Tuesday 26 March 2019

Martin Breheny: Managers facing as many challenges as the players

Jim Gavin (Dublin) Seasons in charge: 6 Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jim Gavin (Dublin) Seasons in charge: 6 Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

A manager's work is never done. And just when he thinks he has a solid grasp of his responsibilities along comes a new challenge.

The 'Super 8s' have dramatically altered the All-Ireland quarter-final dynamic, not least in presenting a much busier schedule which will leave the four successful teams with only a week to prepare for the All-Ireland semi-finals.

Mickey Harte (Tyrone) Seasons in charge: 16 Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Mickey Harte (Tyrone) Seasons in charge: 16 Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Kildare, Monaghan and Tyrone have already had a hectic qualifier schedule and now face three more games over four weekends. The format is demanding on players but also on the eight managers who are taking their teams into uncharted territory.

Jim Gavin
Seasons in charge: 6
Championship Record: 31 wins; 2 draws; 1 defeat
Titles: 4 All-Ireland; 6 Leinster; 5 NFL

He took over in Dublin at the same time as Eamonn Fitzmaurice did in Kerry and Malachy O'Rourke in Monaghan so here's the question. If Gavin were with Kerry or Monaghan and Fitzmaurice or O'Rourke in Dublin since 2013, would the All-Ireland or the provincial title tables look any different?

We will never know, of course, which is what makes GAA management so different to sports where bosses move around all the time.

Gavin took over at a time when Dublin football was teeming with the best emerging generation of young players every produced in the Capital. He has made the most of it, with the semi-final defeat by Donegal the only championship setback in six seasons.

It would be easy to claim that all Gavin had to do was invest the riches but there's a lot more to it than that. Just as Mick O'Dwyer did it in Kerry and Brian Cody in Kilkenny, Gavin has played the strong hand well in terms of maintaining squad discipline and motivation, which is an art in itself. He has also kept the scene fresh, with even the most experienced players constantly looking over their shoulders.

Mickey Harte
Seasons in charge: 16
Championship Record: 63 wins; 9 draws; 22 defeats
Titles: 3 All-Ireland; 6 Ulster; 1 NFL

Prior to his arrival, Tyrone had won no All-Ireland and nine Ulster senior titles. Since he took over at the start of 2003, they have won three All-Ireland and six Ulster titles.

They have reached 13 All-Ireland quarter-finals and seven semi-finals, a return bettered only by Kerry and Dublin.

It's a tidy haul, yet there are some in Tyrone who believe he should by long gone. Indeed, if Tyrone had not won the 2016 and 2017 Ulster championships, he would have been under even more pressure.

He has always kept his counsel on the criticisms, although his comments after the 2016 Ulster title win sounded very much as if they were directed at the detractors.

"We got back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 and nobody cared a jot. These Ulster titles are important and they don't come easy," he said.

Tyrone have been a top four team for the last few years but were unable to make it to the Top 2. It's unlikely that changing manager would make any difference.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice
Seasons in charge: 6
Championship Record: 20 wins; 3 draws; 4 defeats
Titles: 1 All-Ireland; 6 Munster; 1 NFL

How many All-Ireland title wins would Fitzmaurice have presided over if Dublin didn't have their best ever squad? His one success came in 2014 after Donegal had ejected Dublin, who beat Kerry in the 2013 and 2016 semi-finals and 2015 final.

On that basis, Kerry would probably have won at least three of the last five All-Irelands if Dublin weren't so powerful, but that's no consolation for Fitzmaurice who, like all Kingdom managers, is judged on the Sam Maguire Cup count.

The pressure is even greater this year as the last thing they want is Dublin emulating the great Kerry team of 1975-86 which landed an All-Ireland four-timer in 1981. Dublin are now closing in on that achievement, increasing the urgency in Kerry to expedite the development process and produce a team that stops Gavin's men.

Other counties are similarly motivated but it's deeply personal with Kerry. However, desires don't always equate to outcomes and, as Mick O'Dwyer pointed out this week, Kerry supporters need to be patient.

Willing the squad to replicate 1975 when Micko's young guns shot down Dublin is fine but making it happen is altogether different.

Kevin Walsh
Seasons in charge: 4
Championship Record: 11 wins; 1 draw; 5 defeats
Titles: 2 Connacht

He wasn't even born the last time Galway beat Kerry in the championship (1965) and while he did all he could to change that as a player in 2000 (All-Ireland final draw and replay) and 2002 (quarter-final), it didn't happen.

Nor did it change in 2008 under Liam Sammon, 2014 under Alan Mulholland or last year under Walsh.

Galway failed defensively last year, as they did to an even greater degree against Tipperary in 2016. Paddy Tally was summoned from Tyrone and it can hardly be accidental that the defensive side of Galway's game has improved immeasurably this year. Finding a balance between tighter security and providing the likes of Shane Walsh and Damien Comer with enough possession to take on defences has been tricky but it needs to be done.

Galway's new style sits uneasily with some supporters but it's all about results. Nine wins, one draw (Dublin) and one defeat (Dublin ) in League and Championship this year say Walsh is getting it right.

Malachy O'Rourke
Seasons in charge: 6
Championship Record: 1 9 win; 2 draws; 9 defeats
Titles: 2 Ulster

The man who led Fermanagh so close to winning the Ulster title for the first time in 2008 has done an exceptional job with Monaghan, winning two Ulster titles and reaching five All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Given Monaghan's population, it's Croatia-like in terms of achievement. Of course ambition never ceases and Monaghan's failure to reach even one All-Ireland semi-final from four attempts left them deeply frustrated. Luck was not on their side in terms of the draws as they were paired twice with both Dublin and Tyrone.

There was no such explanation for their poor performance in June against Fermanagh , who were later well beaten by Donegal and Kildare. Monaghan put it behind them in the qualifiers where the draw was kind, lining up Waterford, Leitrim and Laois.

Declan Bonner
Seasons in charge: 1 (second term)
Championship Record: 4 wins; 0 draws; 0 defeats
Titles: 1 Ulster

His second coming - he managed Donegal in the late 1990s - suffered a disappointing start when they were relegated from Division 1 in the tightest of circumstances on the final day.

It didn't have a long term impact as Donegal swept to the Ulster title, winning four games by big margins. Bonner identified a number of areas he planned to address after his appointment last September.

"We have become too one-dimensional and too predictable. We need to be more adaptable and better able to give the opposition things to think about," he said.

"Most of the clubs play a similar game to the county team so their players are used to that. We will need to be better able to vary our approach as the occasion demands. We don't want to have the opposition knowing what's coming from us all the time. We've got to be able to surprise them," he said in an Irish Independent interview. Ten months later, he's planning to surprise Dublin in Croke Park.

Kevin McStay
Seasons in charge: 3 (Joint manager with Fergal O'Donnell in 2016)
Championship Record: 6 wins; 2 draws; 4 defeats
Titles: 1 Connacht

Reaching successive All-Ireland quarter-finals for the first time is a worthy achievement for Roscommon, but it's a long way from satisfying McStay. The impressive win over Armagh last Saturday was the perfect antidote to the disappointment of losing the Connacht final to Galway, a game which they might well have won if they were tidier in the attacking half.

"Frustrating" was McStay's description but it was actually more than that. Connacht titles are prized possessions and Roscommon wasted a good chance to retain it for the first time in 17 years.

It was crucial that they made a quick recovery, which they duly did and, as they showed in the drawn quarter-final against Mayo last year, they can deliver in Croke Park too when they get their game going.

The departure of Fergal O'Donnell as joint-manager after the 2016 season increased the pressure on McStay and, in fairness, the response has been impressive. And he will feel that if Roscommon can come so close to Galway, they have a good chance of upsetting the odds against Tyrone this evening.

Cian O'Neill
Seasons in charge: 3
Championship Record: 8 wins; 0 draws; 5 defeat
Titles: 0

Such was the disappointment in Kildare after the defeat by Carlow in late May that if O'Neill had quit, many supporters would have welcomed it.

Of course they won't admit that now but then memories are short. Ironically, the 'Newbridge or Nowhere' campaign, which O'Neill led, helped restore morale but if would have meant nothing if Kildare didn't beat Mayo. Given the circumstances and the atmosphere, that victory has joined the list of great Kildare occasions and with a successful follow-up against Fermanagh last Saturday, the county is buzzing.

How the team have gone from losing all seven League games, followed by the Carlow setback, to 'Super 8' contenders remains a mystery but, in fairness to O'Neill, he has to get credit. After all, plenty of people were happy to blame him for the bad run so they have to acknowledge his input to the revival.

O'Neill said last Saturday that he was his own biggest critic and he didn't need to be told when things were going wrong. But he was - frequently in terms that over-stepped the mark.

"It's (harsh criticism) not nice. When it steps from professional to personal, it's definitely not nice," said O'Neill last Saturday. It's also in the past.

Irish Independent

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