The Young Ones
Donegal head into the championship this weekend with a 39-year-old in charge and it seems management is increasingly becoming a game for younger men, writes Cian Murphy
Recent statistics in Gaelic football make it very clear -- inter- county management is becoming a young man's game.
Long considered the preserve of an older sage who brought years of experience to bear, more and more counties are opting for youthful flair when it comes to appointing team managers.
The en vogue theory appears to be that the game is changing at such a rapid rate that, arguably, the best placed people to mastermind a county team are people with very recent playing experience at the top level.
This Sunday, Jim McGuinness will be at the helm of the Donegal senior footballers when they enter the Ulster championship against Antrim. Appointed last year, McGuinness is just 39 years of age and is in good company in this new band of managerial young ones.
Down's James McCartan, Kildare's Kieran McGeeney and Mayo's James Horan are managers of serious Sam Maguire contenders who will all only turn 40 this year.
Pat Gilroy is embarking on his third summer in charge of the Dubs and is just 41; Justin McNulty is in his first season in charge of Laois and is aged just 36; Glenn Ryan is in charge of Longford aged 38; and Limerick are managed by newcomer Maurice Horan from Mayo who is aged 35.
Meath's Seamus McEnaney is 44, Sligo are managed by Galway All-Ireland hero Kevin Walsh who is 41, while Wexford's Jason Ryan was only 31 when appointed their manager in late 2007.
It has long been accepted that such are the demands placed on modern day players that the sight of men lasting well into their 30s is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. But now it seems that the pace and demands of the game are taking their toll on the sideline too and new managers are more likely to be under the age of 45.
Donegal hero Brian McEniff says he can understand why counties are interested in appointing recently retired players to the role of manager and coach.
In 2003, he stepped back into the vacant Donegal manager's hot seat after an absence of 10 years. He had managed Donegal to their first All-Ireland triumph in 1992 -- but he was stunned by the game that awaited him on his return and almost felt a stranger.
"It wasn't the game I'd left. The game had changed and I didn't realise what I was after letting myself in for," he said. "We were relegated to Division 2 and ended up having a decent run in the qualifiers and putting it up to Armagh in an All-Ireland semi-final. But the first couple of matches were a real eye opener.
"The attitude and expectation had grown immeasurably. Training had moved on. I remember the first league match against Galway, I was standing beside John O'Mahony who had a stopwatch in his hand and the new buzzword was 'pressure'. He was shouting at forwards to put pressure on the ball and this was a whole new concept of football.
"Then we met Armagh in Ballybofey and I saw how the game had changed physically as they just threw us around like a rag doll and blew us away.
"I found myself looking for strength and conditioning coaches and was asking myself, 'what am I doing here?'."
Youth aside, McGuinness is one of the most qualified people to take charge of a GAA team, having spent much of the last 15 years in different colleges studying sports science.
Previously the Donegal U-21 boss, he believes that the rapid rate of change in modern football is driving people to look for coaches with a recent experience of playing this ever-evolving game.
"The game is moving very quickly. I see football moving almost on an annual basis and young managers that are in dressing-rooms as players and then coming out into management are very clued in as to how the game is going and the coaching in relation to that," he said.
"I think if you are out of the game for a long time, even if you are out of the game at 37 and back at 47 you are still a young man, but if you are out for 10 years you'd have a year or two to find your feet again definitely."
At just 36, former Armagh defender and current Laois boss McNulty will be one of the youngest mentors in action this summer. But he doesn't believe that age is everything.
"If you are the right man for the job it doesn't matter what age you are," he insisted. "There are a number of young managers involved, but quite a few mature men as well. There's a good spectrum of age profiles across management of all counties and I don't think there are strict rules on this.
"A lot of people have influenced me in terms of my management beliefs, right from my U-12 manager in Mullaghbawn Charlie Grant to my primary school manager Jim Kearns, my grammar school manager Val O'Kane, through to university Dessie Ryan, Br (Lawrence) Ennis my minor manager and obviously Brian McAlinden and Joe Kernan. These guys all impacted on me in terms of my management philosophy and style."
The young lads haven't got it all their own way. The titles are being won by the grey hairs who have been around the block like Jack O'Connor, Mickey Harte and Conor Counihan.
Of course, there is one glaring grey-haired exception to this new trend of putting youth before experience.
Mick O'Dwyer will be 75 this June -- but will still be found where we have come to expect him every summer, prowling the sideline, when Wicklow take on Kildare on May 22.
Blessed with a very special gift when it comes to understanding footballers and being able to get the very best out of them, Micko has also pitted himself against several different generations of rival bosses, having followed up his All-Ireland successes with Kerry in the 1970s and 80s with two stints with Kildare in the 90s into the early 2000s, before moving to Laois and then Wicklow. Wherever he's been, success has followed.
There's a pace to the game and a pressure to deliver that's perhaps driving older managers from the game. But a man with a Midas touch will always be welcome -- no matter what his age.