Monday 11 November 2019

Dermot Crowe: 'Demand for high-profile outside appointments preventing a culture of continuity taking root'

 

The departure of Micheál Donoghue as Galway hurling manager has created a headache for the county board as they struggle to appoint a replacement. Photo: Sportsfile
The departure of Micheál Donoghue as Galway hurling manager has created a headache for the county board as they struggle to appoint a replacement. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

By Thursday last, as another day passed, the news from Galway wasn't much clearer.

The Connacht Tribune went to press with a back page of potential prospects for the vacant post of senior hurling manager, without encouraging readers to lay the mortgage on any of them. The idea that a county that reached the ultimate pedestal as recently as two years ago should be in such a bind made for a salutary lesson in the fickle nature of sporting success and adulation. 

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Who knows that if Joe Canning hadn't got injured, or had Conor Whelan not broken down at that point where he was causing Dublin's backline serious torment in June, how the season might have unfolded. Would they really be at this juncture now? But the departure of Micheál Donoghue, in a disagreement with the board over funding and resources issues, has left the county in a spin.

And so, Galway remain managerless heading towards Halloween. The worry being that the progress they made in winning a first senior All-Ireland in almost 30 years isn't frittered away in a very public show of disunity and financial imbroglio. But there is a question, too, raised about management appointments in hurling in general. The same names keep cropping up whenever a major vacancy arises. The task for those charged with filling that hole is an unenviable one and the position itself has become hugely pressurised and onerous.

From casual observation you can see that Cork, the biggest county in Ireland with the most clubs and a huge hurling tradition, has returned Kieran Kingston this year to the position he vacated a few seasons ago. Not that they were unhappy to do so, or that he isn't fit for the role, but the list of viable candidates, further reduced by Cork's preference for a man of the soil, appeared strikingly modest.

Davy Fitzgerald, driving forbidding distances to manage Wexford, had the county in a panic while his position remained uncertain. Fitzgerald has already managed Clare and Waterford, leading both to All-Ireland finals. He is hardly a journeyman given his track record but he has burnt copious quantities of diesel and was even linked to the Galway position before committing to Wexford.

And in Dublin, they moved the goalposts even more dramatically just over 10 years ago when John Costello, the county's CEO, made it his business to do the travelling and headed west to talk to Anthony Daly. It proved a masterstroke but required a major time and travel commitment on Daly's part. Long before that, Justin McCarthy broke the mould when driving bad roads from Cork to Clare in the 1970s to coach the hurling team.

Derek Kent is chairman of the Wexford County Board, which is considered one of the more efficiently governed county administrations. It is in a healthy financial position, enjoys excellent infrastructure and a healthy record of achievement on the field. But he had to go through the stress, too, of another reappointment, the third in hurling during his three years in office.

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"What I would say is, it's not a nice situation," says Kent. "It's difficult for the Galway County Board, for the hurlers, and for the supporters. It is something that I wouldn't wish on any chairman."

How stressful would that be? "Well, how stressful was it for Derek Kent for four or five weeks wondering if Davy Fitz was coming back? You are in the public domain. You are going for a cup of coffee, you are going for a drink, you are going for a meal, you are going for a walk. You are asked 24/7: 'What's happening, what's happening?'. So you can imagine what it's like up in Galway. And this (chairman) is a volunteer that's giving up many hours a week."

When Daly went to Dublin he replaced a native in Tommy Naughton, who had made good progress and had solid credentials. But Dublin felt the game needed a big-name appointment. Eleven years later they are on their third manager since Daly left. Two have been from outside, Ger Cunningham coming from Cork and the incumbent, Mattie Kenny, being a Galway native, although arriving while coaching Cuala.

Surely, there has to be a time when Dublin can produce its own county managers, cultivating them in the same way that they prepare their players through the development squads? If counties have started that process to an extent, it hasn't filtered through in any meaningful way. Clare did appoint Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor, who served their time in the academies and underage system, but they are in the minority, and even then they retained Donal Óg Cusack from the previous management set-up, guided by his popularity with the players and high profile.

"The problem starts at club level," says Kent. "How many clubs would have outside managers?" This, he says, creates the culture of looking beyond the parish from grassroots up. There is a corresponding under-appreciation of those who are home-grown, like the prophet in his own land. "What it also does is that it doesn't give us an option to have our own inside manager," states Kent. "How can we breed managers if we are appointing them (outsiders) in the clubs?"

He says the Fitzgerald appointment (where, as he puts it, the expertise is "sub contracted" into the county) is justified until they find their own feet. And he argues that it is making Wexford a more attractive option for successors when Fitzgerald takes his leave. But the future is either to pay managers or to follow a more organic model. "In Wexford we changed it," says Kent. "We looked at our squads and identified potential managers that can become a minor manager or under 20 or senior manager. We have the Davy Fitzs and those lads working with our younger managers. Take our minor football manager, David Murphy, he was a selector with Banty (Seamus McEnaney). He could go on some day to be manager of Wexford. I am not saying he will. So the policy we have taken is not to give the job of a squad to a fella for the sake of it, but give it to a lad who could take over the senior football or hurling team in 10 years' time."

Kent talks of the need for continuity, not just from management team to management team, but also in the main county board officer positions. He cites the often token position of vice-chairman which doesn't automatically lead to an elevation to the main position. The vice-chair is there during the chairman's term as witness to all the main business deals and decision making, yet the next chairman might come from outside that loop.

Efforts in Galway to create continuity by retaining the services of outgoing selectors Noel Larkin and Francis Forde did not prove fruitful. Neither could countenance it, having been part of Donoghue's backroom team. The sponsor came out asking questions about money and accountability. The players made their frustration known. The chairman was being depicted in some quarters as the villain of the piece.

Galway has had chronic financial issues that long preceded the current chairman's time. That it has tightened the budget is no surprise but Galway county teams are not short-changed. The demands are going through the roof on that score, however, and backroom teams now contain a dizzy number of personnel covering every conceivable aspect of team preparation.

"I think there is a perception out there that some are getting a lot of money," John McIntyre, sports editor of the Connacht Tribune says of inter-county managers. "Then there's others who are not getting much and doing it for the love of it. The amateur ethos of the GAA is compromised by all of that. Not the most popular people, perceived as having got too much power. That they mess with club fixtures and all the rest. I really think it has got to the stage, it is basically a full-time job now."

McIntyre, a former manager of Galway himself, sees a salaried position as a possible solution to ease the burden on county boards by attracting a wider range of candidates. Donoghue would have been welcome back but refused to row back. When a manager is giving that kind of commitment and operating under that level of pressure any strains in the working relationships with county board officers can quickly become amplified.

One former county manager, part of a committee charged with finding a manager for a leading hurling county, spoke of a process fraught with difficulty. "There's too much commitment now, there's too much pressure, there's too much time. One time you could get a little bit of flexibility in your job if you were managing; that doesn't seem to be the case now. It's nearly not practical. Unless you take it up full-time. And then you are in breach of the amateur status. It is tough. It is the same fellas going around. Even then you need a team of coaches and selectors around you. It is proving to be very difficult. It is even tougher when the few lads doing the rounds are no longer there."

Surely there must a better way? "I would have thought there would be more people involved at (local) club level, at third level, at minor and under 20 level, but there aren't. It's nearly the same lads involved," says the same source. "It is something that is going to have to be addressed at county board level and maybe Croke Park level. It is a tough job (finding a suitable candidate). It is very difficult to keep the media at bay. It can be a very slow process but you have to go through the process and be courteous. If there is no suitable candidate after the expressions of interest you have to go making phone calls and go looking and that could be anywhere from Cork to Donegal the way it's gone."

McIntyre has had first-hand experience of that process and been a close observer of Galway appointments. While the chairman, Pat Kearney, has come in for criticism, and is considered an old school type who can dig in his heels, McIntyre says management needs an element of compromise.

"I remember having to repeatedly ring the treasurer to get my ancillary staff paid," says McIntyre. "We sent a player off one evening for cryotherapy and they wanted to know why we didn't look for permission beforehand. But to me that is run-of-the-mill stuff."

There are clear governance issues too for the GAA to deal with. Galway is one of a number of counties that has encountered financial strife through poor, or unfortunate, fiscal planning and policies.

In 2012, after becoming GAA president, Liam O'Neill talked of the need for clubs, and by extension counties, to change the mindset around appointing outside managers. A realignment of the balance of power and influence between the board officers and those managing teams had also become a critical issue for the GAA, he argued.

"County managers are in charge of the most important brand in a county, the county team," O'Neill said then. "Strong counties don't have to have managers that are bigger than the county boards; this comes from the tiers below that, who have a county chairman who has only five years and wants to achieve something.

"So they take in the big manager, import him in, and once you do that you then become his slave. Because in your five-year term you can't fall out with him and be the one who lost the manager. So you are at that disadvantage the whole time. The balance of power shifts."

He said counties and clubs needed to become self-sufficient like they were in the past. "We try to enforce the rules as best we can, then we find some other way. The amount paid to managers by clubs, I think we need to actually put those figures on the table. I would say the amount of money is staggering and can't be sustained, and won't in the current climate anyway.

"We are actively working towards self-sufficiency. Every club and county would have qualified coaches, and the better ones would coach the county teams - that is the ideal. We are only going back to what we did before. We have gone away from it. We are going back to something from our own lifetime, it is not that difficult."

But seven years later there is no appreciable difference and in Galway the chairman, whatever his flaws, has been placed in an invidious position even though he is the democratically elected choice of the clubs. How to merge the players into the process of appointments is also a key consideration. In Clare recently there was a palpable absence of consultation. In Galway the players have made their dissatisfaction over the loss of Donoghue known. The general and sensible view is that they are consulted and afforded respect and courtesy but that their influence doesn't exceed acceptable boundaries. Players, for the most part, are happy to stay clear but are entitled to ask questions if they feel the process is failing them.

"I have a relationship with them," says Derek Kent. "You contact one or two of the senior players. Just to give them the heads up. The main thing is that you have a dialogue with the players and they respect you and trust you."

Kent talks of financial prudence at a time when county team costs are spiralling to record levels. "Davy Fitz got to an All-Ireland semi-final for €405,000. The players funded €20,000 of that themselves so the net cost was €385,000. That is published in the Convention report. I don't think any senior hurling team got to an All-Ireland semi-final for €385,000, so we have a budget. So we sit down with Davy Fitz. We look at the budget. And to be fair to him he works within that budget. And, likewise, Paul Galvin (the new Wexford football manager), the very same. We manage the budget on a fortnightly basis."

In Galway Jeffrey Lynskey would have fitted that profile of a manager who went through the academies and had success with Galway underage teams, winning three All-Ireland minor titles in four years. But he withdrew.

A difference of opinion with Donoghue over a strength and conditioning coach may have been a factor. "Jeffrey is very much his own man, himself and Micheál didn't get on, that's an open secret," says McIntyre. "I think because of that maybe the perception of Jeffrey Lynskey by some members of the senior hurling team would not be positive. I think he picked up on that vibe and that's why he hasn't put his name forward."

But even if that had not been an impediment, would his name have resonated with players? Box office appeal remains a strong selling point and that mentality is so embedded that it would take a brave county chairman to stand firm and go in a different direction. The term of office is limited and most prefer the line of least resistance and to find a popular candidate.

What follows is not continuity or long term planning, but a series of short term solutions. Where a manager is reappointed and is faced with the choice of going with the tried and trusted players or blooding new ones, he is more likely to stay with he ones he can trust. Even if the medium term or longer term would be better served by developing younger players he knows he is unlikely to be around to suffer the consequences.

"I suppose the big thing now is moulding players from as young as under 12 or 14, having them on conditioning programmes at 15-16. Maybe you need to be doing that with potential young coaches as well. So they are being moulded and developed as well," says McIntyre.

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