Cahair O'Kane: Is change the answer for Tyrone or Armagh?

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair O'Kane

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

Tyrone's entire management team have devoted so much of their lives to the county. Picture: Seamus Loughran
Tyrone's entire management team have devoted so much of their lives to the county. Picture: Seamus Loughran

AS Mattie Donnelly altered his jog off the pitch to meet his young clubmate Seanie O'Donnell replacing him, it wasn’t so much of a handshake as a greeting that said ‘it’s your team now, look after it’.

Donnelly’s form ever since his man-of-the-match return in the league win over Kerry has been his best in a long time.

He became a father last week. The moment children arrive, your electricity is drawn there and every other bulb in your life has to just make do with a little bit less.

Maybe there’s enough of him left to give another year to Tyrone.

Read More

  • Armagh suffer penalty heartache again
  • GAA condemns fighting fans at Armagh-Monaghan Croke Park clash
  • Tyrone not at the races as champions Kerry canter to double scores win

He, like Peter Harte (also a father) and Ronan McNamee, have been incredible servants to the Red Hand jersey. None of them owe it a thing.

This is not to write them off. They’ll be asking themselves these questions over the next few weeks.

Their management team have given far more still.

Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher, along with Collie Holmes, Joe McMahon, Peter Donnelly, have given so much of their lives to Tyrone football, as players first and then coaches.

In an era where a growing number of inter-county managers are in the fortunate position of being able to ease up on a day job, Logan and Dooher are notable exceptions.

Logan co-owns his own solicitor’s practice. Dooher is the Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer for the Department of Agriculture.

It would be an achievement to find time to take a club team with those day jobs, never mind manage Tyrone.

An All-Ireland U21 title as joint-managers with Peter Canavan in 2015 put them right to the head of the queue for whenever Mickey Harte’s time in charge eventually drew closed.

And exactly as Harte had done in 2003, they used the bounce to catapult the thing over the line.

When they turned Kerry over two years ago, it was the kind of energetic, sparky, in-your-face Croke Park display that they’d been missing for a while.

In the final, they had the belief in themselves to go man-for-man with Mayo and win.

With the fullness of time, Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher will be remembered as the men that delivered Tyrone’s fourth All-Ireland.

Cahair O'Kane columns:

  • Mayo's latest act of self-sabotage might have cost them an All-Ireland
  • GAA has to start planning for professionalism
  • Evidence says Dublin won't win the All-Ireland

The other two years will fade but 2021 will never.

Yet it’s been fairly evident for a while that the bounce has gone.

That is because so many of the players responsible for it have left.

Why they did so has been the subject of endless discussion.

“A lot of people have made a big deal out of that and I suppose it is disrespectful to the players who are there,” Dooher said last summer, annoyed by the constant discussion around it.

The cold light of day can only have allowed them to privately draw the same conclusions as everyone else.

Ultimately you can’t lose Conor McKenna, Mark Bradley, Tiernan McCann, Ronan O’Neill, Michael Cassidy, Hugh Pat McGeary, Paul Donaghy, Jonny Munroe, Lee Brennan, Padraig McNulty – all of them still of an age to be playing – and not be severely weakened.

It became a situation where their lack of depth meant losses of form weren’t being punished. Twelve of the starting All-Ireland team started again on Saturday despite a good chunk of them consistently performing well below the levels they’d been at in 2021.

You could forgive them their hangover year in 2022 but this year is harder to explain away.

It’s a time for cool heads on all sides for the next few weeks.

Armagh are in the exact same boat. Kieran McGeeney is under eternal pressure now so the feeling will be nothing new.

Kieran McGeeney has gone nine seasons without a Championship title. Picture: Philip Walsh
Kieran McGeeney has gone nine seasons without a Championship title. Picture: Philip Walsh

You could argue that Armagh fans do not properly appreciate where they are at in relation to where they’ve come from.

McGeeney is deeply popular with the players. That counts for an awful lot.

But unlike Tyrone, Armagh’s whole top-level existence is built on sand.

They haven’t won an Ulster minor title since 2009. Their last U21 title was 2007.

Crossmaglen dropping back into the pack in terms of provincial club football means they’re seven years since the last success at that level, without a finalist since.

Armagh Harps (2003) and Cross (2015) have won their only two Ulster minor club titles this century.

There remains the potential to squeeze a bit more juice from the current group that McGeeney has held in his hands for nearly a decade, cultivating their physical conditioning over a long period of time as much as anything.

Those that would make the argument that they’re losing because of his tactical approach had another big feed set in front of them on Saturday.

Having had such joy squeezing up on Galway’s kickouts, they went back to dropping off against Monaghan. Then they allowed the black card period to pass by with very little stress on the eventual winners’ part. It felt far more like a chance missed than the Ulster final did.

But to make those arguments you have to accept that they’re only playing in All-Ireland quarter-finals in the first place because of McGeeney.

What would Armagh be right now if they’d had three different managers doing three-year terms since 2014? I don’t think they’d be anywhere near what they are.

This column has questioned the consistency of their team selections but the consistency of their panel is remarkable.

Ciaran Mackin breaks away from Monaghan's Shane Carey at the Athletic Grounds Armagh. Pic Philip Walsh.
Ciaran Mackin breaks away from Monaghan's Shane Carey at the Athletic Grounds Armagh. Pic Philip Walsh.

Of their starting side on Saturday evening, only Ciaran Mackin (2022) and Conor O’Neill (2020) debuted this decade. Of the 23 players they used, 17 of them have been there for a minimum of four years.

None of it entitles McGeeney to the reins forever either.

Just as it was when Mickey Harte’s fate was being decided in Tyrone, the sense that even if it doesn’t work out, the players that have been there for nearly a decade under McGeeney are owed the chance to try something else with their last year or two.

But what do they change to?

The Tony McEntee – Oisin McConville ticket probably isn’t on the table this autumn. McEntee’s just had his best year in Sligo and McConville’s only done one season in Wicklow. Both would find it hard to leave those gigs but if it really came to it, you’d guess they would for their native land.

Whereas Armagh’s seat at the top table only has three legs on it, Tyrone’s is made of cast iron.

They’ve won two All-Ireland U20 titles since 2015, and two other Ulster titles at the grade in between. They were back-to-back provincial minor champions in ’21 and ’22.

The strength of their schools and clubs is being matched and even overtaken by Derry but it’s those two counties that the other seven in Ulster look up to in terms of youth development.

Darragh Canavan is only 23. Ruairi will improve a lot on his shot selection in the coming years. Conn Kilpatrick and Brian Kennedy have blossomed as a midfield pairing. Michael McKernan is one of the most energetic defenders in the country. Prime Darren McCurry, Niall Morgan, Padraig Hampsey, Conor Meyler – they’ve loads there to work with.

Whether Logan and Dooher have the energy and ideas to gather it up again and start over pretty much from scratch is the question now.

Change in Tyrone, rightly or wrongly, does feel inevitable.

Armagh is much harder to call.

What’s for certain is that the people pushing for new management better know exactly what they’re changing to.

Monaghan got away with it last year because Vinny Corey stood up and pulled them out of a hole, taking a job he initially didn’t want so soon.

Donegal didn’t. Nor did Down when they wanted rid of Paddy Tally.

Some in Kildare would still argue that getting rid of McGeeney was a mistake, backed up by their trajectory in the years after.

It’s a fire you could get burnt by very easily.