Thursday 22 February 2018

'It's all about trying to get the best out of the players'

Marie Crowe finds that the recession is forcing managers to think again about their back-up teams

Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

When Tipperary and Waterford take to the field today, they will do so accompanied by backroom teams large enough to equal their panel of players. In an effort to cover all eventualities, both counties have employed a considerable number of experts and professionals to be on hand throughout the year with no expense spared.

Anyone who can give them an edge on the day is worth having on board. Nowadays, the winning formula for most counties has moved on from picking the right 15 to play and win games, to fine-tuning a panel of 30 players, analysing every aspect of your own squad of players, and the opposition's squad -- essentially any and every possible innovation is exploited in an effort to gain an edge.

It's hard to blame modern-day managers for these extravagances, for this level of attention to detail. Especially when a lot of players now are armed more than ever before with information on techniques used in other sports and so have come to expect more in their own preparations.

A look at the behind-the-scenes set-up in Tipperary shows the level of developments that have been made. Along with physiotherapists, doctors, kit men and water carriers, Tipperary's backroom team boasts leading experts in sports science, coaching and psychology.

Last year, Liam Sheedy followed in the steps of Mickey Harte by enlisting the help of top sports performance coach Caroline Currid to help his team progress through the championship. This year, Dublin boss Pat Gilroy did the same. Performance coaching seems to be a phenomenon in itself.

Not long after he appointed Currid, Sheedy added physical trainer and University of Limerick professor Cian O'Neill to his team to work on the strength and conditioning of the hurlers.

"We're there to serve the players and the manager is there to serve the players, but we're also there to serve the manager," says O'Neill. "The days of the manager being the kit man, water man and the coach are long gone. What I do with Tipperary is an extension of my everyday job. I'm a professional at what I do, as opposed to someone who has an interest in health and fitness and does it as a hobby. It's all about trying to get the best out of players, trying to make them the best that they can be, and I have a critical role to play in that, as does the coach, as does the manager," he adds.

"There is no way that you would get a manager with the game and tactical knowledge that is needed, plus be educated in areas of fitness, strength and conditioning. In years gone by, my field wasn't much of an issue. I always hear stories about the greats from the 1960s and 1970s never pulling a hamstring or never getting injured. The reality is that they did but it wasn't diagnosed."

In the background at Tipperary, O'Neill works closely with team coach Eamonn O'Shea. While O'Neill looks after the physical side of things, O'Shea does all the hurling coaching in terms of technical and tactical work. Both men are in constant contact with each other, Liam Sheedy and with the team physio to ensure that they can pre-empt any problems.

"I think if a set-up is not managed effectively then you can have a diluted situation where all the different aspects of preparation become divorced from each other. The conditioning is seen as one thing, the coaching is seen as one thing, the tactical development is seen as another thing.

"The most important thing is that it should always be about the player, he needs to know what he is doing in a match. The only way that can work is if there is a huge amount of communication between the management and the backroom team. I think the players need to understand the role of the trainer, the role of the coach, the role of the physio. They have this expertise at their fingertips but they need to know why they are there and how it can make them a better player."

Waterford's backroom team is just as broad; on the Déise line today will be two masseurs, a doctor, four hurley carriers, a kit man and a physical trainer.

And while the set-up in most counties is generally similar, all managers are different. Sheedy has Currid to look after his players' state of mind, but Waterford boss Davy Fitzgerald does that himself. Motivating the team is a strong point in his management arsenal. He likes to combine his hands-on approach with the odd contribution from other sporting figures -- and has used the likes of Bernard Dunne and John O'Shea in this regard.

Waterford's superior tactics were credited with helping them overcome Cork in the Munster final replay. Fitzgerald's protestations afterwards, however, that his side had just hurled, that he had not set them up tactically, are not backed up by the fact that he has used eight to 10 statisticians to analyse their opponents. Nor is there anything wrong with that -- it paid dividends when it mattered. And pretty much every county is doing it now.

But when did it all start and where does the cult of the 'backroom team' go from here? It appears to have been gathering momentum since the GAA developed into a high-profile commercial enterprise.

When Clare hurlers made their breakthrough in the mid-1990s, they did so on the back of an apparently simple formula, and one which had served the GAA well through the years: a manager (Ger Loughnane) with two selectors (Mike McNamara and Tony Considine). One of the selectors, McNamara, looked after the physical training; the other looked after hurling training and Loughnane oversaw the whole lot. Throw in a physio and a kit man and they got the job done.

But things gradually moved on and players began to identify the aspects of the county set-up that they weren't happy with. In 1995, Dublin won their first All-Ireland in 12 years with Pat O'Neill at the helm. The following year Mickey Whelan took over and introduced a new backroom team of Lorcan Redmond and Christy Kane. The team was shocked by Meath in the Leinster final and, in his autobiography some years later, captain Dessie Farrell criticised the backroom set-up.

"I'll be honest; Lorcan Redmond and Christy Kane were extremely likable characters," he wrote. "Lorcan had been part of an All-Ireland-winning set-up in the past and went on to take charge of the Dublin 21s. Yet they were old school. We had just emerged from a period of disciplined, energetic management. Jim Brogan, Bobby Doyle and Fran Ryder had all embraced modern managerial techniques, had a very hands-on approach, and tried to be as professional as possible. Their working relationship with O'Neill was very efficient. Lorcan and Christy didn't provide a foil to Mickey in the same way. Their management team didn't possess the same authority as the previous group."

Ten years later, during Paul Caffrey's spell at the helm, the concept of the backroom team reached new levels in Dublin. There's a famous photograph taken before the 2006 Leinster final of Caffrey with all his backroom team -- 13 in all.

Now, Joe Kernan's departure as Galway football manager has put the spotlight back on the whole concept of backroom teams. The Galway board accepted Kernan's resignation after a dispute over the make-up of his team. This season, it had included fitness experts Paul Hatton and John McCloskey, both commuting long distances along with Kernan and so pushing up the costs for the county board. Perhaps if he had won a Connacht title in his first season, the powers that be would have looked more favourably on Kernan's preferred management package. In any event, football board chairman John Joe Holloran claimed the former Armagh manager was asked to replace the duo with locally based coaches, but he wasn't agreeable to this.

"I have always prided myself in having a very strong backroom team," said Kernan, "people I could trust and work with, people who knew what was required. When that wasn't possible in Galway, I felt my position was being undermined. I wouldn't be in control of all team matters, which a manager must be."

But it isn't just the high-profile football and hurling counties that have bought into this 'cult of the backroom team'. Glenn Ryan was ratified as Longford manager, but his reinstatement came with the condition that he would change his backroom team. He complied and got the job for another year.

In this context, Anthony Daly's comments last week that there is too much made of managers and their backroom teams were interesting. He feels there is a need for a return to basics, the idea that if a team loses it's not always because of what happened on the line; in fact it's almost always because of what happened on the pitch.

Maybe now we are entering a post-backroom team age. It has been a plentiful 15 or so years in this regard, with no shortage of money to fund managerial dream teams. But county boards need to count every cent in these hardened economic times and so these dream teams will get smaller. And with balance sheets to reconcile, there will be little room for second chances.

Sunday Independent

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