Sometime in the 80s, Dungiven seniors went up to play Claudy in a Kerlin Cup match with the bare 15 on board. Andy Murphy was player/manager at the time. His three brothers also played on the team. Andy’s team talk went something like this: “Boys, I’ll play midfield with our Plunkett. Liam is at full-back. George centre half. The rest of youse just fan out.”
My uncle Eunan played on that team and used to take the field smoking, then drop his cigarette butt when the ball was thrown in. There were no warm ups. Tactics were unheard of. We won three senior championships in that decade.
“I don’t know what went wrong today,” said John Brennan, as he surveyed the wreckage of Derry’s Ulster championship campaign this time last year.
“We worked for five weeks on getting to grips with Donegal’s system.” Five weeks? Jimmy must have smiled when he heard that. He has a rule of thumb that he spoke about recently at a GAA chat show in Belfast: To introduce even a small refinement to a system requires a minimum of eight full training sessions. John Brennan’s five weeks dwarfs the tactical work that Derry’s 1993 team did.
We simply played, using our brains and discussing things amongst each other. John was once considered one of the great managers in Ulster. A passionate man manager who once rolled up his sleeves in a dressing room at half time and offered one of his players a fair fight, his time is long gone. Jimmy and the lads finished what was left of it.
Vince Lombardi, the American football innovator widely regarded as the first modern coach, famously said that his team never lost, “Sometimes we just run out of time.”
Linebacker Jerry Kramer wrote about missing a tackle once in a game they had won easily. At the squad’s daily video analysis session next evening, Lombardi was apoplectic with fury. Jerry noted in his diary, “Vince liked that bit of the film so much he showed it to all of us 19 times. Nineteen times I saw myself miss that block. Next time we run that play, I won’t miss the block.” Lombardi’s approach was to introduce a new play by rehearsing it 100 times. Every skill, drill, play and strategy was repeated until it became automatic.
Elimination of mistakes was key. A rookie and college all-star who could run the 100m in 9.3 seconds dropped the ball once in practice.
“There’s no place round here for fumblers and bumblers” screamed Lombardi, “If you fumble again you’re gone.” Thereafter Lombardi made him carry a football with him wherever he was, ‘Even when you’re sitting on the can.”
Not even 20 years on from our All Ireland victory, the inter-county game is unrecognisable. The old managerial vocabulary - ‘Get stuck into them, boys,’ ‘Get tight on your men’, “Let your man know you’re there’ - is as redundant as Latin. The Derry lads spoke after their first round game last year about the constant communication between the Donegal boys and their apparent use of code words. When a defender shouted “squeeze”, their formation immediately changed. Players were calling names to each other that were not the names of anyone on the field, reminiscent of the complex codes used by American football teams: “53, 43, 27, hut hut hut.”
The pace of change has left renowned coaches like Mickey Harte struggling to keep up. Three seasons he has faced Donegal. Three times he has been comprehensively trumped by the younger man. There are three main criticisms: He has failed to develop a target man. He has not grasped the problem of playing an exclusively short ball game. He has not created a scoring platform for Stephen O’Neill, the most devastating finisher in the game.
As analysis of games has become more scientific, so it has become more mainstream. The man on the street can now discuss the blanket defence, the merits of two sweepers, the importance of good forward movement and the pros and cons of the long game versus the short game. As a result, the manager’s performance is coming under more scrutiny than ever. The manager has become the most important member of the squad.
Take Mayo for example, where James Horan has ruthlessly dismantled the old boom and bust, happy go lucky Mayo style that brought them plenty of friends but no cigar. The game’s nice boys have become mean hard asses who hit like the Munster Rugby team.
James has stripped down and refashioned every aspect of their game. The players have been reprogrammed, like a life sized computer game. It is joyless stuff, but it is remarkably efficient. They crushed Galway recently in the manner of a tank rolling over protesters in Tianaman Square. But Galway have very good players. They have won under 21 All Irelands. They have the deadly duo up front. Forget that. Horan is a top class manager.
Alan Mulholland is not.
Pat Gilroy realised half way through his tenure he was going nowhere unless he copied the blanket defensive counter attacking template. A smart workaholic and good modern leader of men, he therefore transformed his entire approach to training. The radical shift turned his players from startled earwigs into All-Ireland champions. Exactly the same players who had been destroyed by exactly the same Kerry players two years before found themselves mounting the steps in the Hogan Stand to take the fabled cup. It is indisputable that the key figure in that transformation was the manager.
Jack O’Connor wasn’t able for Mickey Harte. Plain and simple. Harte isn’t able to match Jim McGuinness. Paul Grimley could not compete with Cavan’s Terry Hyland in their first round game recently. The Armagh supporters were in uproar in the stands: “Why isn’t he playing a sweeper to counteract Cavan’s system?” Afterwards, the sky fell on Paul’s head.
The manager is under the spotlight as never before because people appreciate that the tactical and strategic aspects of the game are now critical.
Colm and Pat always used to say that the team with the best players will win. Then Mickey Harte came along in 2003 and took a team that Sligo had embarrassed in Croke Park the year before to an All-Ireland. Yet the lads persisted with this delusion. It was the spectacular success of the McGuinness experiment that finally forced the remaining doubters to abandon the flat earth theory. The All Ireland series is rapidly becoming a best manager competition. Jimmy McGuinness, James Horan, Jim Gavin and possibly Eamonn Fitzmaurice.
May the best man win...