Kicking Out: Player power not the ill it's painted as

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair is a sports reporter and columnist with the Irish News specialising in Gaelic Games.

Most of the resentment towards player power goes back to the Cork strikes during the noughties. It has been back in vogue in Tír Chonaill in recent weeks. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Most of the resentment towards player power goes back to the Cork strikes during the noughties. It has been back in vogue in Tír Chonaill in recent weeks. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin Most of the resentment towards player power goes back to the Cork strikes during the noughties. It has been back in vogue in Tír Chonaill in recent weeks. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

NEIL and Eamon McGee were both still living at home when Jim McGuinness took over as Donegal manager.

Eamon was still in his problem child phase, as he once put it himself.

The night he first went to meet McGuinness to discuss how the new regime would be for players, they ended with an agreement that McGee would change his ways.

“Jim said I’d have to change and I’m nodding away and then I went for pints that night. I said I’d have one last blast, ended up going for three days,” he said two years ago.

McGuinness got a phone call two weeks later informing him of the session.

He instantly dropped McGee from the panel.

As their lack of alternative man-marking options began to show up through the league, and with McGee playing well for Gaoth Dobhair, McGuinness reconsidered.

Once he had bounced it off Rory Gallagher and Maxi Curran, the decision to go back to McGee in May 2011 had one more hurdle to clear – the players.

Pretty much every major decision that the Donegal management made at that time went through Michael Murphy, Karl Lacey and Neil McGee.

Murphy and Lacey agreed to his return. So it came down to Neil.

McGuinness travelled up and sat in the McGees’ living room going back over the ground rules for a return with Eamon while Neil sat in the kitchen having already decided his brother’s fate.

Player power has steadily grown within GAA changing rooms.

You hear the term thrown around more recently, usually in derogatory fashion, aimed at players that have taken matters into their own hands.

Most of the resentment towards player power goes back to the Cork strikes during the noughties.

It has been back in vogue in Tír Chonaill in recent weeks.

Senior players Patrick McBrearty, Hugh McFadden and Eoghan Bán Gallagher met Paddy Carr the night after their penultimate league game and told the manager the players had lost confidence in him.

It was an unusual step from Donegal county board to publically name the three players, given that they would only have been nominated to represent the views of the squad as a whole.

In most functioning changing rooms, player power is seen as a good thing, to a point.

The strongest teams are the ones where the players self-police.

The modern lingo is ‘player-led’.

Most All-Ireland winning changing rooms have always been full of big characters that largely dictate what happens.

At their peak, when Dublin came in at half-time, they broke into groups.

Stephen Cluxton would have the defenders and midfielders all together, discussing how they’re doing. The forwards had their own separate group.

One player would be tasked with leading the group chats and relaying the key points back to management.

Declan Darcy would talk to the whole group then on defence, Jason Sherlock on attack, and finally Jim Gavin.

“Under Jim there is no Al Pacino or D’Unbelievables, no big drama, no big speeches, no thumping of tables, no raised voices,” wrote Bernard Brogan in The Hill.

Dublin’s players were the ones with the power to determine whether they won All-Irelands or not. The management around them facilitated their success by managing.

There is a line with it, of course. The influence of the group is one thing, but when one or two individuals start to dictate things, that’s when player power becomes a problem.

Alex Ferguson famously cleared the Manchester United dressing room of its drink culture in his early days. That meant big decisions. It’s hard enough getting rid of great footballers, but getting rid of popular ones like Bryan Robson and Paul McGrath was a bold move.

He once told Harvard Business that “you can complicate your life in many ways by asking ‘Oh, I wonder if the players like me?’ If I did my job well, the players would respect me, and that’s all you need.”

Respect is hard-earned in management.

Gaelic footballers are sometimes presented as becoming increasingly difficult to manage.

That is true. They are.

It is because standards have been so greatly elevated.

Those have experienced them will accept nothing less.

Those that haven’t experienced them want to, and will accept nothing less either.

A changing room makes its mind up on a manager very quickly.

First impressions count for a lot.

To those that would ask why players should get to have a say on who manages the team, the answer is quite simple.

Every year you get to play is precious.

Why would you accept effectively writing one, two, three of those years off on you because a committee appointed the wrong man?

If players don’t want a manager, they won’t play for him. Nobody wins in that scenario.

You might say that it’s the jersey you play for, not the manager, but ultimately only a team reading from the same book will win anyway.

If the players don’t believe in what the manager is doing, resistance will form and the walls will come down around them.

The pool of managers at inter-county level gets increasingly shallow. It is populated mostly by the retired and the teaching. The retirees have a job on their hands keeping up with the evolution of a game they maybe haven’t played in 20 years.

You can be dismissive of backroom teams but if nothing else, they’re invaluable for the relevance and youth they often bring to a setup.

A good coach is almost more important than a good manager now.

Clubs are finding it increasingly difficult to get managers of a decent standard, and just as hard to get coaches.

The market is making clubs write cheques that half of the people on the circuit have no right cashing.

Armed with just a half-decent playing career, a few yarns and a deep reticence towards the idea that anyone can teach them anything about football, the game moves on and they don’t want to move with it.

But in a county of 40 clubs, there are just about 42 managers at any given time.

It usually goes wrong very quickly.

First, training sessions become repetitive without the benefits of repetition.

Players start to lose interest.

Numbers dip.

The first fatal line from the manager is usually: “I’ve other things to do with my Tuesday nights, I don’t need to be here, you boys do.”

That is quickly followed by telling players they need to get on to their absent team-mates and get them out of the house, because it’s not his job.

Then it’s over. The year is written off.

Years are too precious to just write off, especially in the inter-county game.

Players don’t get rid of a manager for the sake of it.

They give up a lot to play Gaelic football, at every level. That is where it differs from professional sport.

The very least they’re entitled to is to be able to stand up and speak when things are not right.

Player power is not the ill it’s painted as.