Wednesday 22 November 2017

Royals rift raises stakes for Banty

Pressure rising on 'outside' boss after selectors' exit, writes Colm Keys

Seamus McEnaney's Meath side are just two weeks away from their
opening Championship clash.
Seamus McEnaney's Meath side are just two weeks away from their opening Championship clash.
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

No big Chinook helicopter touched down on Pairc Tailteann yesterday in an unexpected swoop by the world's most powerful man on one of the country's great trouble spots of recent years!

America's foreign policy doesn't yet extent to sporting conflict -- or maybe they have just decided that the troubles Meath football has found itself in over the last six seasons are too challenging to become immersed in.

Since the departure of Sean Boylan as manager in 2005, the county has just limped from one crisis to another.

From the motion of no confidence in Eamonn Barry in 2005, when he tried to make additions to his back-room team that didn't have the approval of the board executive, to the aborted attempt to introduce Luke Dempsey as Colm Coyle's replacement in 2008, the controversy over the Leinster final last year and the vote against Eamonn O'Brien just two months later -- it has been storm after storm for Meath.

Seamus 'Banty' McEnaney's appointment as the first 'outside' manager last November was far from smooth, but when it was signed, sealed and delivered Meath's executive must have surely envisaged a period of stability.

Six months down the line and those storm clouds have gathered menacingly overhead again.

The departure of both native Meath selectors -- assistant manager Liam Harnan and Barry Callaghan -- on the same weekend that Graham Geraghty was reintroduced to inter-county football at the ripe old age of 38 was obviously no coincidence. The "personal reasons" explanation put forward by the county board in a statement is couched in diplomacy.

'Irreconcilable differences' was probably a more accurate phrase that the board clearly could not thrust into the public domain.

For while Geraghty's return was the rather long straw that broke the camel's back between the 'green' contingent among the management -- who felt they couldn't stand over the decision -- and the Ulster contingent, there were other strands to a relationship that had become less harmonious in recent months.

Put simply, a difficult working environment had developed and something was bound to give. Poor results added to the tensions. In all probability it would have survived for a few more months at most, but Geraghty's recall tipped it over the edge.

It appears Geraghty's return had been on the agenda for the management some weeks ago. McEnaney and Paul Grimley, who is also officially a selector, were in favour of making an approach to him even for the purposes of bringing him back for training only and taking it from there. Harnan and Callaghan were not in favour.

It wasn't, it seems, a personal nod of disapproval towards Geraghty but more a concern that it sent out a wrong signal to the county over the future development of the game.

Oxygen

Coupled with an approach to Darren Fay, three years younger than Geraghty at 35, they didn't feel it was the right move.

McEnaney -- and by extension Grimley and the team's physical and conditioning coach Martin McElkennon -- saw it differently.

They saw a squad needing a shot of oxygen from somewhere. Results and some performances in the league were abysmal and, if they were expecting a lift from the draw with Tyrone which preserved Division 2 status, they didn't get it in subsequent challenge matches.

Geraghty and Fay became part of the solution. They were watched in intermediate club games the weekend before last and an approach was made.

Who was party to the decision to invite them back remains unclear. Callaghan was apparently out of the country on business when he was informed late last week that Geraghty would be rejoining the squad on Friday night last. When he arrived home on Friday, he made it known immediately that he was stepping down, unhappy at the consultative process.

Harnan took a little longer to make his decision and was in Rosemount to take charge of the team with Grimley in McEnaney's absence for a challenge against Westmeath which they won on Friday night. But by Sunday morning, he had addressed a team meeting in Trim and informed them that he too was stepping down.

The team then went out and delivered one of their best performances of the year in a challenge match against Galway in Mullingar. Geraghty did well in his cameo at the end. But that will scarcely disguise the perception of Meath as a camp in crisis.

It is bad business that they have lost two of their selectors just two weeks before they play their most important game of the year so far -- a match that will ultimately define the decision to appoint the first outside manager last November. There is no dressing that up.

The great irony is that Harnan was McEnaney's ticket to the position in the first place, the 'green' card that made it slightly more palatable for those so diametrically opposed to outside intervention in Meath football.

Harnan had just guided Skryne to a most unexpected Meath championship success and would have been favourite had he stood on his own. He had the credentials that would have been favourable to the Meath board -- a teak tough reputation on the football field and a blunt, no nonsense approach.

McEnaney would have known that too but, just as he had managed to steer Grimley away from a return to his native Armagh, he convinced Harnan to join forces. It became a team the interview committee felt they had to recommend.

In doing so, they also recommended that McEnaney add a further Meath selector in addition to Harnan. After an exhaustive search, that's where Callaghan came in.

But now there are no Meath selectors involved on the cusp of the Leinster championship. That may not matter to the players, but to those who rubberstamped the McEnaney appointment, it may become an issue. After all, that was the premise on which he was appointed.

Maybe it is not written in stone, perhaps it was more a gentleman's agreement than a memorandum of understanding.

Still McEnaney, Grimley and McElkennon will be left in place to get on with the business of preparing the team for Kildare. To force change now on the basis of altered circumstances would be much more disruptive than what has happened over the weekend. It would make no sense.

The existing management has the backing of the players, who like the professional approach to training, but ultimately, what happens in Croke Park on Sunday week will shape everything. The tightrope has been secured and McEnaney will understand the parameters better than anyone.

The most interesting comments over the weekend may have come from Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney when asked about Geraghty's return and Meath's apparent state of crisis after the Lilywhites' victory over Wicklow.

"What you'd think would galvanise (a camp) doesn't; what you think wouldn't, can," McGeeney reflected.

McEnaney will hope those were prophetic words from his opposite number and that his underperforming players provide a suitable response. Otherwise the experiment of reaching outside may not last into a second year.

Irish Independent

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