MIKE QUIRKE: For inter-county managers, the game is turning nothing short of ruthless

This year’s Tyrone side are playing with a dynamism and a skill level to rival Mickey Harte’s great team of the last decade, writes Mike Quirke.

By and large, it’s been a very enjoyable football championship, but we’ve seen some massively disappointing and one-sided quarter-finals outside of the first Mayo and Roscommon instalment. The absence of real competition in the football quarters was highlighted further by the excitement produced by Galway and Tipperary in the hurling semi-final on Sunday.

Yesterday’s replay between the Connacht rivals was as woeful a contest as the previous two. Not Mayo’s fault mind, and if nothing else, their energetic and enthusiastic performance put to bed the notion that they must be exhausted with fatigue at having to play one game a week in their run through the qualifiers.

Complete nonsense.

It’s the training that players get tired of, never games. One game every seven days with only a bit of light recovery work and ball handling during one training session midweek is a dream for players. They’d rather play seven games in seven weeks in a row than two games in seven.

Either way, Mayo have joined Kerry, Dublin and Tyrone in the semi-finals. Disappointingly, one didn’t have to be Nostradamus to predict that final four at the beginning of the year. I put it out there recently that I thought the Ulster championship wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, it was an opinion that quickly drew a stinging response from football followers of the province.

It wasn’t intended to be as a slight on Ulster football. I innocently thought it was an honest enough observation.

The point I was trying to make, perhaps unsuccessfully, was that while the Ulster championship is without doubt the most enjoyable and competitive provincial championship to watch early in the summer, that level of competitiveness masks an absence of any real depth of quality outside of the top one or two teams. That’s not to say the province is any weaker than any of the rest, of course it isn’t, it sure isn’t that Munster is stronger, or Connacht, or Leinster, but instead, despite the perception of the attritional and hard-hitting nature of the Ulster grind, the majority of teams in the competition aren’t near as good as advertised at the moment.

Ulster had four teams competing in division one of the Allianz League this season. And I know three of the four available qualifier spots this year went to Ulster sides, but just look at the nature of performances and defeats that befell firstly Donegal and Down, and subsequently Armagh and Monaghan as soon as they got out of the province.

Similar to Kerry and Dublin, Tyrone as provincial winners have glided to an All-Ireland semi-final untouched and untested, having won all their four championship games this season by an average of 11.5 points.

Right now, Ulster football has a champion in Tyrone capable of winning the All-Ireland, the same can be said for Munster and Leinster, but for all the rest in those provinces, the reality is they are miles behind that top four teams. Certainly, Ulster is no different to the rest of Munster, Connacht and Leinster in that regard.

In truth, it wasn’t all that long ago that Tyrone had dropped back closer to the pack and were languishing amongst the also rans. Some were even saying it might be time for them to make a change and move on from Mickey Harte. It would be hard to imagine anyone at county board level would have given much serious consideration to replacing their longstanding banisteoir.

Again this year, he has continued the regeneration of the Red Hand, and he has now developed a completely new group, save for Sean Cavannagh, playing with a dynamism and a skill level to rival their great team of the last decade.

There aren’t too many modern-day managers who will enjoy a tenure as long or as successful as Harte has. As it has turned into a role with an increasingly short shelf life.

I mean, who would want to be a manger or a coach of any inter-county team in this modern era? Seriously. Why would you bother?

I’ve spoken before about the guys doing the rounds on the GAA club circuit, plundering whatever bounty comes their way, and whether winning or losing, improving or regressing teams, they move on to the next location on their whistle stop tour fairly sharpish. The price goes up with each new exotic destination. The accumulation of experience they’ll tell you.

A lot of these guys are bluffers. If they were golfers, they’d be the 18-handicapper standing inside in the bar with a white golf pants and bright pink polo talking about power fading the ball off the tee, before playing a choked down ¾ wedge to heart of the green. Bullshitters.

For the genuine coaches and managers at the club level, of which there are many too, it can be a frustrating station at times. But for those plying their trade at the inter-county level, the game is turning nothing short of ruthless.

Just take a look at the past few weeks, Cian O’Neill brought his Kildare players to within single digits of Dublin in a Leinster final for the first time in years, and it looked like they had made huge strides under their vastly experienced and qualified manager. Boom.

A week later and they get busted in the mouth by a superb Armagh performance. With Armagh operating down in lowly division three of the national league, it was a terrible result for O’Neill and Kildare. Queue the doubts and criticisms.

And what about Kieran McGeeney and his Armagh side? Hero to zero in seven days after his team’s no-show against Tyrone in Croke Park. Again, the questions over his tactics came thick and fast.

Peadar Healy was a man who looked weighed down by the scrutiny, expectation and ferocious demands by the role of manager to his native Cork. Or just look at what happened to Peter Creedon in Laois. Rumours and stories of a drink culture at a county board meeting forced him into walking away.

Pete McGrath was another faller to player power in Fermanagh, similar to the guillotine that fell on the necks of Noel Connolly and Pat Holmes in Mayo a couple of years ago. The key difference between Mayo compared to the Fermanagh boys; Fermanagh could get Holy Jesus himself to come down and manage them and they still aren’t going to compete for the All-Ireland. Mayo are right there at the cutting edge again.

Others like Tom Cribbin, Damien Barton, Colin Kelly, Johnny McGee and Rory Gallagher have all vacated their posts. The high rate of managerial turnover, is testament to the exceptionally difficult gig it has become, and two to three years is turning into the normal term, such are the demands of the role.

Anybody thinking about jumping onto the managerial merry-go-round for a few handy bucks better know what you’re getting yourself into and be prepared for the ever-increasing pressure, scrutiny and expectation that comes with having your name above the door.


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