GAA Football

Kicking Out: Not every happy team wins silverware, but an unhappy one sure doesn't

Eddie Brennan's decision to allow the Laois players to celebrate their Joe McDonagh Cup win on Sunday and Monday last week, despite knowing they'd be facing Dublin six days later, wasn't about drinking but rather about the management of people. Picture by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

LAST Sunday, Laois hurlers won the Joe McDonagh Cup. They celebrated by going on the session, and staying on it on Monday.

When they regrouped for training on Tuesday night, they were “blowing out a lot of black smoke” as coach Niall Corcoran put it.

Five days later they produced the shock of the GAA summer by taking out Dublin.

The lesson is not that a two-day bender the week of a big game is sport science’s new answer to everything.

It’s that in sport, good management is about far more than just what you do on the pitch.

Eddie Brennan has done wonders in terms of building his side’s belief up from a very low base.

The Kilkenny legend and his players will rightly take huge credit for dragging themselves up the hill. It is, after all, just two summers since Dublin scored 2-28 against them in a 16-point win.

The Monday beer thing, though? That was about the management of people, not hurlers.

Keeping a GAA team happy has never been harder. The tutting of county board officials at the size of some inter-county backroom teams ignores the fact that it takes a small army of people to run a team

No manager is an island. Even the best have weaknesses.

Brian Cody is highly regarded for many things, but cosying up to players wouldn’t be one of them.

When Jackie Tyrrell retired, he met Cody at a hotel. This was one of his most trusted and valued lieutenants, a clubmate, a man he’d taught in school and brought through a glittering inter-county career.

The meeting lasted seven minutes. When a member of staff asked if they’d like a drink or a menu, Cody replied: ‘No, I’m not hanging around’.

Don’t mistake that, however, for a lack of care on Cody’s part. This is the same man who took JJ Delaney aside in the lead up to the All-Ireland final in 2011.

Knowing his full-back was between jobs, Cody took time out of their preparations for a huge game to enquire about Delaney’s long-term career plans.

“That made me try extra hard for him. There's a payback in that as well. He just doesn't see you as a number.”

What Cody also ensured was that there was a good man-manager in his setup. Martin Fogarty was always a sounding board, and the players need that.

In essence, Brian Cody’s answer to man-management is to ensure he has the right people around him.

Mickey Harte is from a similar school. For Martin Fogarty in Kilkenny, see Tony Donnelly first and Gavin Devlin now in Tyrone.

Former Tyrone assistant manager Tony Donnelly was regarded as the "softer side" of the management team with Mickey Harte, and that role is now being filled by Gavin Devlin. Picture: Seamus Loughran

“Tony acted as, not so much an intermediary, but a softer side of the management team; that person who could get into the players’ minds and communicate with the players in a different way,” said Enda McGinley last year.

That Tyrone team of the noughties had a healthy Monday Club on which Mickey Harte, a teetotaller, learned not to impinge.

The squad was knitting together over the winter of 2002. Many of the successful minors and under-21s were just through, and when they went off on a team holiday, “it half made the thing for the next year” said Philip Jordan.

“There was a batch of us 22, 23 years of age, maybe 15 of us. The craic we had on that holiday was unbelievable.

“You don’t know the older boys right but I remember the first night, big Seamie McCallan had to carry [Peter] Canavan home over his shoulder. It broke the ice. He’s your hero and there he is being carried home over somebody’s shoulder.”

There were times when the players’ enjoyment led to attempts to clamp down, but the agreement became that as long as it didn’t affect the players’ performance then Harte would turn a blind eye.

Very few managers in any sport are able to blend all the skills. There aren’t many Alex Fergusons or Jurgen Klopps around, people that can marry the tactical nuances of their game to the ability to communicate a genuine affection and understanding of the different personalities around them.

Klopp’s mantra in management has been 30 per cent tactics, 70 per cent teambuilding. That has been central to lifting Liverpool out of the doldrums, because no team works like his teams work unless they’re fully bought in.

Most managers are one or the other. When that goes for Brian Cody and Mickey Harte, it goes for most.

Take Kieran McGeeney, for instance.

His name has been in lights all week after an unnamed prominent former Armagh player, whose identity was verified by The Irish News, penned a letter criticising his tenure.

Kieran McGeeney's undoubted strength in his time over Kildare and Armagh has been his man-management skills. Picture by Philip Walsh

Speak to the vast majority of players that have worked under him and they’ll tell you the same thing about the 2002 All-Ireland winning captain.

He is, despite a public perception that can be different, a people person.

They reckon in Kildare that it was a huge mistake ever letting him go.

Before the Leinster final in 2009, he told Johnny Doyle he was taking too much pressure on his shoulders with the captaincy, and that he needed to look after himself.

Doyle protested but McGeeney organised for his skipper and partner to head off down the country to a hotel for a couple of days.

“He was saying: ‘Go on, get away. Have a few pints’,” Doyle told The Irish News two years ago.

The Kildare players loved him. And when you look at the current Armagh setup, how many players have walked away during his five years in charge? Very few.

Now you can criticise his tactical abilities and whatever else, but what he’s done is kept a young squad together for a significant period of time in an era where that’s never been harder to achieve.

No team wins unless they can build a base of football and conditioning over a period of time. To keep a team together long enough to build those platforms, even with a lack of tangible success, is an invaluable skill in itself.

This has been a summer where the GAA’s own Klopp Lite, Davy Fitzgerald, has achieved great success again in bringing Wexford to a rare Leinster title.

We associate Davy Fitz with all the mad, eye-bulging passion in and around games. But in his days managing Clare, employment was scarce enough, and he was using his contacts to help his players find work.

The modern man is generally a more complex creature than previous versions. The traditional working life has changed, parenting roles have changed, social norms and habits have changed.

Time is an increasingly precious commodity, and in order to give theirs freely to an inter-county setup, one of the big things they need is to feel appreciated and even loved.

It’s not about drinking or not drinking, but about the balance between work and play.

It’s about enjoying the successes, big or small, when they come.

Not every happy team wins silverware.

But an unhappy team sure doesn’t.

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