Wednesday 19 June 2019

Tomás Ó Sé: I'd love to be Kerry manager some day - it's the biggest job in Irish sport, even with the abuse

The scrutiny and criticism of county managers is on a par with that faced by their millionaire counterparts in England

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

The first game Kerry played after my uncle Páidí's famous description of our supporters as "the roughest type of f**king animals you could deal with" was a league match down in Cork.

We were out doing our warm-up when, next thing, this fella materialised outside the wire dressed as an ape, jumping up and down and scratching his arm-pits. It took us a few seconds before the penny dropped. Then Páidí looked across at me and the two of us just burst out laughing. How could you do anything else?

Páidí was tired of fire-fighting at that stage. His first strategy for dealing with the uproar was to suggest that he actually meant the description as a compliment. Needless to say, that didn't cut much ice, so he went to a late cousin of ours, Monsignor Pádraig ó Fiannachta, an Irish language scholar who'd spent much of his life as a lecturer in Maynooth.

A hugely intelligent man, Pádraig returned to serve as parish priest in Dingle in 1992 on his academic retirement and Páidí often sought his counsel around that time.

So the Monsignor came out batting for him, referencing the importance of animals in history and suggesting that, maybe, Páidí's remark lost its apparent harshness once taken in the context of his familiarity with the Irish language. In other words, the word 'ainmhí' wasn't as derogatory as its English equivalent! Looking back, it was a howl of a time. Darragh and I were only talking about it recently, about how the story took on an almost comical life of its own.

Poisonous But you know something? Maybe history is communicating the point that Páidí was trying to get across in '03. Because surely everybody with half a brain recognised that his comment was directed at a small percentage of poisonous individuals who have neither any understanding of or, being honest, genuine interest in football. As a consequence, they have no respect for players or managers.

These people are happy to cut the legs from under you. They are energised by the bad days, instinctively making everything personal. I mean, within the dressing-room, we wouldn't have been aware of the stuff Páidí was encountering, but he was obviously getting it left, right and centre. This was pre-social media, so the only way to abuse you was through a letter or a phone call.

When the story broke, I always felt it was a bit like an episode of 'Dad's Army', everyone running for cover, county board officials and ex team-mates dissociating themselves from the words of one of their own. The description "a disgrace" got plenty of airing back then. Too many were happy to fall in line with an idea that he'd been targeting every Kerry supporter.

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Yes, we'd lost big games - to Meath in '01 and Armagh in '02. And, maybe, the Kerry sense of entitlement was kicking in with some people.

That happened again in recent weeks as indicated by the abuse Eamonn Fitzmaurice took after Kerry were knocked out of the championship. So much so, it might make you ask, 'Who in their right mind would want to be a GAA manager in today's world?' Because it's a virtual bloodsport now. I mean everybody I meet talks about the respect they had for Fitzmaurice. The media, the county board, most of the (fair-minded) public. And we saw what the players thought of the man, convening in his home village of Lixnaw for a few drinks after he'd stepped down.

But it was Eamonn who closed the gates of Killarney to supporters on training nights and, maybe, some of them never forgave him for that. On top of that, a lot of people seemed to buy into the idea that Kerry were, somehow, being held back by Eamonn's tactics. Total nonsense in my opinion.

We've kind of followed the English football path here, not just in the proliferation of dieticians and physiologists and sports psychologists, but in the merciless scrutiny of the people involved too. Suddenly players and managers are being analysed from every imaginable angle and by every imaginable voice. Today, the tiniest detail of a game gets picked apart and, in every county, the man holding the show together is the senior manager.

Like I've done a bit of coaching, but there's a huge difference between that and management. You can be a hugely influential coach like Paddy Tally was in Galway and, yet, not be in the spotlight. He, clearly, liked it that way. My understanding is that he only did one night a week, yet that night became absolutely central to making Galway the team that they were in 2018. It will be interesting to see how he fares in the hot-seat in Down next season.

The big trick for Galway now is getting the balance right between defence and attack. Because the simplest part of the game is making your team difficult to score against. The hardest? Getting an attack to work.

Ultimately, the big calls on that will come down to Kevin Walsh and, if I'm honest, that side of things actually appeals to me. The challenge of keeping all those plates spinning in the air without dropping any. People continually ask me if I'd like to get involved in management. The answer is, yes, I'd love to. At what level? I don't mind. But I'd want to do it right if I was going to do it at all.

Down the road, I'll admit I would love to get involved with Kerry at any level. But, I'll need to do an apprenticeship somewhere first. I understand that.

Why would you want to be involved? Because, make no mistake, there's a buzz that comes with it. Anyway, to me, the biggest job in Irish sport is manager of Kerry. Now I know that's highly arguable depending upon what sport you're into. But my game is Gaelic football and, in that domain, there's no job bigger than Kerry. There's always an expectation. I felt that expectation as a player, but it must be multiplied ten-fold when you're the manager, the main man.

And the likes of Jack O'Connor and Eamonn Fitz, or Micko and the late Páidí before them, could tell you how rough it gets when things go wrong. Come to think of it, probably every Kerry manager in history has got some inkling of it at one point or another.

Now I'd never describe the Kerry job as a poisoned chalice, it isn't. But, by God, it's a role that'll test you in every way imaginable. And there's not a shred of doubt in my mind that it's full-time in everything but name.

Like, I get the impression Jim Gavin has things down to a tee with Dublin. He's ruthless and completely unapologetic about it. So he doesn't give a fiddler's about media, about clubs or, God knows, about Pat Gilroy and the hurlers. I'm told he has permanent use of a room in The Gibson Hotel, where he meets players or backroom staff whenever he feels the need arise.

Gavin controls everything to the point that, in interviews, his players sound coached almost to within an inch of their lives. It makes them seem borderline robotic, although you get the odd glimpse then of a gem of a character in someone like Jack McCaffrey. Jim clearly prefers to have what he considers a tight control on every message conveyed and worries that that control would weaken if the group became more accessible.

Look, Dublin's success brooks no argument in that regard. But I honestly don't think it would affect these Dublin players in any adverse way to engage less guardedly with the outside world. That might sound hypocritical coming from someone who avoided doing interviews during his playing days, but that was a personal choice. It wasn't imposed.

Make no mistake, there are plenty of players in every county completely comfortable with media engagement. Those who aren't simply should never have to do it.

I mean I found Michael Murphy fascinating when he appeared recently on 'The Sunday Game'. He was completely honest about his role within the Donegal team and it was so refreshing to hear a player giving a level of insight that is so seldom given these days. I'd genuinely love to hear more from people like Stephen Cluxton and Ciarán Kilkenny and Bernard Brogan about their lives as Dublin footballers.

Look, my admiration for this Dublin team has been well-documented in these pages. Given the success they've had, it's hard to argue with any single aspect of their operation. I see huge similarities between Gavin and Joe Schmidt who, I understand, is a good buddy. And I wouldn't be surprised if they feed off one another for information, because there's something unemotional about how they both go about their business. It's militaristic in a way, always adhering to stuff like process and structure.

But it strikes me now too that the best GAA managers put in every bit as much time as their counterparts in rugby and soccer. I was talking recently to Cork City manager John Caulfield, who told me their typical training arrangements. If they don't have a midweek game, they might do two gym sessions that week, while training every day.

A top GAA player does much the same. By that, I mean they'll do something nearly every day geared towards their life as a county hurler or footballer. The collective aspect of training might be confined to two nights a week, but that's only the starting point.

So I'd say Gavin puts every bit as much time into Dublin as John Caulfield puts into Cork City or Leo Cullen puts into Leinster Rugby. And I'd say Gavin has a backroom staff every bit as extensive as those that Caulfield and Cullen can access. Every angle gets covered. More than that, the likes of Dublin and Tyrone and Kerry now have state-of-the-art facilities. John Kiely, I'm told, had well over 50 people in the Limerick set-up, including players and backroom staff last weekend. Even club teams can have up to 15 backroom staff.

I was reading recently where Donnacha O'Connor was talking of Cork having something like four or five different strength and conditioning coaches in as many seasons. How can you have continuity in that situation?

You haven't a hope these days if stuff like that isn't being absolutely nailed. You know, to this day, I hear people giving out about Páidí's decision in 2000 that Maurice Fitz was a better man coming in off the bench. Even though we won that All-Ireland, it got thrown at him for a long time afterwards. Would I have started Maurice? Honestly? It would have been hard not to. I mean you had the likes of Noel Kennelly, Aodán MacGearailt and Liam Hassett starting and I know they wouldn't be offended by anybody saying that they weren't in Maurice's league in terms of pure talent. Let's be straight, nobody was.

But the trouble for Páidí was that Maurice wasn't able to put three training sessions back-to-back. The game was changing and he understood that. So he was trying to get the Kerry forwards to work incredibly hard and protect our backs in recognition of that change. In saying that, he was never going to publicly question Maurice Fitz's ability to work that hard either. Supporters were entitled to disagree with him. The important thing, I suppose, was how they did it.

If I have a regret from this year, it's that an article I did on Kildare might have been seen as having a personalised go at Cian O'Neill. That wasn't the intention. The intention was to emphasise how much they were underachieving as a group and needed to take responsibility for that fact. And, in the end, the 'Newbridge or Nowhere' campaign probably made them do that.

unified Something clicked and, suddenly, they looked a hugely unified group.

The point is that when they were on the floor, I wasn't focusing on any player or member of O'Neill's backroom team. I was tossing my bombs straight at O'Neill. That's how it works. He was the man in charge, the point where the buck always had to stop. Is that entirely fair? Probably not, is my honest answer. But he's the conductor, the man who must control everything.

I played golf with Declan Ryan lately and he made an interesting point. With Tipperary hurlers failing to get out of Munster this summer, Michael Ryan was getting dog's abuse. 'You'd swear the man was a criminal the way some people were going on,' said Declan, a former Tipp manager himself.

This just two years after Michael Ryan had brought the Liam MacCarthy home! Declan told me there were a few big calls he'd make differently if he ever had his own time as Tipp boss back again. And it struck me that every manager must end up feeling that way.

The problem is that, in the end, Eamonn Fitz almost got judged in the same way as Jose Mourinho gets judged at Manchester United. And that's absurd. GAA managers have no moats around them to keep their public at bay. They use the same shops, walk the same streets. They have NO privacy.

And, if things go pear-shaped, that becomes a pretty brutal existence. Presumably an incredibly lonely one too. Because the blame doesn't get shared around, it gets personalised. Social media is the petrol thrown on the fire then and, sadly, that holds some audience. Drive past a bus-stop these days and, if there are six people there, a minimum of five will have their heads in a phone. So that's a fairly unforgiving climate in which to be a high-profile manager. Why would you honestly want to do it? It's getting harder to answer that question.

But that's the madness of it too. Wouldn't you love to have a crack?

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