Wednesday 21 August 2019

Tomás O Sé: 'It's so hard to know when your time is up - but you should be able to spot the signs'

 

Liam Kearns and (inset) Kevin Walsh
Liam Kearns and (inset) Kevin Walsh
Kevin Walsh is in his fifth season as Galway football manager and is still trying to find a balance between attack and defence to make his team serious All-Ireland contenders. Photo: Sportsfile

Tomás O Sé

Paddy Bawn Brosnan once dismissed the Kerry football selectors after a heavy defeat as men "who couldn't pick periwinkles".

Even in Paddy's day, those in charge of a county team were open to stinging public scrutiny. The only comfort, I suppose, came in the fact that it was management by committee back then, so criticism was seldom personalised. The likes of 'Micko' and 'Heffo', after all, hadn't yet introduced us to the cult of the modern manager.

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But today managing an inter-county team brings extraordinary, often irrational pressures.

When Jack O'Connor walked away from the Kerry job after winning Sam in '06, he was - by his own admission - "wrecked".

He'd put in three hugely emotional, roller-coaster years with us and they had taken a heavy personal toll.

Jack knew he just needed to come up for air. When you think about it, it takes a big man to walk away from an All-Ireland-winning team. Other than Liam Sheedy in Tipperary, and Pat O'Neill after Dublin's '95 win, I can't think of another one who did. Kevin Heffernan maybe with Dublin after '76, but it's a moot point if he ever really stepped away.

But I think Jack taking that time out worked for all of us. Because most of us felt we had to prove ourselves all over again to Pat O'Shea and, accordingly, there was new energy in the dressing-room. Then when Pat stepped down after the '08 loss to Tyrone, Jack was ready to drive us on again.

Like, Páidí didn't want to go in '03, but he'd been there since '96. In successive years, we'd lost to Meath, Armagh and Tyrone and - even as Páidí's nephew - I'd have to say the arrival of Jack O'Connor and Pat Flanagan in that Kerry dressing-room was exactly what we needed.

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They brought a fresh bite to the operation because no one could feel comfortable and, maybe, a part of that was a natural reaction to losing the '03 All-Ireland final. Like, Jack benefited from that hurt being in us in '04 and again in '09.

Knowing when to go is a huge challenge for anyone dealing with a struggling dressing-room.

You know something really impressed me about the style of Derek McGrath's departure as Waterford hurling manager. Just the sense of care towards the players that he communicated. The humanity if you like.

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Former Waterford manager Derek McGrath. Photo: Sportsfile

When I look back on my own playing career, I think the way I carried on was borderline unhealthy. In my own head, I was a perfectionist. The business of playing for Kerry just swallowed me up. I was hugely demanding of myself and, in hindsight, I wonder did that cost me. If I even had a poor training-session, it would drive me crazy until the next one.

It would be like an itching sensation inside my head. Why the f**k did that happen? Where did I go wrong?

A bad game would absolutely eat me. So I'd be obsessed about stuff off the field, meaning nothing would be allowed get in the way of my need to put things right. To meet the standards I expected of myself.

I didn't actually need a manager then to press those kind of buttons because I was harder on myself than anybody. But others came to the dressing-room from a very different head-space. They needed cajoling.

Fascinated

I'd be fascinated just watching how the good managers always had an ability to meet that need. The bluffers? Honest to God, my head would be fried listening to them. I cannot stand a bluffer in any walk of life. I have no patience threshold. And when I hear the guff coming from some, I honestly think to myself they must surely under-estimate the intelligence of their players.

Which is what I really loved about the way McGrath went about leaving the Waterford job.

It was clear as day that he had a remarkable connection with his players. That they would have done anything he asked of them. The fact they came up short in the 2017 All-Ireland hurling final could have been put down to a lot of different, tiny, things. But it patently wasn't down to any lack of commitment.

And the one thing that always struck me about McGrath was the lack of ego.

I don't doubt he could have continued in the job, but he just came to the conclusion that those players needed to hear a different voice. I read the text he sent them when Paraic Fanning was confirmed as his successor, telling them he was leaving their WhatsApp group "not out of ignorance, but more out of respect".

He said: "I'll be there for ye til the day I die. Ye're my family. The plans we made are plans for life as well as games." And he actually told them in the text that he loved them.

When I read that, I had a little chuckle to myself. Not out of any disrespect. I actually thought it was a magnificent thing to say. Honestly, something beautiful. But those words only sound right coming from certain people. Like if Jack O'Connor said something to me along those lines when he was Kerry manager, I suspect it would have been a toss-up which one of us would have started laughing first.

Just different places, different voices.

Certainly in my time, we never had McGrath's kind of manager in Kerry. And Kilkenny seem much the same under Brian Cody. That doesn't mean the likes of Páidí or Jack or Cody ever cared any less. It doesn't mean they weren't watching out for their players.

I mean I brought problems to every Kerry manager I played under and not once did I feel they were insensitive. Maybe they didn't communicate that care with the eloquent language Derek McGrath finds naturally, but these were all still magnificent man-managers.

I particularly loved Derek's line about his mother, on hearing he was stepping down, asking him, 'What if someone else comes in now and wins the All-Ireland?' And, as Derek put it, that kind of thought directly contradicted the fundamental message he was always giving those players. That it wasn't - and could never be - just about the individual.

So Derek's response was 'Mam, I'll be OK with that. Life goes on!' And it will.

I honestly believe McGrath is at peace with the time and effort he put into the Waterford hurling team. And, All-Ireland won or not, that's a really good place to be.

Because it strikes me that plenty of exceptional managers don't end up on those terms. Actually, I'd imagine that those who do are in a small minority. The real difficulty is knowing when to go before circumstance demands it.

Like, I'm not sure there have been many better managerial performances in recent years than those of Liam Kearns with, first, Limerick and, more recently, Tipperary. Remember it's less than three years since Tipp destroyed Galway in an All-Ireland quarter-final, which makes last weekend's loss to Limerick a little hard to fathom.

My own experience of playing against the Limerick team Kearns managed was that they always played with huge belief and a ravenous hunger. An 'us-against-the-world' vibe that made them really awkward to contain. They competed with absolute ferocity. Just like Tipp did against Galway in 2016.

The point I'm making is that Kearns has been brilliant just about everywhere he's gone. But I wonder is he questioning whether or not he's stayed a year too long in Tipp now?

Every manager has to reach a point in that regard where self-interest kicks in. Where you've got to sense that fellas just aren't digging deep for you anymore. That's what I felt watching Tipp last weekend. They looked incredibly flat.

I've even heard some people wondering lately about Kevin Walsh and Galway and it strikes me that they have incredibly short memories. After all, it's not that long ago some Galway footballers thought it more attractive to head across the Atlantic for summer than stay around and play championship.

Under Walsh, Galway have broken Mayo's dominance in Connacht and he brought them to last year's All-Ireland semi-final. Sure, he's still trying to strike the right balance in terms of attacking football and being water-tight at the back. But every year on Walsh's watch, Galway have been getting conspicuously better.

Once that's happening, you're still on the right road.

Funny enough, I feel the same about Kieran McGeeney in Armagh even though they've still to record an Ulster championship win under his management. This is his fourth year, but we've seen enough from Armagh in All-Ireland qualifiers to know the players are still playing for him.

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Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney. Photo: Sportsfile

This is a man, remember, who was loved despite staying six seasons in the Kildare dressing-room. Someone the players still desperately wanted to stay, who'd been behind them getting access to the best of facilities, including a state-of-the-art gym in the K Club.

But Kieran will, eventually, have a decision to make in Armagh.

Like, there's a fair chance they won't break their Ulster duck this year, that Down will beat them next Sunday in Newry. I'd expect a fairly defensive set-up from the home team, shaped by Paddy Tally. And I'd expect McGeeney to meet like with like. He did it against Fermanagh in the league even though you know, deep down, he prefers a more attacking style.

But McGeeney's smart enough to adopt a horses-for-courses strategy. He'll get down and dirty if that's how you want it.

Of all the current inter-county managers, maybe the omens are poorest right now for Ronan McCarthy in Cork after their relegation to Division 3. That said, I was very impressed with the humility of his comments after they went down. Saying that he remained convinced the talent was still there, he added, "but I can only talk about it for so long and, at some point, it is my job as a manager to get the players to deliver.

"If they don't, then I have to look at myself."

That was pure honesty.

You know, I sometimes ask myself why anybody would take on the job of inter-county management because it's brutally difficult. Like, Dublin are still the pace-setters in football for a number of different reasons. Yes, Jim Gavin is doing an unbelievably good job, but he's got the support of a county board being run remarkably well by John Costello too.

Every successful team has a lot of vital support structures that go entirely unseen.

Reason

The reason I'd worry for Kearns in Tipperary now is that last weekend's defeat came after a really poor league campaign. If he's starting to think the players are no longer buying in to his message, this week will have been awful. How do you rise a group in those circumstances?

Now maybe they'll bounce back and, hand on heart, I hope they do. But that was Tipp's poorest performance in a long time and it must have wrecked his head just looking at it. I watched the full game and the amount of turnovers they conceded, the degree of space allowed, everything pointed to a team whose work-rate just wasn't up to scratch.

Billy Lee, previously one of Kearns's selectors in Limerick, got an effort from his team that simply wasn't discernible in the blue and gold jerseys. Lee is a great GAA man who, I don't doubt, learned a hell of a lot from his time with Liam.

No question, the most important thing for Kearns today is that he doesn't worry about what other people think. He needs to trust his own instincts here.

And remind himself that he has nothing to prove to anyone.

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