Niall Carew tells Daragh Ó Conchúir why April is the most important month for an inter-county manager
Ever wonder what a manager is thinking or doing in that period between the conclusion of the league and commencement of the championship?
Niall Carew is a former manager of Sligo and Waterford footballers. Prior to that, he spent five years as a coach/selector with Kieran McGeeney in Kildare. He has been involved directly in an All-Ireland semi-final, five All-Ireland quarter-finals, a Leinster final, a Connacht final, a Division 2 league final, and knows Divisions 3 and Division 4 also. He returned to the club scene last year and is manager of Ballylinan in Laois.
The St Kevin’s man, who played senior hurling for Kildare before injury prompted an early detour to coaching, has interesting observations.
“The way I operated, and I presume other managers are the same, was that you’d have this all planned out from the start of the year,” Carew says. “You’d have a calendar of events drawn up, all your challenges games and training camps organised.
“The thing about the challenge games, though, and this wasn’t an issue in Kildare, because you had a massive panel of players at a similar level, but with counties with smaller populations, like Waterford and Sligo, challenge games can actually be disruptive, because there is a gap between your 20th player and number 34. When you’re playing your second 15, which you have to to keep the thing going, sometimes the challenge game just isn’t worth it.
“When I was in Sligo and Waterford, I was trying to build a real professional set-up and the biggest thing for me with that in mind was training camps before the championship. We didn’t have the luxury to go to Portugal or Spain, which would be brilliant, because I did it with Kildare one year with Geezer [McGeeney] before the Division 2 league final in 2012 and it worked very well.
“With Sligo, Waterford and Kildare, the biggest thing was that the players had to fundraise, but you try to do all that before Christmas. You want to meet county boards half-way in terms of funding those training camps, to make sure that you get them.
“That’s the advantage the top teams have over you. They don’t have to put in a big effort for fundraising. They might have to attend an event, but when you’re a player in Sligo and Waterford, and in Kildare too when I was there, you literally have to sell. You have to actually approach a businessman and ask for money.
The training camp needs to be in place around three weeks before championship, to double down on processes and game plan, working on how to break down the opposition and stop them getting at you.
“If you went away on a four-day training session, that’s as good as having three weeks normally with the players. Trying to sell that to county boards can be hard, but you have full access to the players, they are not coming from work or even from small kids. They’re relaxed. It’s a completely professional set-up.
“You have to have discussion and debate with the board to get that training camp. Sometimes even a row, and that’s stressful. It is the part of it I don’t miss at all. The problem is that county boards are answerable to Croke Park and they have to play to their tune, unless you’re a top-five or -six team that can do their own thing. Croke Park have the rest of the county boards over a barrel, because they are giving them the money that the boards cannot survive without. That’s why I was so impressed with the Kildare county board making the stance on Newbridge for the Mayo game last year, because Croke Park told them in no uncertain terms that that game wasn’t to be in Newbridge, they tried to bully them, but they stood up to them.
“But that isn’t the norm and managers have to deal with a lot as a result of the fact that county boards’ hands are tied. It is definitely the most stressful aspect entirely of the job.”
Then you have the club programme. Of course April was designated a club month by GAA’s central council last year, though it has gone almost universally unobserved and there doesn’t appear to be a will to apply it.”
Carew doesn’t think it is workable and has sympathy with county managers.
“If there’s club championship, you’re worried about players coming back injured, and sometimes a player comes back from two weeks with the club, they’re completely out of sync with what you’ve been doing. They come back with a club mentality and you can lose a week trying to get them back to the pitch of inter-county training. I used to try meet with players during such periods, even for a cup of coffee, just to keep them in the zone.
“So, I understand where county managers are coming from. I told my county players with Ballylinan at the start of the year, if they wanted to play with us they were welcome to, but if they felt they were getting too much football and needed a break, I was okay with that, because I knew the effort that went into county football.
“You expect that they will give you a shift when they come back. In fairness, a lot of them do come back even if they don’t have to. There are a lot of players who aren’t getting enough football and could do with the games but if you have a stalwart playing every match for the county, why would you put pressure on him to be playing all the time for the club? You’re flogging a player then and I’d be against that.
“There is no championship in Laois until July, in fairness. Maybe if it was in April I’d be thinking different, but April is the most important time of the year for a county manager. You’re only judged on the league at the end of the league. At the end of the year, it’s what you did in the championship that counts. If you want to get that big win, if you want to get as far as you can, if you want to win a trophy, April is vital, but you have delegates deciding that inter-county players who have put their lives on hold for the county should, in the most important time of the year, go back to the clubs. It’s ludicrous. That’s where managers pull their hair out.
“I believe the whole thing should be split — club one half of the year, county the other half, six months and six months — and you don’t have players being pulled all over the place. You also can show all the games on television, from the start of club championships, and players know when games are on and you don’t have lads heading off to America.
The goals and targets for the season have been established from the start of the year and though they differ in accordance to the status of the county, the belief never wavers that you can contend. It is why Carew has no truck with the notion of a B Championship, offering up the scant regard and profile offered to hurling’s tiered competitions from GAA headquarters downwards, and subsequent reduced coverage and sponsorship, as explanation for why it is unattractive to players.
“Have the Lory Meagher, Christy Ring and the rest, have they improved standards? Have they closed the gap? The answer is absolutely not. If you go down that road, it’s not sexy enough for players to play with their county. They’ll go to America every year and the gap will just get bigger. It’s an absolute disaster to go down that road.
“If Sligo are playing Mayo in the first round of the championship and it’s live on television, young lads want to play those games, the supporters want to see them and the sponsors want to be associated with them.
“People say the league is an example of how it works, but actually, when you’re in, say Division 3 or Division 4, you’re playing teams at your level, but you’re not learning as much as you could, whereas when we played Mayo in the Connacht final after beating Roscommon, I learned more that day after getting that drubbing and we were much better two weeks later and competed against Tyrone.”
The way he tells it, being an inter-county manager is nearly a disease.