Cavan’s senior squad are in disarray after Dubliner Val Andrews was forced out last week in the mouth of the championship. Meath football is disintegrating as Monaghan’s Seamus McEnaney clings to the wreckage. In Kildare, the county are on the rack. Last week, they convened an emergency meeting of all club chairmen to discuss their dire financial situation. Two days later, Armagh man Ciaran McGeeney’s senior football squad jetted off to Portugal for a ten day warm weather training camp. A seven day snapshot of the world of the outside manager.
Cavan’s players approached the board last week and voiced their concerns about Val. After a dire league campaign, it was clear his second spell at the county was over, so he stepped onto the lifeboat before being thrown in the water. Two years ago, a friend from Cavan rang me to sound me out. He was part of the head-hunting team assigned the role of finding a new senior manager. Head-hunting team? When he mentioned Andrews I gave vent to my frustration. In Cavan at the moment, they have some superb underage coaches, all of whom wore the Cavan jersey with pride. Mickey Graham has done wonders with several juvenile county squads and with Cavan Gaels. Likewise Terry Hyland, who just this week won his second consecutive Ulster under 21 Crown, beating a highly fancied Tyrone team. Or Dermot McCabe, whose Cavan minor team are the reigning Ulster champions? Or Anthony Forde?
“What is wrong with Mickey Graham? “ I asked, “Or Terry Hyland? Why have you so little faith in your own?” “We need an outside man Joe” was the answer, “someone with senior pedigree.” I spoke to the same man this week. “The penny has dropped in the county” he told me. “We’re going with our own in future.” Cavan, once one of the country’s great footballing dynasties, have been selling off their birthright for 20 years, bringing in one outside manager after another, all the while sinking into the mire. Now, that they are up and running again, courtesy of Cavan men, the county boasting the current Ulster minor and under 21 champions are finally starting to feel good about themselves.
The country was in shock when the Royals brought in an outsider to manage them two years ago. I thought it was a spoof and rang Colm O’Rourke to double-check. From the off, it caused civil war. On the field, the team divested themselves of all the traditional Meath values. Suddenly, they were not playing for each other. A county famed for soldiering on to the bitter end were suddenly giving up. The ultimate humiliation came on RTE’s Sunday league run down a fortnight ago when Martin McHugh branded them “soft.” Meath people were thinking they weren’t so soft when Kevin Foley ate wee Martin for breakfast in the 1990 semi-final and Martin O’Connell did the same to his brother James. How times have changed.
At the Meath County Board meeting last September to discuss whether to extend McEnaney’s tenure for another year, there was open revolt. Delegates shouted and roared during the most intemperate debate the board had ever witnessed. “We should never have gone outside the county. We’re a laughing stock” fumed one of the delegates. The decision to go outside was described as “Gutless” and “Disrespectful”. In the end, the executive got their way and the regime limped on another while. Now it is in its death throes. McEnaney, a proud and honourable man, refused to step down. At the time of writing, the Meath Board are due to meet to decide a motion of ‘No Confidence’. Meath legend Sean Boylan is waiting in the wings to take over. The county’s flirtation with the outsider appears to be dead.
Self help is the foundation stone of the GAA. Micko, invariably described in the media as “the greatest manager in the history of the GAA” (Grainne Seoige could have managed that Kerry team), spent four years in Wicklow. When he went there were in Division Four. When he left they were still rooted to the bottom tier. The Micko media circus enjoyed it and the team had a couple of good lashes at it in early round championship matches, but that was all. The blatant recruitment of midfielder Thomas Walsh from neighbouring Carlow at that time (he went back to his own county after two years) summed up the ethic of the regime. On Sunday past, with no fanfare at all, Wicklow man Harry Murphy managed his fellow county men to promotion at the first attempt. They beat Clare in Aughrim in front of a packed stand in a thrilling game. There was hardly a word about it. If it had been Micko, the main RTE news would have had shots of him being carried shoulder high from the field. In Galway, they started selling off their birthright, choppering in Joe Kernan and Tomas O’Flatharta. As the spirit disappeared from the senior squads, the underage teams, all managed by Galway men, were winning everything in their path, including minor and under 21 All-Irelands. One of those Galway men is Alan Mulholland, whose under 21s are the current champions. In the space of six months, Mulholland has restored the pride to the Galway senior jersey. It is a similar story in Mayo, where after a brief period in the early part of the millenium, they have gone back to their own. Given the way they conducted themselves on-field last Sunday against Kerry, James Horan is clearly having no problems sharing his passion with his countymen.
The squad that is said to buck the trend is Kildare, but this is for different reasons. There, McGeeney has created an uber-professional structure requiring very significant investment. Playing for Kildare is like joining the All-Blacks. Yet performances have been modest. The team has been beaten in four consecutive All-Ireland quarter finals. After five years, they have been promoted for the first time, courtesy of a draw via an injury time penalty against Galway in the last round of the league when Galway were all over them. The ethic is dubious. Dubliner and ex-Milwall goalie Shane Supple described vividly in the press a few weeks ago how he was blatantly tapped up by Kildare on his return to Ireland. Their current effort to bring in a high quality forward (Seanie Johnston) is making a public travesty of the GAA ideal. McGeeney simply refuses to answer questions about Supple.
Given the fact that not a single Board voice has been raised against either of these recruitment efforts, it is reasonable to assume that McGeeney has considerable influence in the county. Ex-Finance Minister Charlie McGreevey and ex-ESB chief Padraig McManus have been brought in by the board to deal with the county’s dire financial predicament. Yet the squad is in Portugal for ten days of warm weather training at a state of the art complex.
In the end, the game is about heart and soul. Outside managers alter the balance. Seanie probably thinks it’s okay to do what he’s doing because Cavan have been bringing in outside managers for years. This is understandable. Why should the code of club and county apply to players but not to managers? The oft quoted statistic that on only five occasions in 127 years has an outside manager landed a football or hurling All-Ireland (none in the last ten in either code) speaks for itself. In the GAA, we have to know we are all pulling together since deep down inside us, it is about our club and our county. Which is why even a fine, passionate man like McEnaney can never be a Meath man. There is a magic 10% that comes from within a group and carries the day on big occasions. Outsiders cannot tap into this. Have faith. It is our life blood.
Joe Brolly writes in the Derry Journal every Friday