The men behind the men: Coaching is a very different game to management

Life is less stressful as a man behind the man. That will not stop some of them wanting to step out, even if they’re better suited staying where they’re at.

Westmeath coach Jason Sherlock is one of a number of coaches that have had significant impact on the success of their teams. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Westmeath coach Jason Sherlock is one of a number of coaches that have had significant impact on the success of their teams. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile (Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

WHEN Brian Kidd finally made the decision to stand on his own two feet as a manager at the beginning of Manchester United’s treble-winning season in 1999, it left Alex Ferguson floundering.

Kidd was the man behind the man. He had coached the Class of ‘92 as head of the academy and then stepped up to the first team, where his sessions were highly regarded by the players.

Then he got the offer from Blackburn Rovers to be his own man.

“For a while the manager was forced to take a more active role in training. We never ran so many laps in pre-season,” wrote Gary Neville in his autobiography, indicating that actually holding a training session wasn’t Ferguson’s forte.

Kidd lasted less than a year.

Blackburn were relegated, he was sacked and eventually went back to being a number two across town at Man City.

Even at that level, two men of the calibre of Ferguson and Kidd were discovering how different their roles were and how unsuited each was to doing the other’s job.

It is not really any different in the GAA.

Just shy of two years ago, Jason Sherlock appeared set to take the Monaghan job before he backed out late in the process.

“It’s definitely not an ambition,” he said of the idea of inter-county management at that time.

Instead, he paired up with Dessie Dolan in Westmeath, retaining the role of coach in which he had been so successful with his native Dublin.

In a rare interview with Denis Walsh in 2021, Jim Gavin described his job as “in some way the HR director”.

“As a manager, it’s your job to get the right people on the bus,” he said.

He gave Sherlock the freedom to utilise his experience from playing basketball and soccer to as high a standard as he played Gaelic football.

It was the other two sports that largely informed Sherlock’s work and shaped the manner in which Dublin attacked.

“He thinks very deeply about the game and about how forwards move,” Alan Brogan said in 2018.

“He puts a lot of time into it and they have put a lot of time into how to create that space in the forward line and with a lot of men back there he’s obviously heavily involved in that he’s orchestrated all that from behind the scenes and on the pitch, there’s no doubt that his fingerprints are on the Dublin forward line.”

Not to take from Dolan’s impact but is it any surprise Westmeath have been two summers in consecutive Groups of Death and have held their own? They should have taken Tyrone’s last-12 spot last year only for John Heslin’s late free to stay unerringly straight over the top of the post.

Only a loose crossfield pass that led to a breakaway Shane Walsh goal gave Galway any shaft of light two weeks ago, and in both years they’ve made life difficult for Armagh.

Whereas once his role was as a controversial runner, accused of frequently entering the pitch for no reason other than to fill a pocket of space on opposition kickouts, Sherlock now tends to stay at the back of the stand during games.

On Saturday evening they go in against Derry, a team whose management have been taken beneath an avalanche of pressure since they lost to Donegal three weeks after winning the National League.

Gavin Devlin first joined Mickey Harte’s management team in Tyrone in 2013. Since then, their relationship has evolved to the point where Devlin has become the more visible to those on the inside.

In Louth, it was Devlin who presented all the video work that the pair had worked on and then delivered the session out on the pitch. Harte’s role, as with Derry, has been more of that of a figurehead presence.

It’s not an unusual way for a modern coaching ticket to operate.

There was much debate in the aftermath of the Munster hurling final when Declan Hannon quoted a figure of 53 when referring to Limerick’s backroom team. Jarlath Burns’ clarification that the figure included the panel doesn’t quite add up either but the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

John Kiely manages the whole operation but Paul Kinnerk is the hurling motherboard, at the centre of everything they do.

They are both market leaders in their role.

But could the notoriously private and reserved Kinnerk do Kiely’s job, or could Kiely do Kinnerk’s?

A lot of those that have tried to marry managing and coaching on their own are involved in Ulster football.

Jim McGuinness is notoriously hands-on, as was Rory Gallagher. The pair worked together for three years in Donegal before they fell out and Gallagher moved on, later taking Derry to their first Ulster title for 24 years.

Then, he had Ciaran Meenagh at his side. The Loughmacrory native stayed on after Damian McErlain left and played a significant role in Derry’s success.

For four years Meenagh juggled life but within weeks of taking over briefly as manager when Gallagher stepped down, he took a short break from teaching because the demands of management compared to coaching were just so different.

Sometimes, it’s about being able to play good cop, bad cop with players.

The coach almost always gets to play good cop.

“I think that’s very important, as a manager, you need a coach that is good cop. There’s no point in the two of us laying down the law every single time,” says Niall Carew.

He has just stepped down as manager of Carlow after five years, having previously been in charge of Sligo, Waterford and Kildare.

Carew’s first gig was as the Lilywhites’ coach under Kieran McGeeney, forging a reputation that he wasn’t long in putting through its own test.

“Obviously a coach has to make sure he’s respected but he will be once he delivers a good session properly. Players will sniff out a bluffer straight away now anyway.

“I also think the manager and the coach have to have a good relationship and they certainly have to be singing off the same hymn sheet.

“When you’re winning as a manager, you tend to find the coach will get the plaudits, and when you’re losing the manager gets the boot stuck into them.”

There are very recent examples of a change in trajectory being linked directly to a change in coach rather than manager.

Galway had been beaten by Mayo in the previous three summers before Padraic Joyce brought in Cian O’Neill at the end of 2021.

They didn’t lose a fourth and ended up in the following year’s All-Ireland final, looking a much more tactically in-tune operation.

It was Kerry that beat them there. While Jack O’Connor’s return to the hotseat was initially heralded, by the end of it much of the credit was falling Paddy Tally’s way. They conceded just one goal in the championship and two in the league that year.

In moving away from the very set nature of Tadhg Morley’s sweeping brief, they have struggled to replicate that defensive campaign.

Tally had been there and done it himself, taking charge of Down. He ought to have gotten more time than the three years he was afforded but it was still a struggle, falling to a 2-25 to 1-12 defeat by Donegal in his final championship game.

But even in the shadows, there can be friction. With the size of coaching teams growing to three, four, five actual football coaches, one of the strains of management is dealing with what each coach is responsible for, and how much time they’ll each get with the players on the training field.

“That can be a major problem when you have two or three high-profile coaches in,” says Carew.

“That can be hard managed. The biggest thing there is that you have to make sure them two lads are on the same page. If they’re on opposite pages then you’re in big trouble.

“They’re going to be at loggerheads and you’re gonna have to try and defuse that, and training then can become toxic nearly before it even starts. It’s to manage all of that.

“Defining roles at the start of the season is the way out of that. It’s very important every lad knows his role and this is as much contact as you’re going to get.

“If that’s not agreed beforehand, it can become toxic whether you like it or not.”

Life is less stressful as a man behind the man.

That will not stop some of them wanting to step out, even if they’re better suited staying where they’re at.