure that player notes were kept secure in light of what had happened. It was later portrayed in the media that it was the fault of management that the notes had been left behind.

The article also hinted that one big grievance the players had with management was that there were too many people in the dressing-room and "within their circle of trust" on match days.

Holmes and Connelly regarded this as surprising since they had restricted access to players, the management and the medical team. They also felt that the issues raised in the article could only be considered 'as trivial in nature'.

Reference at the players' September meetings to "standards dropping" annoyed Holmes/Connelly as they had no sense that had been an issue throughout the year.

"We know five or six senior players voted for us so that meant that five or six of the new guys voted against us. How did they feel that standards dropped? How could they compare it with previous years when they weren't there?" asks Connelly.

"One player said afterwards that he had never felt as pressurised as when the players met in Ballyheane to vote. That helped to put the vote somewhat in perspective."

Holmes says that a senior player, who is understood to have voted in favour of retaining the management, told him after the All-Ireland semi-final that he was very happy with the set-up and that with a few tweaks, Mayo would win the 2016 All-Ireland.

"Then the heave happened and I rang him to ask him what had changed. He replied 'nothing'," says Holmes.

"I said, 'This is an injustice - what are you going to do about it?' He said he'd have to stick by the majority decision."

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Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea falls to the ground under pressure from Dublin duo Phily McMahon and Mick Fitzsimons. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Aidan O'Shea tries to break through the Dublin rearguard in this year's All Ireland final

Holmes and Connelly also point to an interview on Newstalk in early November last year where Aidan O'Shea, responding to a query from a listener as to whether the squad would have any input into the appointment of a new manager, replied: "No, I don't think that's really allowed in the GAA."

"Maybe there might be some sort of involvement (from) an ex-player or somebody with knowledge of a high-performance environment like ours that maybe can help or advise in some way but I don't think the players will be directly involved in the process."

Holmes and Connelly contrast that with the contents of the squad's letter to the county board five weeks earlier when they demanded a 50-50 split with the board on the panel choosing a new manager and are at a loss to understand how those two stark positions could be reconciled.

Following the departure of Holmes and Connelly, the Mayo County Board invited Martin Conry (DCU) as an independent mediator/facilitator to examine the entire sequence of events and to make recommendations for the future.

His report, which had not made public until now, reflects badly on the squad.

He wrote that while the players outlined their concerns to him, they would not allow him to report back to Holmes and Connelly. That left him unable to "adjudicate on the merits of the contrary positions".

He proposed that the players meet Holmes/Connelly to set out their views but that was rejected. Conry felt that the managers were entitled to that on the basis that they "could reasonably argue that they suffered reputational damage and are entitled to have cause stated to them".

He also found that instead of demanding that the management be removed, the squad would have been better advised to follow "a more graduated approach to the perceived matter at issue".

On the threatened strike, he felt that it should only have become an option when all negotiations with the county board - who appointed the managers - had been exhausted.

He also found that it would have been better if the players had set out in generic terms their expectations for the next regime.

Looking to the future, Conry recommended the inclusion of player representation in the process to find a new manager and asked the board to consider establishing a Search Committee "which would undertake the task identifying suitable candidates and encouraging them to apply".

He also urged the board to "move without delay to take control of all fundraising done in its name".

"Models exist in other counties and if Mayo were to follow such examples, I am confident that the total amount raised would increase," he wrote.

Holmes and Connelly regard the latter point as being very important.

"It's crucial that anybody contributing money goes through the county board," says Holmes.

Connelly adds: "Doing it any other way is a disservice to Mayo football."

They agree that the Mayo County Board had not been found wanting when it came to making whatever resources were required to ensure that the squad got the best possible preparation.

Being forced to resign from county team management, with the players announcing they will strike if you stay on, is a deeply upsetting experience for anyone, let alone a pair who had completed only one season, which had ended in defeat by the eventual All-Ireland champions.

"I took it badly. For a start, it was the shock of it all. You think, where did that come from? One day, you're preparing for an All-Ireland semi-final replay and then you're being told the players want you out," says Connelly.

"Then you'd meet people and they don't know what to say to you. They were jumping to their own conclusions because no reason was given by the players. It really cast aspersions on our reputations. It was tough all round. For two or three months, it was a horrible feeling."

Holmes was experiencing the same emotions, feeling let down by a group for whom he had so much respect.

"We're two Mayo men first and foremost, passionate about football and our county," he says.

"Anything that happens which reduces the chances of Mayo winning an All-Ireland title saddens us. I can't see how turning on the management after just one year could be good for Mayo.

"That's why we're speaking out now because unless the attitude changes among some players the problems will continue.

"Most of them are excellent ambassadors for Mayo and deserve to be given every chance to win an All-Ireland but unless the egos are controlled and outside influences are left outside, it won't happen."

Holmes and Connelly acknowledge that they might have done some things differently for the replay against Dublin last year.

"We have no problem accepting we might have taken different decisions - that will always be the case after most matches where the result doesn't go the right way.

"A critical component is also for the players to accept responsibility for why they hadn't yet won the All-Ireland and to accept responsibility for doing everything in their power to change that."

Some might even view that what Holmes and Connelly describe as the "buck-passing by the players" now provides the most valuable insight into why Mayo's All-Ireland landscape remains barren.

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