GAA Football

Kicking Out: Management becoming an impossible gig

Seamus McEnaney was 36 when he first took on the Monaghan job and 18 years later, he is still in the thick of it. Picture by Philip Walsh

HIS face boiled up beetroot red, the heat conductors being the inexplicable bodywarmer and the incandescence at the injustices he perceives to have just befallen his team, Seamus McEnaney takes the witness stand in MacHale Park.

The amateur Camille Vasquezes line the questions up. Five minutes and 25 seconds into the cross-examination, the standard end-of-season question hasn’t been asked yet.

Will you be there next year yourself Banty?

“That’s it for tonight, alright, thanks," he replies.

In and out of the changing room he continues to steam for a while after, the colour gently cooling on him.

Banty was 36 when he first took charge of Monaghan. He’s 54 now, and has just finished the third year of his second stint.

He won a Division Two title with them 17 years ago, took them to two Ulster finals the first time around, but things are very different now.

Banty convinced both Donie Buckley and Liam Sheedy to shuffle north and help aid his and his team’s ambitions. They took in Jonny Davis, so well-thought of in Tyrone but whom there wasn’t room for when Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher took over from Mickey Harte and brought Peter Donnelly back on board.

At a stage Conor Laverty was there too. They’re only the public face of the growing body that comprise an inter-county management team.

The last of the crowd in Castlebar stands behind the gates waiting for the Mayo players and James Horan to sign jerseys on their way out past.

James Nallen is on his way out and stops briefly with his former team-mate, the wispish greyness on him betraying the former visions of youth that they once were in green and red.

Football is all these men have ever really known.

Horan is in his second stint as manager nearly three full decades after he was a two-time Allstar forward with the county.

Eternally there is pressure weighing on his shoulders, as with everyone in the gig.

Mayo’s manager is dealing with different questions, albeit still softer, about his side’s middling form and their injuries and whether they can survive into July. If they don’t, will he survive into 2023?

They’re all easy targets. The rumour mill would cast the starting bid on an inter-county gig at £40,000-a-year but the reality for most would appear a fair long way shy of such a figure.

But inevitably in an organisation at civil war with its own conscience over money, that is the terrace’s first port of call when there are sorrows to be drowned.

The bigger problem is the constant clamour for change.

Talk to a lot of Monaghan fans, they want Banty gone. But there’s a lot of Mayo fans would see shot of Horan in the morning.

In Donegal, they’re itchy now over Declan Bonner and the loss of the Ulster final allied to failing to make an All-Ireland semi-final during his reign.

Nine months after winning an All-Ireland, the question marks sit thick in the skies over Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher after Sunday’s defeat by Armagh ended their reign.

Had Armagh lost at the weekend, the Kieran McGeeney reign would have come under further intense scrutiny, not for the first time in his eight years. But they won and all is right with the world now.

It’s part of a Premiership culture that has become an inevitable consequence of the standards that an inter-county dressing room now expects.

Management teams put in the tank of diesel but in any successful changing room it’s the players who drive the wagon.

When a management team might appear to be swimming with just their nostrils out of the water, people will say their time is up.

But that’s the wrong way to look at it a lot of the time.

The right question often is: who replaces them?

Inter-county managers do not grow on trees.

It was never better emphasised by the vacancy in Kerry last autumn. A county with their rich heritage and resources clearly didn’t want to retain Peter Keane, and so had just two choices.

Stephen Stack and a backroom team that would have poached Donie Buckley from Monaghan and put in Dara Ó Cinneide, Mickey Ned O’Sullivan, Joe O’Connor and Aidan O’Mahony, or go back to Jack O’Connor for a third time.

Those were both strong options but the pool was very shallow.

The demands on a manager’s life are enormous. Bonner recently placed it at “60 to 70 hours a week”.

Keith Ricken, who stepped down as Cork manager in April for health reasons, gave an interview to GAA.ie earlier in the year.

“I felt my skillset was probably needed here. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here. I’m living in a three-bed semi-detached house with still a big mortgage hanging over my head, two kids, and a lot of other stuff on in my life.

“This is not a job, as people talk about it; there’s no f***ing money in it, there’s no anything in it. It’s 50 to 60 hours a week on top of your own job.”

The expectation of a manager internally grows ever more intense.

Changing rooms now are packed with young third-level graduates who might not know as much about the world as they think they do, but who definitely will not stand for being fooled when it comes to the environment and the skillset they want from the people in charge.

In his typically fascinating Irish Examiner diary around his Champions Cup success with La Rochelle, Ronan O’Gara hit on a very important point.

“Different coaches have varying philosophies, but the dictatorial thing doesn’t get it done anymore. Buy-in from the group underpins everything nowadays. Some fella hammering the table works for about three days.”

The age profile of a current inter-county manager is such that they were reared on fellas hammering the table until the players stopped listening, at which point they’d break the table altogether before they’d consider what good breaking a table is to anyone.

Modern players just would not stand for that nonsense. Any half-decent club manager has moved past it, into the era of positive affirmation.

The skillset required is so difficult to pin down. Nobody knows what makes the ideal manager. We look across the water so often for inspiration but while you can see the similarities in Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola and Alex Ferguson, you can just as easily see the differences.

And the big difference between here and there is they’re being paid fortunes to live in mansions and if things go wrong, they get handed £100m to play with.

Inter-county managers get the players they’re given and if they’re no good, well the bed’s made so you may lie in it for two years now.

They have to manage 35 players, a backroom of 20 people, deal with the media, keep the county board sweet. There are very few Rory Gallaghers on the scene, powered by a 6-terabyte hard-drive of footballing knowledge with the hands-on approach to training.

The John Kielys of the world rely heavily on the Paul Kinnerks, the Jack O’Connors on the Paddy Tallys.

Often the skill is not in knowing who’s the right man to mark Tony Kelly, but in recruiting to your backroom the man who does know.

Bottom line is inter-county management is an exceptionally tough gig.

There are times when change is needed – but before you deliver the P45, you’d want to be sure that what you’re changing to is getting in exchange is actually an upgrade.

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