The tale of six hurling managers
THREE from Tipperary, two of them working in foreign territory, a Clare man with a Capital plan, a Rebel battling to revive the cause and an Offaly warrior working to steer the ship out of becalmed waters.
They are the six managers who control the helms as the hurling championship heads for the first big day of the 2011 season. Five of the six -- Dinny Cahill is the exception -- won All-Ireland senior medals as players, but they are in a different environment now and know they will be judged accordingly.
Their targets vary too as do the pressures. For Declan Ryan and Tipperary, nothing less than an All-Ireland title would make it a successful season, while a second win for Antrim in Leinster tomorrow would crown their campaign, irrespective of how they fared after that.
For the other four, Anthony Daly (Dublin), Joe Dooley (Offaly), Denis Walsh (Cork) and Colm Bonnar (Wexford)), the bar is set at different levels too. However, all six have one thing in common -- they will be judged by the toughest of criteria in an age when the public demand excellence, not excuses.
C'ship games: 0
When it was announced that Ryan wouldn't be returning as Tipperary set out in pursuit of the All-Ireland double in 2002, their supporters sensed trouble. Even manager, Nicky English admitted it reduced their chances of retaining the title.
"No county can lose a man like Declan without feeling the effects. He'd be considered one of the super players in any generation. He certainly owes Tipp nothing," said English at the time.
Nine years on, Ryan is back, having taken out a new mortgage in the Tipperary name. He does so in unusual circumstances, becoming one of the few managers to take on a team as All-Ireland champions.
There's a view that it's the ultimate no-win situation. If Tipp retain the All-Ireland, some of the credit will go to Liam Sheedy for putting down the winning platform. If they lose, the blame will fall on Ryan's shoulders.
And then there's the question of how the players react. There will be a warm glow all round if Liam MacCarthy remains in Tipp, but what if he goes elsewhere? By their nature, players look beyond themselves in the blame game. The risk for the manager is all the greater when he inherits a successful side.
There are precedents for this type of managerial handover, some successful, some not. Mickey Whelan had a most unhappy tenure with Dublin footballers after taking from Dr Pat O'Neill following the 1995 All-Ireland win, eventually resigning during the 1997 League.
However, the transition ran smoothly in Cork in 2005 when they retained the hurling title under John Allen, who took over from Donal O'Grady. In Kerry, Pat O'Shea completed the football double in 2007, following the departure of Jack O'Connor in 2006.
In 1997, Wexford hurlers retained the Leinster title under Rory Kinsella, who had replaced Liam Griffin following the previous year's All-Ireland win, but were beaten by Tipperary in the semi-final.
Ryan (and Tommy Dunne) carry the advantage of having worked with many of the Tipperary players at underage level. It guarantees nothing, but Ryan accepted that when the senior challenge presented itself he had to take it. It's how he played the game throughout a great career, so it was hardly going to be any different in management. Making it work is now the big test.
C'ship games: P9, W4, D1, L4
There must be occasions when Walsh wonders what it would have been like to manage Cork at a different time. He took over in the most difficult circumstances after the county had once again dipped into its energy resources to fight another Civil War.
Once over, there was a tendency for Cork to assume that not only would normal service be restored quickly, but that it was only a matter of time before the silver variety arrived. It was never going to be that simple.
While Cork obsessed with itself, others were moving on. Walsh gave the old guard every chance to re-assert themselves, but with the surprise exception of last year's championship win over Tipperary, the pool remained largely stagnant. By the end of last August, it was clear he had to sluice it out.
His decision to omit Sean Og O hAilpin last October pointed to a change of direction which is being carried on tomorrow when he sends out a much-changed team from last year.
Question is, what happens if Cork have another mediocre season? Will he be blamed, even if he did inherit a difficult set-up, comprised of players who had been ultra-successful and fiercely independent-minded, but who were beginning to lose altitude and back-up troops whose quality hadn't been fully tested.
The County Board and public allowed Jimmy Barry-Murphy enough time to build a team in the 1990s, but times are different now. Besides, players were more acquiescent back then.
Walsh did Cork hurling a huge service as a player and again when he agreed to take over after such a fractious period in the county's history. Whatever happens this year, he deserves to be allowed make his own decision as to whether he wants to continue.
3 Anthony Daly
C'ship games: P8, W4, L4
(Managed Clare in 2003-2006. Titles: 0)
The problem with raising expectations is that once you reach a previously unconquered peak, it becomes base camp. Smaller mountains, which appeared so intimidating in the past, are now regarded as little hills, so it doesn't matter how often you scale them, there's no real satisfaction.
Dublin's progress this spring, culminating in the demolition of Kilkenny in the Allianz League final, has increased their share price to levels not seen since they last won the Leinster title in 1961. Managing that is as much a challenge for Daly as plotting a way through new and dangerous terrain.
Consider this. Waterford or Limerick can reach the Munster final -- and by extension guarantee themselves a place in the All-Ireland quarter-final by beating the other -- whereas Dublin would need to oust Offaly and Galway (bar a Devon Loch-style collapse against Westmeath) to qualify for the Leinster final.
And if Dublin achieve that, they will almost certainly be greeted by a snarling Kilkenny, intent on re-asserting themselves after the League final wipe-out.
Daly has one big advantage in his juggling act between keeping expectations in check and increasing momentum. Coming from Clare, he knows all about how underdogs react once the upswing begins.
Richard Stakelum has experience of that too, albeit of a different nature. For while Tipperary hurling is usually not short of self-confidence, the generation he led to Munster glory in 1987 had experienced nothing but empty summers.
Daly is now facing a challenge which is both satisfying and worrying at the same time. Up to now, opposition took Dublin largely at face value and played them on their merits. Most of the super-powers believed that when it came down to a death-or-win shoot-out, Dublin would blink first.
Things have changed. From tomorrow on, Dublin players will find that they have been analysed in such minute detail that roads which widened into motorways all spring have suddenly narrowed to avenues. The test for Daly is to show them how to get back on the fast lane again.
4 Joe Dooley
C'ship games: P10, W3, D1, L6
It was always going to be a rough ride for Dooley and it isn't getting any smoother. Offaly hurling has slipped an awful long way from the heights it enjoyed during his career and, indeed before that, but there's always residual tendency to believe that they can turn things around and revisit the glory years they enjoyed between 1980 and 2000.
Dooley and his immediate predecessors have been fishing from a relatively shallow pool and while Offaly are capable of raising their game on a given day, they are no longer able to maintain it at a level which challenges for titles.
Luck isn't Dooley's closest ally either. Offaly head into tomorrow's clash with Dublin without several first choices, a handicap they are ill-equipped to bear.
For all that, a county like Offaly is judged by the high standards it set in the good years, so Dooley won't be short of internal critics if the season peters out tamely. All the more so since Division 2 awaits them next year unless there's another restructuring of the format.
An All-Ireland quarter-final place is probably the limit of Offaly's range nowadays and, even then, they would need luck in running to get there. Given the tough draw they were handed in Leinster, their best chance of advancement appears to be through the qualifiers.
As a player, Dooley was one of the most consistent performers in Offaly history, so it was understandable that supporters believed he could restore stability among the current crop. It was never going to be that simple.
Dooley brings the same honesty as manager as he did in his playing days, but he's no longer surrounded by men who can stare down any opposition. It's just the way things are in Offaly at present. Mind you, that doesn't mean they won't fix a very evil eye on Dublin tomorrow. That's the way things have always been in Offaly.
5 Colm Bonnar
C'ship games: P5, W1, L4
On March 27, Wexford endured their fifth straight Division 1 League defeat. Worse still, it was against Offaly who, from the start of the campaign, were always their most likely rivals in the relegation battle.
It was a grim time for Wexford, leading inevitably to analysis as to how and why they were in such a perilous position, while there was also speculation as to the damage another spell in Division 2 would inflict.
On April 17, Wexford drew with Tipperary, having beaten Cork in the interim. Those three points edged them above Offaly and into safety. Bonnar and his players could now look towards the championship through a much clearer lens. They could even begin to dream again.
It certainly provided Bonnar with a much-needed break, but only on a temporary basis. One win from five championship games over two years is not what Wexford had in mind when, for reasons which were light on logic and heavy on impulsiveness, they decided to dispense with John Meyler's services after coming within a point of Waterford in the 2008 All-Ireland quarter-final.
Given Wexford's response to that defeat, it was surprising they didn't react more aggressively when they lost to Galway and Tipperary last year by a combined total of 25 points.
Nonetheless, it's unlikely that, unless Wexford show a clear improvement this year, Bonnar will be back for 2012. Luckily for all concerned, the draw offers Wexford an opportunity to regain ground lost in the last two championships.
A home clash with Antrim presents a tricky, but achievable target which carries the prize of another Wexford Park outing, this time against Kilkenny.
Now if taking on Kilkenny at home in the Leinster semi-final didn't stir Wexford blood then there's nothing that Bonnar, or anybody else for that matter, can do.
Ultimately though, he will be judged by how well he has them ready for that challenge, assuming of course they pass the Antrim test.
6 Dinny Cahill
2nd season, 2nd term*
C'ship games (2nd term): P4, W2, L2
(*He also managed Antrim in 2002-2005 and Laois in 2006)
The fanatics' fanatic. Anybody who is prepared to travel from Tipperary to Antrim to coach a team takes fanaticism through new frontiers especially when he returns for a second term.
Cahill managed Antrim in 2002-2005 when, interestingly, probably their best championship performance came against Wexford in the 2003 quarter-final. Wexford, who later drew with Cork in the semi-final before losing the replay, won by 2-15 to 2-12 after trailing for most of the way, but it showed that, on a given day, Antrim could match anybody.
That's the message Cahill will be instilling in them again tomorrow. His year with Laois didn't work out, but it failed to dim his enthusiasm in any way as he remained active and successful on the club circuit.
Antrim's decision to invite him back for a second time made sound business sense. Now, they were getting a man who was not only refreshed, but who also knew the culture of the Glensmen.
Antrim were unlucky not to beat Offaly in the Leinster quarter-final last year (they were taken to extra-time and lost), but they later beat Carlow and, far more significantly, Dublin in the qualifiers before losing to Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
They have already beaten Laois 'away' in this year's Leinster championship, so Wexford will be extremely wary of Cahill's adventurers, even if they do have 'home' advantage.
Reaching the All-Ireland quarter-final will always be a major achievement for Antrim under the new system, but there are no awards for managers who don't progress further. That doesn't alter the reality that Cahill is one of the shrewdest and most dedicated coaches in hurling.