Thursday 23 January 2020

Tomás Ó Sé: A lot of people miss the point about management. They're just far too impressed by clipboards

Many managers have the ability to organise, but how many can inspire like Páidí or Davy Fitz?

My uncle Páidí knew how to get the best out of players and how to get his teams to peak for the big championship matches, much like Davy Fitzgerald, but could you say the same about the managers of Cork and Cavan? Photo: Sportsfile
My uncle Páidí knew how to get the best out of players and how to get his teams to peak for the big championship matches, much like Davy Fitzgerald, but could you say the same about the managers of Cork and Cavan? Photo: Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

I see a lot of my uncle Páidí in the way Davy Fitz has put fireworks into Wexford hurling. He's not to everybody's taste; that much is clear. People see the sparks of madness and tend to draw stupidly simplistic conclusions.

Now, that never bothered Páidí. People always underestimated him tactically because all they were capable of seeing was this West Kerry lunatic on the line. There's a lot of the same with Davy.

Maybe he doesn't talk the way certain individuals would like him to talk, but who's got a better CV than him in hurling management today, apart from Brian Cody?

A lot of people miss the point about management. They're just far too impressed by clipboards.

To me, there's one unavoidable bottom line that makes a good manager. They must be able to inspire.

I see a lot of lads in the job today, brilliant organisers, meticulous, thoughtful, intelligent fellas. They'll blind you with science when they talk tactics: where this fella should stand, what angle that lad should be running from.


But I try to imagine them inspiring a dressing-room and, sorry, I just can't see it.

Hand on heart, I know I wouldn't be any good as a manager right now. I'm enjoying coaching UCC at the moment, but management is a different animal and I've no notion of going down that road until and unless I'm good and ready.

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Billy Morgan is our manager and I'm just fascinated watching him. You've fellas from the four corners of Ireland in that dressing-room, but he treats every last one of them like family.

Now, Billy might go through someone for a short-cut during training, not a bother to him. And he won't back down afterwards. He won't say sorry. But he'll always sit down with that fella later, explaining why he did what he did. Nothing is left fester.

A manager is the glue that holds everything together and, if he's not on top of things, then nobody is. Everything begins and ends with the tone he sets. Above all, he's got to have a natural sense of command about how he does things, how he deals with all the different people, be it players, backroom staff, media or county board.

The message has to be there 24/7, "I am in charge!"

That's not down to how big a physical specimen he happens to be or how loud he barks. The quiet man can get a big performance out of a group just as readily as someone who is naturally flamboyant.

Liam Rohan, principal in Ballyferriter National School, was my first underage manager with An Ghaeltacht, a man almost timid in personality. He was over me all the way from U-12s to minor, an absolute gentleman. And I was glad of that side to him because I don't buy into this culture of coaches roaring at kids.

It was a big deal when we got up to Division 1 status in Kerry and I remember how Liam would be giving it socks as gaeilge in the dressing-room. He'd have his hand out to the side, as if measuring something invisible. And he'd start moving it closer to him, all the time shouting, 'Roinn a cuaig, Roinn a ceathair, Roinn a tri, Roinn a Do, Roinn a hAon...'

Well Roinn a hAon was where he wanted us to be as markers, in our opponents' faces. Now that was as wild as that man got and the penny dropped fairly quick for me, even back then as an 11-year-old, that the higher the standard, the tighter you had to mark.

You see, Liam was no bear of a man, but he knew how to communicate.

Through my time with Kerry, Jack O'Connor and Páidí were poles apart in style. They pressed completely different buttons but, by Christ, they both knew which ones to press. Whereas Páidí was naturally gregarious, Jack was a much more guarded person. But you could tell he was happy when tempers shortened in training, because he knew that was bringing up the intensity.

A fight might break out on the field and Jack would leave it off. It was like a signal to him that we were ready.

One of the worst things a manager can do is interfere for the sake of it. I had a club manager once who decided, the day of a county final, to produce a new tactical plan completely out of the blue.

The morning of the game and we're sitting at this team-meeting, looking at him in disbelief.

That day, the players just took control, ignored him completely and won the game.

Luckily, I never experienced that madness at county level.

I remember Roy Keane saying that he made massive blunders during his first year in management at Sunderland. He said he over-did the device of staying aloof, and that's just not going to work with a group of 20-plus players.

Because some absolutely depend upon the manager talking to them, and his job is to figure out exactly who those players are.

I had Charlie Nelligan as a minor and, rightly or wrongly, I felt I couldn't approach him. Just got the impression his attitude was 'You're a Kerry footballer now, you should know what to do!'

What he probably didn't realise was that I didn't have the self-confidence at that age. I wanted to be told exactly what was expected of me. Other lads could roll through sessions, happy to just do their thing. Not me.

In time, I went the other way. I became psychologically conditioned to keeping the manager at arms' length by making sure I played well.

But then I had an awful year in '06, my worst in inter-county. Struggled every step of the way, couldn't put a finger on why and Jack was down my throat all season, giving me grief.

It was the last thing that I needed and I spent the year, basically, wanting to tell him to f**k off. Then he took me of at half-time in that year's All-Ireland final, even though we were absolutely clobbering Mayo. I found that hard to forgive.

My opinion is that he handled me the wrong way that year but Jack's response, I'm sure, would be 'Tomás, who won the cannister?'

I'm amazed that fellas like Brian Cody and Mickey Harte and, before them, Mick O'Dwyer have managed to keep going for so long.

When you sense the electricity that somebody like Davy Fitz must bring into a dressing-room, you have to think it has a short enough shelf-life. Davy has had an impact everywhere he's gone, but I wonder would that energy be sustainable over the longer term?

How on earth Cody has been getting inside Kilkenny heads for near enough two decades now I haven't a clue.

Yes, like Micko in the late '70s, he was blessed with a special group of players. A lot of them natural leaders. But sustaining the effort? The freshness? The intensity? Unbelievable.

The game today is top-heavy with sports psychologists, certificates coming out their ears. But it seems to me that none of them would come within an ass' roar of Micko or Cody in terms of getting inside players' heads.

Yet, still, people dismiss O'Dwyer as old school.

They'll tell that story of the Laois players going to him one night, suggesting that running 20 laps was a little one-dimensional and, well, could he maybe vary it a bit? And Micko's response: "No problem lads. Tonight we'll do the laps the other way!'

In other words, Micko's answer was not to doubt him. He had the confidence to do that. "Fire away, question me lads, but just remember who is the boss here." He did it his way and nobody won more.

Which reminds me of a story about Páidí.

It was always very hard for West Kerry to win a county championship, a divisional team of five clubs trying to be glued together. It would take a couple of games to get the chemistry right, but if you got that run going, you'd have a chance. Anyway, in '84, Páidí was asked to take over.

He was still playing and I'd say the only reason he agreed was he saw, if West Kerry won the county, there was a fair chance he'd be Kerry captain in '85.

They got all the way to the final against South Kerry, a tough team that included the likes of Ger Lynch, the great John Egan and, of course, Jack O'Shea, an absolutely dominant figure at the time.

There was a man on the West Kerry team, Vincent 'Shin' Connor, who was always on the fringes of the county team. Everyone said Shin was well capable of playing midfield for Kerry, but of course the midfield partnership was always Jacko and Seanie Walsh.


Coming up to that final, Páidí called Shin aside one evening. Told him he knew for a fact why he wasn't making the breakthrough with Kerry. Shin was all ears.

"I have it on good authority it's because Jacko doesn't want you there!" said Páidí. Pure fiction.

Well Shin went out in that county final like a bull with a sore head and cleaned out Jacko. The point I'm making is that Páidí knew exactly what button to press with Shin. With someone else, it might have been arm around the shoulder. Some lads get their power from understanding. But others nearly need the fuel of anger.

I look around today and it strikes me that people are getting so bogged down in the small detail. They're forgetting that the bottom line is performance.

I look at Cork, I look at Cavan, I look at Derry. How on earth after so many months of preparation can those teams look so completely lacking in inspiration?

Remember, the manager's job is to get his team to the right emotional pitch as well as physical.

By all means, surround yourself with good men to look after the logistics. But your ultimate job is getting a performance out of people. It's not about making sure the bus turns up or that the pre-match meal is warm. If you haven't delegated that to somebody else, you're missing the point.

Because your job is to lead. Davy Fitz gets that. But a lot of his contemporaries plainly don't.

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