atching Ger Cunningham, Damian Barton, and Peadar Healy have to face the music and the cameras last weekend, there was almost a pall about them of dead managers walking.
There’s little chance though they’ll actually be asked or offer to walk away.
Instead they’ll stoically limp along, a group of players and a management team traipsing along behind them, towards what seems an inevitable, grim conclusion.
Their summer may only be one game old but already it feels like it’s essentially over, and with it, their tenure, only no-one wants to admit it. Everyone might be resigned to the inevitable but no-one will volunteer or be asked to resign.
For all the objections we hear about the term ‘contract’ being used when it comes to a manager agreeing to take up a position with an inter-county team and how it smacks of the English Premier League, there’s one considerable if rarely remarked difference between the two scenes. In the Premier League a manager and a club will frequently part ways during the season. In inter-county GAA such a severance never happens in-season. Not these past five years anyhow.
There was a time, of course, when it was different. Most famously there was when Michael ‘Babs’ Keating stepped out and Michael Bond stepped in mid-summer to win the 1998 All-Ireland for Offaly. Ten years later Waterford also reached an All-Ireland hurling final after Justin McCarthy stepped down upon the wishes of his players, to be replaced by Davy Fitzgerald.
Other high-profile managers bowed out during the league. Mickey Whelan had to contend with a considerable contingent of boo boys on the Hill and in Parnell Park and two games into his third season as Dublin manager, he relented. John Maughan too decided he’d enough of the mob after his Roscommon side heavily lost a 2008 home league game to neighbours Westmeath; Paul Earley agreed to be an interim manager for the remainder of the league, before Mike Ryan would step into the breach for the championship and then Fergie O’Donnell took up the position properly that autumn.
Resignations and caretaker managers would become rather common over the following few seasons. In 2009, Richie Connor was forced out by the players only a few months into his stint as Offaly manager. In 2010, Brendan Hackett stepped down as Westmeath manager under similar circumstances. A year later in the same county, hurling manager Kevin Martin resigned to be replaced by Brian Hanley. The craze hit a peak in 2012. Val Andrews in Cavan and Gerry Cooney in Offaly both stepped aside before the start of the championship while Seamus McEnaney just about survived a heave the same spring in Meath. Since then, the climate has changed. When Dublin county board chairman Sean Shanley said last Monday “we don’t tend to sack managers” – though Humphrey Kelleher, from his experience in 2005, would disagree – he could have been speaking for every county and not just Dublin. Any changes and manoeuvrings are done post-season or off-season, never in-season.
There are numerous reasons why. For one, there’s precious few group of players with that sense of urgency and ambition that Waterford would have had back in 2008. For all the time they would have had for Justin McCarthy, they had already given him six full summers up to then. The way 2008 was shaping up, they felt they couldn’t afford him a seventh, otherwise it would been the shortest of the lot. They knew they’d come in for a lot of slack for such an extreme course of action but calculated that with perhaps only one more summer for them to win the ultimate it was worth the risk.
Now most teams feel it’s not worth that risk, it’s not worth the hassle. What difference is it really going to make? What’s the difference really between exiting at the last-24 stage of the All Ireland football series and the last-16? What’s the difference between exiting at the second round of the hurling qualifiers (a la Dublin last year) and the All Ireland quarter-finals (a la Wexford, a team Dublin beat earlier that summer)?
Changing a manager isn’t going to alter the fact you’re hardly going to win that year’s All-Ireland. (And, that, unlike in the Premier League, you’re hardly going to be relegated either, at least not from the championship). Not when it’s so hard to get a suitable manager during the summer. Not when it’d be so hard for him to assemble a management team worth its salt with most of them having commitments elsewhere.
Supporters and county boards tend to be more tolerant too. Which, in many ways, is a good thing, though in another, could be interpreted as a bad thing, with misguided passion giving way to sheer apathy.
So you can see why county boards persevere with managers for the duration of the year, and why managers themselves persevere. These are by and large good, proud people. They do not deserve any unnecessary humiliation. Sticking with them and sticking with it until at least the championship is over seems the humane thing to do.
But in another way such a course of action can diminish the human spirit as well. It can be a demoralising existence for an inter-county player, knowing a certain set-up is incapable of turning things around and yet having to maintain the charade that it can. If a manager was to step down, even in-season, it can come as a relief to everyone, especially the manager himself. Maybe some of the aforementioned managers can turn it around. Or at least save some face.
There’s that scene at the end of The Lion in Winter, quoted in another famous scene in The West Wing, when Richard the Lionheart, played by Anthony Hopkins in his big-screen debut, is in the dungeon with his brothers, the three of them about to be executed by King Henry.
Richard tells his brothers not to cower, to take it like men. Geoffrey says, “You fool! As if it matters how a man falls down.” Richard replies, “When the fall’s all that’s left, it matters.” Richard could well be an inter-county manager.
When the fall is all that’s left, how you fall matters a great deal.