Thursday 14 December 2017

Safety in numbers for the modern manager

A sizeable supporting cast is a prerequisite in management today, says Damian Lawlor

JUST days after his side beat Dublin in this year's All-Ireland under 21 hurling final, Galway manager Anthony Cunningham was asked if he would consider putting his name forward for the county's senior job.

"I am interested but we will be going forward as a management team en bloc," he answered. "Mattie Kenny and Tom Helebert, as coaches, have done an excellent job all year. We would be interested."

And largely, that's the way it is now -- the cult of the manager is evolving gradually. No longer are county boards automatically searching for one man, instead they are leaning towards a manager-coach axis.

These days, the responsibilities resting on a manager's shoulder are massive. Unless you have plenty of free time it's extremely taxing to hold down a job while training a team. After departing the Tipperary hot-seat, Liam Sheedy revealed that both he and coach Eamon O'Shea had endured 16-hour days between work commitments and training. It was not sustainable.

There are exceptions of course, Brian Cody, Mickey Harte and Jack O'Connor come to mind, but a sea change has undoubtedly occurred.

Apart from considering Cunningham's team for the hurling gig, for instance, the Galway football executive might also lean on a manager-coach double act. Liam Sammon is hotly tipped to provide coaching and tactical expertise for under 21 boss Alan Mulholland, who is soon expected to be installed as senior manager.

The Waterford County Board thought long and hard about offering their senior hurling post to Jason Ryan, although it now seems likely that he will remain with Wexford footballers. It was informally mooted that Ryan would man the front line with James McGarry taking charge of drills, tactics and game-plans. The idea was novel -- McGarry is an astute reader of the game, says little in public but has been fast learning his trade with Ballyhale Shamrocks. Ryan, meanwhile, is a born motivator, effusive, top-class organiser and a good delegator.

Although Davy Fitzgerald will be considered the 'main man' in Clare, no one should be under any doubt that he will bring with him a highly specialised backroom, likely to include Brian Lohan. Lohan, a unifying figure in his native county, brings many qualities to the table.

The Limerick board could also request that Ciarán Carey assembles an equally formidable support team if he gets their top job, likewise Offaly if Ollie Baker gets the nod there.

This is a far cry from when managers would do everything on their own. Mick O'Dwyer famously liked to oversee every aspect of his side's preparation.

The veteran trainer was asked recently about the growth of this new manager/coach model. He didn't much like it. And he hadn't much liked it when his Laois team, fed up of laps, called for a different trainer some years back, implying that the Waterville man was no longer equipped to train teams in the modern era. "There was a three-quarter empty feeling in Laois and it appears it was all my fault," he wrote in his autobiography. "Defeats by Armagh in 2003 and 2005 and Tyrone in 2004 raised doubts among supporters -- and players too -- about my training methods, my selections and my tactical approach. It seems I was out of touch with modern trends and demands. Never mind that I had been training teams since my teenage days or that my record with Kerry, Kildare and Laois suggested that I managed to get some things right over the years. Times had changed and now Mickey Harte and Joe Kernan were the managerial messiahs whose methods had to be copied."

O'Dwyer's record is head and shoulders above anyone's, but the modern game is miles away from the era in which the Kerryman combined three roles -- manager, trainer and coach.

A few years back the GPA conducted a survey which gave an insight into the changing direction of football. It showed that players in the full-back and full-forward lines made 45-65 runs per game, half-backs and half-forwards 55-75 and midfielders usually made 85 runs per game.

These figures now influence the type of training players do. Bar the pre-season slog, trainers concentrate on shorter spurts rather than the long-distance gruelling which Micko loved. On average, players change direction over 360 times in the current game, meaning the drills that involve running or sprinting in straight lines only scratch the surface of game simulation.

There's no way a manager can command all the knowledge required to fully prepare a team for the championship, nor can he possess the relevant qualifications or expertise in the areas of fitness, strength and conditioning which players now expect.

As Tipp manager, Liam Sheedy oversaw the entire show with then trainer Cian O'Neill designing and pruning a strength and conditioning programme. O'Shea took the coaching and devised technical and tactical plans. This was as close to a professional rugby set-up as you will get and it delivered an All-Ireland title.

Dublin adopted a similar approach with Pat Gilroy leaning heavily on Mickey Whelan. Limerick football remained way above its station for five years thanks to the Donie Buckley-Mickey Ned O'Sullivan partnership; likewise Peter Fitzpatrick's tenure at Louth greatly benefited from the input of former coach Peter McDonnell.

But not everyone embraced the ideal. Derry manager John Brennan, for one, wouldn't have any of that. He is old school and not afraid to say it but the truth is that the likes of Brennan and O'Dwyer are increasingly in the minority.

The winter should see more managers appointed to lead the orchestra while the specialists create their own rhythm.

One man well qualified to speak of this evolving nature of inter-county management is Cork ladies football manager, Eamon Ryan, who last weekend won a sixth All-Ireland title with the team. Ryan puts the structures in place and lets his team get on with it. "I now view my role as to create a positive environment where the player can flourish and become the best player they can be," he says.

That's the way the game is quickly moving. A manager serves the players and professionals are appointed to ease the load and provide expertise, such as defensive or offensive plans, psychology and sports science.

Conditioning, coaching and tactical development all need to be synergised; players need clarity and also need to see that everyone is heading in the same direction. But there are dangers attached, because where opinions and emotions run high you can have diluted communications.

Headstrong bosses, while recognising the abilities of their coaches, don't always give them sufficient air time which leads to frustration. Last year, one Leinster football county lost a highly thoughtful and capable coach simply for this reason.

Another prominent football county saw its coach impress the whole squad with his work on a training camp but that coach, to the disappointment of nearly everyone involved, scarcely got an opportunity to build on his work as he was effectively sidelined for the rest of their campaign.

County boards need to be aware of the perils and pitfalls of such arrangements. "Yes, but if it's handled right, teams get a huge lift from having the best of everything at their disposal," says one manager. "You're going to see a lot more demarcation among modern managerial teams. There is an extra cost factor to consider, but county boards know what a modern-day boss must deal with."

There's only so far county boards will go, but if they believe strongly enough that the right backroom team will deliver, they'll have to go for it.

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