Sunday 21 January 2018

Bell tolls for Cunningham's reign

Even if the players are wrong, the Galway manager cannot silence the clamour for change

A resolution would only realistically seem possible if the players were to relent - which won't happen - or Cunningham decided to resign. It is hard to know how Cunningham can see a way past not resigning
A resolution would only realistically seem possible if the players were to relent - which won't happen - or Cunningham decided to resign. It is hard to know how Cunningham can see a way past not resigning

Dermot Crowe

Late last Saturday night, as reports began to emerge of a vote of no confidence in the Galway hurling manager, Anthony Cunningham's position looked untenable. A week on, he is still in charge, at least officially. He has the job, but the job isn't worth much if he doesn't have the players. And the players remain adamant, even more so it seems than a week ago, that he has lost the dressing room without which no manager can survive.

There are similarities with the recent player unrest in Mayo. When the vote of no confidence in the management surfaced there followed an apparent attempt to split the activists and depict their cause as one led by a minority. When names of players who did not vote against the Holmes-Connelly partnership appeared in the media, it had the opposite effect and merely served to galvanise the players and deepen their conviction. Ultimately, it hastened the demise of the management, who offered their resignation a few days later, with an accompanying letter sounding all the right notes.

Irrespective of the reasons or merits behind the player move, the decision to realise the game was up and emphasise in their statement that Mayo winning the All-Ireland was the overriding concern showed a level of realism that serves Holmes and Connelly well in perpetuity. Even if they were privately angered and deeply hurt, both entirely understandable human responses, they were able to see that by then it had become a damage-limitation exercise. One year is an uncommonly brief lifespan for an inter-county management team; the player move looked ruthless and cold-blooded and it had to be. There could be no grey areas for life is short and life for a prospective Mayo All-Ireland winner shorter still.

Cunningham has had four years and is evidently keen on staying for a fifth, but it is hard to understand how that is viable any longer. The past week has seen some attempt by the county board to stabilise or subdue the atmosphere but the fundamental issue will be dragged, unresolved, into a second week, unlike in Mayo, with a further meeting scheduled between board officials and the players. The county administration seems to think that a compromise is achievable and some see the players as being unfair and unreasonable. There has also been the suggestion, as in Mayo, that this is being orchestrated by a small number of players, some of whom may have axes to grind. To believe that you would have to ascribe very small minds, and a streak of masochism, to those accused.

The players aren't always right but they do expect their views to be respected. They certainly don't expect them to be ignored. Having conveyed a seemingly intractable position to Cunningham two weeks ago, the time since has seen apparent attempts to discredit the players and deliberately misrepresent their position.

First they saw their fundamental point effectively disregarded when Cunningham was ratified 24 hours later, when the manager is reported to have denied, having been asked, any significant player unrest when he was delivering his end-of-year report. On Friday, a newspaper report from an unidentified source suggested that the message to Cunningham on the day before, delivered by four players: Joe Canning, David Burke, Andy Smith and David Collins, wasn't unequivocal. This put a different spin on that meeting and served to create doubt about the players' signals.

That report claimed that Cunningham had offered to resign and when he did the players didn't insist on it. Instead, they wanted a discussion on how issues could be addressed ahead of 2016. According to sources contacted later on Friday, the player delegation is satisfied that it delivered a clear message that the majority of players supported a vote of no confidence in the management team. The manager has not commented publicly on the situation and all parties have been asked to avoid making any comment by the county board as they seek to resolve it. There is a clear contradiction between the players' account of that meeting and that being put out there on behalf of Cunningham. None of this will serve to improve relations between the two parties.

A resolution would only realistically seem possible if the players were to relent - which won't happen - or Cunningham decided to resign. It is hard to know how Cunningham can see a way past not resigning unless he feels that he has the support of the board who will, being slaves to procedure, stand beside the decision to ratify him if possible. They could also face the potential threat of a withdrawal of services by the players. Player strikes in Limerick and Cork were extremely divisive and are seen as a last resort. Being in charge of the appointment process, the board has to recognise what Cunningham doesn't appear capable, or willing, to: that there is no realistic future for the current management team unless the wishes of the players are ignored. If there was confusion about the signals given to Cunningham on Sunday week last, the players remain adamant that a majority do not support the current management.

There is some sympathy for Cunningham's position after he led Galway to a second All-Ireland final in four years. In the wake of an earlier vote of no confidence in the management following this year's National League, the team's form picked up steadily to September and several players advanced their reputations on his watch. But there is nothing to indicate that the players altered their essential view of the management and how it handled preparations and dealt with player issues as they arose. Among the issues said to be raised by players were poor communication and man-management and tactical strategies on match days.

The players have been pilloried by some for an absence of fortitude in matches when it mattered, the second half of last month's All-Ireland final one example cited. Cunningham doesn't escape in that respect either in terms of his sideline response to Kilkenny's game-changing policy of crowding the middle third and suffocating Galway's half-forwards. Ultimately, though, in spite of his best efforts and service to the county, he has lost the support of the players and another week hasn't changed that. Rather, it has hardened their belief that change is needed. Even if he doesn't agree with the direction the players are taking, he must recognise that they are entitled to hold that view and that it is genuine. Ultimately, it doesn't matter who wins an All-Ireland with Galway, manager or players, but that they do.

In Mayo, the appointment process was compromised to some extent from the start when candidate Kevin McStay was informed, ludicrously, that he was being invited to do an interview but he would not be the executive's choice ultimately. In other words, the process was a facade. From the outset, the management team had a beginning that was not regarded, fairly or unfairly, as entirely independent and above reproach.

Galway, too, had this nagging concern hanging over Cunningham's success in a vote last year when his challenger was a former coaching colleague in his first two years in charge, Mattie Kenny. After both men were tied on 3-3 the chairman's casting vote saw Cunningham reinstated. The chairman has a family connection to one of Cunningham's management team. Would it not have made sense, to avoid any potential suggestion of bias, to find another way to resolve the stalemate?

These are issues around having an appointments process which must be - and must be seen to be - fair and bulletproof.

Cunningham came in with Kenny and Tom Helebert after winning the 2011 All-Ireland under 21 title and has contributed a lot of good things in his time holding the senior post. Similar success with Mayo's under 21s in 2006 had been one of the Holmes-Connelly selling points but that was nine years ago, and even if it were yesterday, there is a world of difference between managing an under 21 team over a relatively short period of time and being responsible for a senior squad.

Senior inter-county players are demanding and they may be unreasonable. In many cases they may know more about aspects of preparation and management than the guys in charge. They are not fools. They want to win like everyone else and how they manage that and with whom is of no consequence so long as they do. That is the reality, unsentimental and sometimes harsh, of modern inter-county life among the counties lucky enough to have aspirations towards winning All-Irelands. And, indeed, many that don't.

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