Last September, Brian Cody was once again spitting into his hands and rubbing them, stalking out his 12th All Ireland senior title as a manager to go with the three he’d won as a player. Alongside him were James McGarry and Derek Lyng, who’d won six apiece under him as players, as well as being by his side for the previous two All-Ireland triumphs as selectors.
Further down the touchline, the Tipperary management couldn’t quite make as loud a jangling sound when it came to shuffling the pockets for Celtic Crosses. Michael Ryan won one in his debut season of 1991. Conor Stakelum won one coming on as a sub in the final. John Madden was a non-playing sub the same year, and in 1989 as well. Completing the management team was Declan Fanning, a starting member of the 2010 victorious side with whom Ryan was a selector.
It was hardly as decorative a lineup as their opposite counterparts, each of them with barely the one All-Ireland medal – but they each had that All-Ireland medal.
Micheál Donoghue has yet to win a senior inter-county All-Ireland title as a player or as a member of a management team. Neither has Francis Forde, nor Noel Larkin. As impressive as all their coaching CVs may be, winning Celtic Crosses at club and underage level as mentors to go with the few they won on various Galway minor and U21 teams, none of them yet know what it’s like to win the biggest game on the biggest day of all.
As a coach, Derek McGrath has won a national league and a couple of colleges All-Irelands but has never been involved on the first Sunday of September. As a player, his inter-county career was, by his own admission, pretty undistinguished, consisting of just a couple of championship appearances, none as a starter.
His current selectors enjoyed stellar careers. In 2002, Fergal Hartley captained the county to its first Munster title in 39 years. Eoin Murphy made his championship debut that same year. Dan Shanahan was a more peripheral figure in that campaign but in 2004, 2007, and even 2010 Dan was the man, scoring at least one goal in each of those Munster final triumphs. All three selectors won at least one All Star. But – all three also failed to win an All-Ireland.
You’ll be stretched to find the last September when there was such a complete lack of All-Ireland medals either on the field or just off it.
In 1996, Wexford were absolute beginners in that regard but in the Limerick camp, manager Tom Ryan had won an All Ireland as a sub back in ’73. It was a similar story in 1995; Clare were totally new to the whole All-Ireland final day lark but in the opposite corner Offaly had won the All-Ireland only the year before, with Éamonn Cregan at the helm. In 1980, Galway were total novices but on the field of play Limerick had five survivors from the team of 1973. All things considered, this has to be the most virginal All-Ireland final since Wexford won the All-Ireland back in 1955.
What you need to appreciate though is this: neither manager will see the lack of Celtic Crosses on the line as some kind of impediment to victory. In fact Donoghue and McGrath would have chosen the selectors precisely because of the teams they would have played on.
Go back through previous Galway teams to have reached All-Ireland finals since the county last claimed Liam MacCarthy back in 1988. Noel Lane, the 2001 manager, scored the winning goal in ’88. Conor Hayes, the 2005 manager, was captain in ’88. Anthony Cunningham, the manager in 2012 and 2015, was wing forward in ’88. One of John McIntyre’s selectors would have been Joe Connolly, the captain in 1980.
Donoghue is the first manager to break that link with the victorious teams of the ‘80s. Forde and Larkin played their hurling alongside him in the ‘90s, winning a few league titles in the middle of that decade. The leadership theorist Howard Gardner has argued that the transformative leader is someone who embodies the story of a people or cause before then creating a new story. Consciously or unconsciously aware of Gardner, Donoghue has chosen a similar tact, calculating that at some point ’88 had become a burden instead of a beacon, that his players didn’t need that year as a constant reference point, that instead they needed men who had struggled just like them. Although the team will be further fuelled by a desire to honour the memory of the late great Tony Keady, Donoghue has been mindful for his team not to be weighed down by the sides of the past.
If Donoghue has adjudged that his players could have been hindered by the legacy of the last great Galway team, then McGrath reasoned that his young team would be inspired by the last great Waterford one. In many ways they embody the Waterford story: Dan, all the charisma and daring of those brilliant Justin McCarthy teams, then Murphy and Hartley the more cerebral, conscientious servants that also soldiered for that side.
Like Donoghue, Larkin, and Forde, they have learned from the errors of their teams and days; as Shanahan pointed out last week to critics of the sweeper system, those swashbuckling teams that he played for ultimately didn’t win an All-Ireland but possibly might have had they been a bit more tactically flexible like McGrath. But they also had enough great days to galvanise future generations.
Three years ago, I interviewed Paul Flynn before another Cork-Waterford showdown. When he was growing up, he pointed out, he was always either John Fenton or Joe Cooney pucking about in the back garden. There were no Waterford players to emulate because there were no Waterford players on TV. And the thought struck him: the minor team that won the 2013 All-Ireland would all have been six or seven back in 2002. And when they raced out to their back garden or club field, it would have been a Waterford player they’d have been in their minds: a Dan, Ken, Tony, Mullane, Flynn himself. Hopefully, he said, that would always be the way now in Waterford. That a future generation would want to be Austin Gleeson the same way Austin used to dream of being Ken McGrath.
Should Waterford win this All-Ireland with Shanahan, Murphy, and Hartley as selectors, it’ll almost be as much Tony Browne’s, Paul Flynn’s, and Ken McGrath’s All-Ireland as de Burca’s, Barron’s, or Gleeson’s. A legacy and liberation complete.