Kevin McStay on inter-county retirement, Tyrone, and the great days with Roscommon
KEVIN McStay remembers the Irish Army’s team of press officers were never done pointing out errors to the media, insisting on clarifications and corrections. Day after day. Week after week.
It reached the point where McStay felt it was wasted energy.
“I think facts are a good thing to have in an argument,” he muses.
The Mayo man spent 32 years in the armed forces - 1982 to 2013 - where he reached the lofty rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
He served in Lebanon twice as part of the UN’s peacekeeping forces and had a NATO-led stint in Kosovo.
On each occasion, McStay and his comrades were out of harm’s way.
“[In Lebanon] There was a bit of shelling. You think it’s outside the door but it’s miles away,” he says.
McStay "tumbled" into a career in the army.
“I’d finished my schooling in St Jarlath’s, Tuam and a lot of the senior lads at the time had joined the army – Mike Brennan, Sean Webb, Aengus Murphy, God rest him; he was killed in Lebanon.
“Aengus played for Galway. I knew these guys and I was thinking: ‘That could be the place for me’ because it was connected to university and also you were almost living the life of a professional sportsman.
“But the reality was a little different. A year-and-a-half training as a cadet was the most difficult period of my life."
Sitting back in his chair, he says: “A friend of mine once said: ‘I made two great decisions: the day I decided to join the army and the day I decided to leave.’
“My father always had this idea you do the State some service, that sense of civic duty. My grandfather, on my dad’s side, was in the early tranche of Gardai recruited by the Free State in 1922 or ’23. The army would certainly give you a serious grounding for the institutions of the State.”
He takes a keen interest in current affairs and politics but has no desire to join the political class now that he’s finished with inter-county management.
McStay is a positive person by nature. He travels "hoping to meet people at their best" and doesn’t share the prevailing pessimism of Irish political life.
“There are an awful lot of good things going on in Ireland,” he says.
He was indoctrinated into the Gaelic Athletic Association from a very young age.
“I was involved in Mayo GAA since I was eight. I remember writing in my best handwriting when I was 12 the notices for the meetings. I was invested in this from the very start.
“I was a fanatic, until I was 17 or 18 when I fell away from it, where I didn’t bother and was kind of lost to the GAA.
“I came out of minor and was tipping away in college not doing much and my girlfriend (now my wife, Verona) and my father got me back into it. He was President of Mayo GAA when he died back in 2001.”
WE’RE sitting in a quiet couple of seats in the lobby area of the Armagh City Hotel. It’s a bright and breezy Thursday September evening. McStay limped through the main doors with the help of a crutch.
He slipped on a piece of pavement in the main street of Roscommon, his adopted hometown, and is nursing a badly injured ankle.
Of course, he was well used to injuries during his playing days, breaking his leg twice in a two-year period that shortened a brilliant career for Mayo.
It’s the Irish News’s Ulster Allstars bash and McStay is guest speaker for tonight.
A few weeks earlier, he received a phone call from John Brolly – the newspaper’s marketing manager – about coming up for the gig.
He initially thought the caller was Joe Brolly, his former Sunday Game colleague, on the other end of the phone.
Before he knew it, he’d agreed. It was a strange decision of McStay’s because he doesn’t normally bother with the after dinner GAA circuit. He reckons he’s been guest speaker at two GAA events in the north over the last 15 years.
But here he is, this far north, sitting in the hotel lobby area, with some notes, nursing a sore ankle, and still wearing the odd stress line on his fresh-featured 56-year-old face over some media reporting that same day that suggested player power forced him out of the Roscommon job.
He’s clearly vexed by the reports and rejects them in emphatic terms.
“I just see so many fellas throwing out an opinion there and munching it into a fact as quick as they can.
“It’s like: ‘I’ve heard on the grapevine…’; ‘It is rumoured that…’
“I mean, what is that?”
A bit like with the Irish Army’s press office seeking clarifications and corrections from the media, McStay sighs: “You just get tired. There are so many [media] organs out there, so many radio stations, noise, and that noise eventually becomes the message, whether it’s the right one or not.
“After I retired from Roscommon, I said what I said when I was leaving; I could have been on 20 different media platforms if I’d chosen to do so.
“But, no, I was finished, I was done. But to try and manage all that…”
There was a bit of gentle arm-twisting required to secure this interview with the former Roscommon manager ahead of his speech in Armagh.
For the record, there were loads of factors why McStay announced his retirement from inter-county management this year.
“I had to think: could I make a big difference? Can I solve it? Can I do anything about it?
Some of the best players he ever worked with explained their reasons for stepping away from county duty after they bowed meekly out of the inaugural Super 8s series.
McStay rhymes off the conversations he had with some of his best players: ‘Look, I’ve just finished college’… ‘I’ve just started a new job’… ‘I’ve been doing a 200-mile round trip out of Dublin three times a week for the last three years as a senior player’ (three-quarters of the Roscommon team are based in Dublin, Galway and Limerick)…
“This is where life gets in the way of football,” McStay says.
“One or two lads retired, which is the usual flow of it…
“A lot of these guys were our best players and are hugely committed to Roscommon. They were simple to manage, never gave us any trouble.
“The other thing was, we’re number eight, number seven, number nine, number 10 – put us wherever you want from seven to 10 – and we’re a small county. So the resources we have are very limited. It’s not just financial resources. We don’t have a centre of excellence, so our training is a deal done with a local club. We don’t have a gym on site.
“These are small issues but they all add up… We’ve no floodlights in Hyde Park. Another factor, and then there is my own personal side of it.
“I’m exhausted. I’m better a week, 10 days on. I put a huge amount into it. It was nobody’s fault. It was simply a small county trying to be a big county.”
In his three years at the helm, nobody can argue that McStay didn’t raise standards in Roscommon - a county that boasts a meagre population of 64,000.
They are a Division One team; they brought Mayo to a replay in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final and backed that up with another quarter-final appearance this summer.
They won a Connacht title in 2017 and should really have added another but they let Galway off the hook back in July.
In truth, Roscommon probably reached their ceiling over the last three years, and the prospect of adopting a more defensive style in a bid to stay with the elite counties was an anathema to the outgoing manager.
“There will be a defensive coach [in Roscommon], I’ve no doubt that will happen but that means you’re coaching that guy three nights a week for the next two or three years to get it well bedded in and, personally, it just wouldn’t be my philosophy.
“My generation and fellas older than me – 55 to 65 – guys who have followed the game or played the game are finding it increasingly hard to go and watch the game. That’s just the way it is. I’m contracted to go and watch it, for TV or newspapers; of course, I go and watch it, but I often wondered: ‘Would I go to watch it if I wasn’t working?’”
FOR a man who didn’t think it was worth trying to “control the message” after resigning from the Roscommon job, McStay fervently believes Tyrone need to start contesting ground, to at least present their side of the story to southerners.
Tyrone's well-documented RTE ban – soon to enter its eighth season – is still resolutely in place.
In the south, the Red Hands have become something of an all-year-round pantomime villain and the perception rarely, if ever, changes.
McStay rejects the proposition that it’s easier to slate Tyrone because of the team’s ambivalence towards the south’s public broadcaster.
“I think in the absence of the other voice you just carry on. If you’re not countering it, there’s almost an acceptance of: ‘Well, there must be something in it.’
“It’s like having a one-sided argument in a radio studio…
“You must manage the message and when you want to influence the environment, you must dominate the message. In things like a sending-off, on a Sunday night, shall we call it ‘trial by television’, it’s really important on Monday, if he’s your man and you want him for the following Sunday, you have to get out batting pretty quickly. And that’s what happens. I’m not saying it is choreographed but there are so many doing it.
“I actually listed Kerry’s media presence [signifying the amount with his arms spread wide] for tonight’s speech and then there’s Tyrone’s presence – Peter Canavan, Sean Cavanagh and Philip Jordan and that’s kind of it, with Mickey [Harte] tipping in and out - and a lot of that voice can be northern orientated, so we don’t get to hear it at all. We don’t hear their perspective, the other side. There is a media game and it’s very important you get your message out.
“Now, it’s Tyrone’s prerogative and I totally respect that. I’m not in their shoes. I’m merely leaning over the fence.”
TYRONE are one of two teams that will stop the Dublin juggernaut. The Kerry boys are coming too, insists McStay.
The Roscommon footballers saw Tyrone up close in the first-ever Super 8s meeting at Croke Park this summer.
A week earlier, Roscommon had exorcised the bitter memory of losing their Connacht title to Galway by producing a barnstorming performance to see off a gallant Armagh side down in a sun-drenched O’Moore Park, arguably the best Championship game of 2018.
Upon leaving Portlaoise, many observers felt the free-flowing Rossies would give Tyrone a run for their money, especially at Croke Park.
“So this is what happens, the GAA’s human condition is: by lunchtime on Sunday you end up convincing yourself: ‘We’ve a chance here.’
“It’s like life itself – the hope has to be there. So you’re building yourself up, convincing yourself, not in a flimsy way, properly convincing yourself.
“You’re thinking: ‘Okay, a lot of things have to go right, but it can go right for us.’ We drew with Mayo in this stadium 12 months ago, so it’s in us and on certain days things happen.”
But then reality caught up with the west's romantics. Tyrone pulverised Roscommon.
Even though the game was over by the halfway stage, the Tyrone players never stopped running. Eighteen points separated the sides at the end. Welcome to the big league.
It was the kind of defeat where the Roscommon management team questioned everything they were doing.
Afterwards, the ever-candid McStay told reporters the county would have to reappraise their style of football if they wished to compete at the very highest level.
Shaking his head, McStay says: “Tyrone just blew us away. That’s a serious Tyrone team because their conditioning is incredible. They are close to Dublin.”
Did Tyrone’s conditioning surprise him?
“Oh, it did, yeah. That kind of conditioning takes about five years – that deep, deep conditioning. In years gone by we’d have a team down on the track and you’d see an amateur athlete – a young female or a young lad – running 800m or 1,500m. Just watching them: ‘Zoom, zoom, zoom…’ that continual, lovely long stride.
“How do they keep that same pace? But it’s deep, deep conditioning over a period of time, since they were 12, probably, and getting the body used to it.
“Roscommon aren’t there yet but, please God, they will be in another year or two. Tyrone are there. Monaghan’s conditioning isn’t as athletic as Tyrone’s, if that makes sense. Then you look at Dublin and they have turbo conditioning.”
The Super 8s was a baptism of fire for Roscommon – losing three weeks on the bounce to Tyrone, Donegal and Dublin – but McStay doesn’t believe irreparable damage was done because, he contends, players are “quite resilient” and name-checks the famous Armagh side and the tough days they endured in the late 90s before they scaled the mountain.
WHEN Galway won the All-Ireland in 1998, everyone believed they would go on to dominate the All-Ireland series. But they didn’t. Another pretender arrived.
Dublin have won four All-Ireland titles in a row and six in this decade.
“If I was to pick a team who was going to be there next year and the years beyond, with their age profile and their conditioning, it would be Tyrone,” McStay estimates.
“Dublin’s age profile is certainly not as healthy, especially in defence. They may be bringing in young fellas but is Eoin Murchan any better than [Ronan] McNamee? Is he any better than [Michael] McKernan or [Padraig] Hampsey? It’s the case because he’s won an All-Ireland in his first year but it’s like the Galway team of ’98: once they won the All-Ireland they looked like incredible players."
Despite the Dubs skating to four-in-a-row, McStay adds: “Tyrone are getting well ready to compete with Dublin, there is no question about it.
“Midway through the first half, Tyrone were jolted, you lose your bearings for a second… But the All-Ireland final was certainly winnable and I think it will sustain the Tyrone players over the winter.”
FEW sports people get to choose their ending. The Super 8s showed in graphic terms just how far Roscommon have still to travel to become a realistic All-Ireland contender.
McStay squeezed the best of what he had. Back-to-back Connacht titles would have been a neat conclusion to his three years in charge.
“It’s been an experience,” McStay smiles. “A lot of it marvellous, some it difficult and some of it downright rotten tough. But that’s life, I guess.
“But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I had five, six, seven incredible days with the team… We’re not Kerry, we’re not Dublin, we’re that mid-table, average GAA county that has some good days, some middling days and some bad days. That’s just the way it is.”
He has returned to school where he’s teaching higher maths and has a long, overdue holiday planned.
Imagine for a second had he not taken the Roscommon job; he would never have experienced the joy of winning the Connacht title in 2017, the bonfires at the clubs or the wonderful chaos in Roscommon town.
And he wouldn’t have got to embrace his old mentor Liam O’Neill who somehow breached the Gardai cordon at pitch-side.
“I don’t know where he came from or how he got in, but my first senior manager Liam O’Neill, back in 1983, got through the crowd. He was Mayo manager for three years. He was so far ahead of his time. He’s living in Galway now. I’ve seen him on and off but hadn’t for a long time. I had great time for him. We’d a great moment, and he said: ‘I’m so happy for you.’
Time has flown by. McStay clambers to his feet, grabs his crutch and starts thinking about his speech for his northern audience. Engaging and open as ever...