Tuesday 23 July 2019

Pat Spillane: 'New kids on the GAA block - here's how I think the 12 new faces on the sidelines will fare in 2019'

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Top row: Terry Hyland, Mickey Graham, Peter Keane, Padraic Davis, John Maughan, Wayne Kierans.
Bottom row: Jack Cooney, Benji Whelan, Paul Taylor, James Horan, Anthony Cunningham, Paddy Tally.
Top row: Terry Hyland, Mickey Graham, Peter Keane, Padraic Davis, John Maughan, Wayne Kierans. Bottom row: Jack Cooney, Benji Whelan, Paul Taylor, James Horan, Anthony Cunningham, Paddy Tally.

Pat Spillane

Being a county manager these days is akin to acting as the CEO of a decent-sized company. Gone are the days when teams were effectively run by a manager, a few selectors and the county board secretary.

Even in small counties, the senior management team can consist of up to 20 people. In the bigger counties there is twice that number involved, which requires the hire of a second bus for away matches.

Of course everybody has a job title, ranging from strength and conditioning coach, senior analyst, consultant, planning and logistics manager… the list goes on. Strangely enough, though, you seldom see a forwards coach.

Once a new manager is appointed the herd mentality kicks in and they simply ape what the others are doing.

More often than not a de facto media ban is put in place, there are closed training sessions, players are no longer allowed to train or play with their clubs and are told they must park their lives for the rest of the season.

As for innovative coaching – don’t make me laugh. They merely follow the boring template: Bring bodies back and counter-attack, while transferring the ball via endless strings of hand passes.

There have been a couple of subtle changes, though. Only four of the 12 new team managers are outsiders and one of them, Roscommon’s Anthony Cunningham, lives in the county even though he is a native of Galway.

Overall the number of ‘outside’ managers has dropped to just seven: John Evans (Wicklow), Liam Kearns (Tipperary), John Maughan (Offaly), Paddy Tally (Down), Terry Hyland (Leitrim), Malachy O’Rourke (Monaghan) and Cunningham.

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Secondly, nine counties have kept their managers but changed their backroom team. Roscommon native Kevin Stritch, who previously worked with Longford and Castleknock, has replaced Paddy Tally in Galway.

Former Laois and Westmeath boss Tom Cribbin and Karl O’Dwyer – son of Micko – have joined Cian O’Neill’s back-room team in Kildare, which also includes former Kilkenny All-Ireland winning skipper Michael Fennelly, who is their performance coach.

Laois have two new coaches, William Harmon from Kerry and Portlaoise’s Sean Cotty. Wexford have recruited Mickey Moran’s long-time number two, John Morrison.

Ciarán O’Sullivan stepped down as a Cork selector, but former Wexford boss Jason Ryan has been recruited as a consultant – whatever that means. 

Meanwhile, Cork native Paudie Kissane has switched from Clare to Tipperary, with Brian Carson replacing him as coach in the Banner County.

Former player Brian Begley has been elevated to the role of head coach with Tipperary and, of course, the most high-profile coaching appointment in the closed season saw former Mayo boss Stephen Rochford move to Donegal to take up a coaching role.

Here’s a quick resume of the 12 new bosses...

Mickey Graham (Cavan)

Right now he’s the golden boy of GAA coaching, having managed Mullinalaghta to their historic Leinster club success. Expect Cavan to abandon their old safety-first tactical approach under the new man, who will get the squad playing to their strengths.

Sadly, I fear they will find themselves out of their depth in Division 1. And things won’t get any easier in the championship as they face beaten All-Ireland semi-finalists Monaghan in the quarter-final of the Ulster series.

Paddy Tally (Down)

Surprisingly this is Tally’s first time to manage an inter-county side, though his track record as a coach with Tyrone, Down and Galway is excellent and he also managed St Mary’s College to a shock Sigerson Cup success.

On paper Down look the best team in Division 3 and ought to secure promotion; the championship will be more problematic.

Peter Keane (Kerry)

In my book he is the right man for the toughest managerial job in the GAA.

He has a proven track record, managing St Mary’s Cahersiveen to an All-Ireland junior title before guiding Kerry to a hat-trick of All-Ireland minor championship wins.

Better still, he has assembled a top back-room team, including Tommy Griffin, who worked alongside him at minor level, Maurice Fitzgerald and Donie Buckley, who is arguably the best coach in the GAA.

Another key backroom appointment sees Jason McGahon taking over the strength and conditioning programme for all Kerry teams.

Furthermore, he has probably the best crop of young players available to any manager.

Though Kerry are two years behind schedule in terms of their rebuilding programme, Keane’s honeymoon won’t extend beyond the league. He will be expected to stop Dublin’s drive for five. No pressure then.

Terry Hyland (Leitrim)

The Cavan native comes with an impressive CV and the news from Leitrim is that they will play an attacking brand of football, which was not Hyland’s forte during his Cavan reign.

They fashioned a decent performance against Mayo in the FBD League and a realistic target would be to secure promotion from Division 4.

The championship, however, is a write-off – they would have to beat Roscommon and Mayo to reach a Connacht final.

Padraic Davis (Longford)

Ex-boss Denis Connerton left Longford in good shape; they were unlucky not to be promoted to Division 2 and reached the Leinster semi-final last summer. 

Mullinalaghta’s historic Leinster club success has generated a feel-good factor about football, but it is a double-edged sword.

With a limited squad Longford can ill afford to be without the Mullinalaghta contingent in the early rounds of the league and Davis (left) – a folk hero in his native county due to his scoring exploits – will find the tide turning against him very early.

Equally daunting is the probability they will be facing Kildare in the Leinster quarter-final this summer.

Wayne Kierans (Louth)

Louth opted to go local after a disastrous season under Pete McGrath, when they recorded one win in league and championship action. 

Kierans has a track record of working with underage teams in the county and his side did reasonably well in the O’Byrne Cup, but this is a long-term project.

James Horan (Mayo)

He dragged Mayo from outside the inner circle to within touching distance of an All-Ireland title during his first stint, so experience and know-how is not an issue and presumably he will have learned from past mistakes.

What militates against him, however, is that unless Mayo win an All-Ireland, his return will be deemed a failure and with 12 players aged 30 in his squad, time is not on his side.

If Mayo don’t do the business this September, Horan will have to give up on the All-Ireland dream and start building a new team, even though fresh talent seems in short supply.

John Maughan (Offaly)

John Maughan joins Mick O’Dwyer (Kerry, Kildare, Laois, Wicklow and Clare) and Mickey Moran (Derry, Donegal, Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim) as the only manager to take charge of five different counties. 

The Mayo native previously took charge of his native county as well as Clare, Roscommon and Fermanagh. However, he is the only one to have managed teams in all four provinces.

Teams managed by Maughan are fit and disciplined, but he faces a huge task with Offaly players opting not to join the squad. Staying in Division 3 would be a decent achievement.

Anthony Cunningham (Roscommon)

Roscommon are back in Division 1, they featured in the Super 8s last summer and, unlike most counties, have an abundance of forward talent. On the other hand, the departure of Kevin McStay was a big shock and their first-choice replacement Aidan O’Rourke pulled out at the last minute.

On the field their biggest issue is that their defence is simply not up to scratch, as shown by the fact that their aggregate losing margin in their three games in the Super 8s was 13 points. Cunningham faces a baptism of fire in this first season in charge of a football side.

Paul Taylor (Sligo)

Sligo have broken with tradition by appointing a native manager for the first time since 2007. Taylor faces a big challenge given that one of the county’s best prospects, Red Óg Murphy, opted for Aussie Rules, while three of the squad’s most experienced members, Ross Donavon, David Kelly and Kevin McDonnell, are unavailable.

Benji Whelan (Waterford)

This is one of the most unenviable and least glamorous jobs in football. Hurling is king in the Déise and football is the poor relation. Based on the 12-point hammering by Clare in the McGrath Cup, a difficult season lies ahead for Whelan.

Jack Cooney (Westmeath)

He is the first Westmeath man to manage his native county for 26 years. Has hit the ground running by beating the Dubs and winning the O’Byrne Cup on Friday night. But the number one priority is to secure promotion back to Division 2.

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