Thursday 21 November 2019

The rise and rise of managers

Kevin Heffernan, centre, was one of the first recognised managers in the GAA
Kevin Heffernan, centre, was one of the first recognised managers in the GAA
Dr Eammon O’Sullivan (pictured left with Dr Jim Brosnan) was a manager in all but name

Dermot Crowe

In Langton's some years ago, while in the company of the former Kilkenny hurler Fan Larkin, there was a momentary distraction when a door opened and out stepped Brian Cody from a team selection meeting. He exchanged a brief greeting with Fan, a long-time friend, then went on his way.

"Picking the team for Sunday?" I volunteered.

"No," corrected Fan. "Cody was telling them the team."

The modern GAA manager is indisputably the man in charge and the contours are governed by his nature and characteristics. The accepted view now is that a manager must be seen, in order to have credibility, to be strong and have an air of authority. There is a logic to this in that it allows decisiveness which is instrumental in any successful team or management set-up. Over the last four decades that responsibility for a team's affairs in the GAA has become more focused on the individual, ushering in the dawn of the GAA manager.

Where did it begin? There was no definitive beginning and while the role has changed and become more defined, managers existed in the GAA from the early years in all but name. Not as prolifically as today where a manager is regarded as an essential part of the apparatus with every GAA team. But they were there, in different guises.

It has become an industry, and a profitable one in many cases, though not officially of course. It has presented enormous problems when managers get out of hand, which they invariably do, led to expect they may rule almost without challenge or interference. It wasn't always so.

In 1955 Kevin Heffernan lost an All-Ireland as a player to Kerry, which informed much of his drive and thinking when he eventually took over the county in late 1973. Heffernan knew the kind of players and personalities he wanted. He saw that as his call. The previous year the system had five selectors looking after the Dublin county football team, three provided by the county board, two by the county champions. It was the final throw of a typically archaic and highly politicised model.

If Heffernan and his great rival Mick O'Dwyer were the first recognised managers in the GAA world, the Gael initially resistant as with television and other universal concepts and practices, earlier pioneers fulfilled similar roles without the same privileges. Dr Eamonn O'Sullivan won the first of eight All-Irelands with Kerry in 1924 and served over a 40-year period. He is rightly recognised as one of the key influences on Kerry football, but he was regarded as team trainer with certain key restrictions.

O'Sullivan trained the team and went about his business in a quiet and under-stated manner. He had a relationship with the teams he looked after that bore an intimacy at odds with his powers. He could not, in any year he won an All-Ireland, pick a team or have any say in team selection. Instead this was the task of a selection committee, with strong county board influence. But O'Sullivan had all the credentials of good management.

In Weeshie Fogarty's book on O'Sullivan, A Man Before His Time, the former Supreme Court judge Hugh O'Flaherty pens an appreciation. "He handled his players very adroitly. He didn't force anything on them. If some were smokers, common enough in those days, they weren't ordered to give up cigarettes totally; they would have been advised to cut back as much as they could. He could see that to give them up completely would have made them too edgy."

He also notes how he looked for moderation in drinking, rather than abstinence. "He was," argued O'Flaherty, "a wonderful manager."

While there are valid concerns over the weakening influence of county boards on management set-ups today, the opposite applied back then. Boards ran the show and treated the management of county teams almost as a perk of office. They were opportunities to massage egos and to manipulate if necessary and play the system. Like O'Sullivan in Kerry, Jim 'Tough' Barry had a long association with successful Cork hurling teams, straddling the same period, from the 1920s to the 1960s. He was trainer with 12 All-Ireland winning teams and assisted Limerick to win the MacCarthy Cup in 1934.

Barry had a style ahead of his time. He dressed immaculately. He liked an occasional sherry. He was a lover of opera and a fine tenor. Some in Cork say he wasn't a scholar of the game but they appreciate his enormous contribution to various hurling teams over the generations and he died a legend in 1968, two years after Cork came from nowhere to win their first All-Ireland in 12 years. That victory was greatly enjoyed by Tough, who was said to have taken more than his customary sherry allowance and needed to be carried upstairs to his bed in the team hotel in Lucan that night, his assistant removing his shoes to find Tough wearing a typically colourful pair of socks.

The GAA has tended to play down its history and achievement with needless modesty, and that explains to some extent why we know so little about some of the early figures who were the original of the species.

Danny O'Connell trained, or managed, Kilkenny to seven All-Irelands between 1904, their first, and 1913. The lack of knowledge about O'Connell and what kind of man he was, the life he lived and his methods is equally remarkable. One hundred years on we know virtually everything there is worth knowing of the managers patrolling the sidelines.

Even the practice of managers working outside their own parish and county is not entirely contemporary. In 1915 Laois won their only All-Ireland with advisory assistance from Kilkenny's Dick 'Drug' Walsh. Drug arranged challenges matches against Kilkenny in preparation for the final against Cork. This was a level of detail which tells us that even then people were prepared to go beyond their own parish to find help and expertise if needed.

Naturally, with such power and influence as they enjoy today, mangers abuse it. There are countess tales, even at club level, of managers making extraordinary and lunatic demands on players. Sometimes it is their downfall. Arrogance and ego see some push on, like the Titanic trying to reach New York in good time, when a slower course might be more advisable.

County boards have ceded too much control in many instances and clubs have too, and the correction of that imbalance is one of the major challenges for the GAA in the coming years. The injuries being reported among teenage players bears testimony to a culture where winning has been placed ahead of the welfare of those playing the games.

The impact of county management structures on club players in relation to fixtures and availability is also a clear warning that the tipping point has been reached. County managers even below senior level demand an often ridiculous ownership of players. The same patterns are witnessed in clubs where the fundamental principles of the club being a club for all are placed secondary to the interests of the main senior team. That is a dangerous line to follow.

Managers are here and here to stay. But the GAA needs to be careful it doesn't end up creating a monster.

Sunday Independent

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