Sunday 21 January 2018

Managing to fight another day

Pressure is part of the job for imported bosses like Davy Fitzgerald, writes John O'Brien

HOW often do you hear the refrain? Great players don't always make great managers. Enough to stave off the worst effects of recession if you'd a euro each time probably. Roy Keane slinks away from Ipswich, another stain on his coaching reputation, another legend struggling to make the leap into management. Bryan Robson, Peter Reid, Glenn Hoddle, Stuart Pearce. The list goes on. You could form a Premier League of XIs to prove the point.

Yet there's nothing more certain than that Keane will be back in another hot seat sooner rather than later. Another chairman seduced by the allure of packed press conferences and the sulphurous whiff of excitement Keane brings. It's base human instinct. The instant readiness to believe that, despite history, he could still be the man. Success buys you insurance against repeated failure. Just look at the mileage Clive Woodward has got from 2003.

And hurling, more than most sports, buys into the deal. This afternoon Brian Cody (three All-Irelands as a player) will address his Kilkenny team at Croke Park while, down the corridor, Davy Fitzgerald (two All-Irelands) will urge his Waterford players to fight the battle of their lives. A week on Anthony Daly (two All-Irelands) will pit his wits against Declan Ryan (three). Two of the four are All-Ireland-winning captains. All four were noted on-field leaders.

It seems that unless you can walk into a hurling dressing-room with a 'been there, done that' record, the chances of reaching the top as a manager are seriously curtailed. True, Liam Sheedy had a modest inter-county record as a player, serving his time instead as a senior selector and minor manager, but regardless of his solid apprenticeship, Sheedy is merely the exception that proves the rule.

Do the maths. Of the six remaining teams at the quarter-final stage, five could boast All-Ireland-winning managers. Dig deeper and you can throw Cork, Clare, Wexford and Offaly into the mix. A recent discussion with a Galway hurling supporter elicited the strong view that John McIntyre's lack of success as an inter-county player counted against him on the sideline. Harsh, undeniably, but you can see why such a perception would exist.

What is odd is that the same pattern doesn't exist in other sports. From Sheedy to Eamonn Cregan in 1994, six of the last 10 managers to win an All-Ireland hurling title had done so as players. The corresponding figure in Gaelic football is three. Think of the most successful soccer managers and you think of Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho. The world's best rugby coaches mostly don't have stellar playing careers behind them.

Hurling is different, clearly. In a sport with a relatively shallow pool of playing talent and where coaching methods tend to be less scientific, it makes sense that counties would dip into their pools of former greats when filling managerial vacancies. It goes without saying too that if -- like Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary -- you are regularly amassing titles you will invariably have a smoothly-running conveyor belt of suitable options.

If they take risks, they deem them worth taking. In Kilkenny, they would take you back to 1979 when Pat Henderson, a year into retirement, joined Eddie Keher as senior manager and, within four years, had delivered three All-Irelands. And it is easy to forget that when Brian Cody took over in 1998 there was no red carpet laid out. "Nobody was against him or for him," remembers one Kilkenny man. "It was a leap into the dark."

When he took the Clare job in 2003, Daly was a week short of his 34th birthday, the first of a special group of players to make the leap into inter-county management. While it was understandable that they turned to the former captain for inspiration, Clare people might look back now and wonder at the suddenness of it. It isn't that Daly wasn't qualified for the job or didn't take Clare forward, but it is difficult to argue with the assertion that much of what he learned during his three years in charge is now being put to good use in the capital.

It was inevitable, though, that in a sport where the big counties set the template, others would eventually follow. For Waterford, the defining moment came in the mid-1990s when Gerald McCarthy was enticed across the Cork border. The county had a talented crop of underage hurlers at the time but had watched Offaly and Clare reach the summit while they were being left behind. They needed a push and believed the five-time All-Ireland medal winner was the man to provide it.

"I don't think it was a conscious thing," says former player Shane Aherne. "It wasn't a case of going around and finding someone who'd won an All-Ireland. Gerald was available at the time and he was the best man for the job. I got a call asking would I work with him and I had three years there and it was a great learning experience. It's the same with Anthony Daly and Davy Fitzgerald coming in. Fellas can learn a lot from them."

There is the danger, though, of falling into the trap of believing in a high-profile appointment as a magical potion. "If we'd had Gerald McCarthy around 1993 or 1994," Waterford defender Tom Feeney once said, "we could have won a senior All-Ireland." This might sound like a ringing endorsement of McCarthy, but it needs qualification. What Feeney meant was that with the talent they had and the organisation McCarthy would have brought, the blend could have been explosive. The manager wasn't the ultimate solution. All the bits had to blend together.

"You've got to have the right structures in place first," he says. "We thought we might win the All-Ireland in '98 but Offaly won it under Michael Bond. I mean no disrespect but how many All-Irelands had he won? There's no one solution. Yet it helps [having a high-profile manager], but you can do everything right, think you have the perfect set-up and you still mightn't win matches. You need the support of the county board and the players. You have to achieve a fine balance."

Feeney doesn't intend this as any criticism of Fitzgerald whom he believes has done several good things in his three years in charge. He just doesn't believe in cults or miracle men. In the 1990s he knew that Waterford had the talent coming through but not the structures around them to accelerate them towards a breakthrough. McCarthy's presence earlier would have added just one, possibly crucial, piece of a difficult jigsaw.

Perhaps it is the circumstances that dictate. High-profile appointments aren't inherently good or bad, what matters only is the reasons for which they are made. Daly, for example, has worked so well for Dublin because, for all the tireless work that had been done by Tommy Naughton and others, they had reached a point where they desperately needed an external injection and Daly was an ideal candidate to provide that boost. Even before his abilities came into play, Daly had made a difference by the force of his personality alone.

It's easy to imagine Fitzgerald making a good fist of the Dublin job too, but what might work in the capital isn't necessarily what is needed in Waterford where the talent pool is deeper and expectations greater. If there is a nagging criticism of Fitzgerald, it is that the sheer passion he has brought, the magnetic attraction he holds for media and headline-writers, is a distraction from the core business of winning Munster and All-Ireland titles and has led, in some cases, to friction with members of his squad.

Fitzgerald is entitled to answer those charges, of course. Under his watch Waterford are contesting their fourth successive All-Ireland semi-final. They've remained competitive despite being undermined by injuries and the retirements of key players. There is evidence too of decent talent filtering through the ranks. Their cup isn't running over but they haven't gone into reverse like many predicted.

Yet, whatever happens today, big judgements will inevitably be made about Fitzgerald's worth as a manager and his future in the game. He'll either be another ringing endorsement of the high-profile outsider or written off as a beaten docket, the Clare job he reportedly covets no longer an option, held over instead for the next in line from the great team of the '90s.

Three years down the line, though, nobody can expect Fitzgerald to be the perfect manager. Great players don't necessarily make great managers, but they need to be given time. The worst scenario for Waterford is that they are affording Fitzgerald an education that other counties might ultimately benefit from. In the search for an A-list candidate that's sometimes the risk you take.

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