GAA Football

Mayo players deserve credit for their strength of character

Mayo's Keith Higgins contemplates the defeat to Dublin in this year's All-Ireland semi-final  
Breaking Ball with Philip Jordan

OVER the last 15 years, there has been a much greater appreciation of the role of a manager within the GAA.

The likes of Brian Cody and Mickey Harte are recognised as greats of their games. In most people’s minds, they are seen as the most important person within the county set-up, above the many great players they have managed.

A certain cult has been built up around managers, so much so that the manager of the All-Ireland winners is lauded for his tactical genius. Just look at the recent managers to lead their side to the Sam Maguire. Jim McGuinness is widely regarded as one of the great footballing minds, having developed a game-plan that brought Donegal from consistent failures to All-Ireland winners.

Éamonn Fitzmaurice was praised for his tactical brain in bringing Sam to Kerry in 2014, while I personally heaped praise on the changes Jim Gavin made to the set-up of his Dublin side this year. I wouldn’t question for one minute the impact a manager and his back-room team have on the success of their team. However, it would seem logical that managers may be partly responsible for a team’s defeats as well.

The last few weeks have seen unrest within the Mayo football and Galway hurling camps. As a football man, I’ve been particularly interested in the happenings in Mayo. The majority of the media coverage since has been extremely critical of the Mayo players. Some commentators have been fairly reasoned in their criticism, but others have been scathing of the players.

One such example I heard on radio last week. The opinions were typical of the old school thinking that tends to dominate in some areas of the media. The pundit said success or failure on the pitch comes down solely to the players and pointed out all the individual mistakes made by the Mayo players in their defeat to Dublin this year. Yet, he had no counter-argument for the errors made by the Mayo management in the same game.

The opinion that the best individual players always win games is naïve at best, especially since the speaker has championed the role of the modern-day manager on a regular basis.

Anyone with a heart would feel sorry for Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly, on a personal level. Both men played with distinction for Mayo and have done what very few Mayo men have been able to do - win an All-Ireland, when winning an U21 title in 2006. There is no doubting their commitment to Mayo football and I don’t think the Mayo footballers have doubts about their loyalty to Mayo GAA. In fact, they deserve credit for tendering their resignation as a long drawn-out process would have done little to help themselves or the players.

The Mayo players have put huge pressure on themselves for 2016 by their actions. I’ve never personally been in this position, but I’ll try to provide some insight into the player’s thoughts. The players would have known that any move to remove the management was going to lead to huge criticism.

They were automatically going to be accused of blaming management for their failure to win the All-Ireland and not taking responsibility themselves. Under James Horan, the players had become accustomed to a totally professional set-up. The players knew no stone was left unturned in their quest to life the Sam Maguire. They believed they were being given the best possible opportunity to be successful. It was evident the bond between Horan's management team and players was extremely strong.

From what I have heard, the players had concerns from a very early stage about the overall set-up under Holmes and Connelly. There were issues throughout the year which unsettled the players. The entire medical team was replaced before the season started, squad players were not allowed to travel with the team on match days and their tactical notes were left behind at the hotel before this year’s semi-final.

The Mayo players had raised their concerns with management throughout the year. The majority of them played under the professional set-up of Horan and believed the current management brought a structure that was a step back in that regard.

I have huge admiration for the stance the players have taken. To me, it looks like a team who are desperate to succeed and want to make sure they don’t look back with regrets. They don’t want to be like previous Mayo teams that have been seen as failures for failing to win the All-Ireland.

The Mayo players will accept they made mistakes that lost them the replay against Dublin in this year’s All-Ireland semi-final. However, their vote of 27-7 in favour of replacing the management was not based on that result. It was an opinion that formed in the nine-to-10 months since the controversial appointment of Holmes and Connelly.

There is a dominant school of thought that county boards should be totally responsible for deciding the future of management teams, with players focusing solely on playing. You don’t want players deciding who their manager is - but the majority of the time, they are in a better position to judge than members of a county board.

There will always be players unhappy with a manager in every set-up; issues arise when the majority see major weaknesses in the set-up. I was fortunate during my county career in that I had a manager in Mickey Harte who I always felt gave us the best chance of success. Under different circumstances, it is hard to know if I would have been willing to go down the same route as the Mayo players.

At club level, I do remember one year when this was an option. I later regretted not having the strength of mind, along with the rest of the squad, to force a change of management during the season.

No team will be under more pressure to succeed in 2016 than Mayo. Their critics will be only too happy to stick the boot in if they fall short again. Yet, if they do fail, I certainly won’t be in the queue to criticise them for the events of the last few weeks.

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