PADDY HEANEY: Players, not tactics, will decide destiny of the All-Ireland

The subject which creates the biggest generational divide among ordinary, decent Irishmen isn’t what many people might think. Forget about the Catholic Church, contraception, abortion, and politics. Those weighty issues are for the newspapers and television. Normal men stay well clear of that type of chat.

Nope. The big debate which can get an Irish father and his son barking across the living room at each other relates to sport.

In short, the old school hombres believe footballers win games. While the men who remember going to games in Austin Minors concede managers have an influence, they contend that it still boils down to the 15 players on the field.

In stark contrast, the younger generation believe the Mickey Hartes and Brian Codys of this world have an enormous impact on how their team performs.

It’s a fascinating debate. But who is right? The grey-haired brigade, who will argue ‘Vincent O’Brien couldn’t train a donkey to win the derby’, or their modern-minded sons, who will point to the revolutionary successes of Jose Mourinho and Jim McGuinness? As someone who has placed a huge stock in the importance of managers, it gives me no great pleasure to reveal our elders have actually been talking sense.

It turns out most managers don’t actually make much of a difference. This isn’t an opinion. It’s a fact. I learned this pearl of wisdom courtesy of a recent edition of Newsnight in which Jeremy Paxman was discussing Manchester United’s decision to appoint David Moyes as the club’s new manager.

One of Paxman’s guests was Daniel Finkelstein. A graduate from the London School of Economics, the former politician writes a statistics-based soccer column, The Fink Tank. To my astonishment Finkelstein argued very convincingly that managers are usually irrelevant.

For any fan wanting to find out how their team would fare in the Premier League, Finkelstein said they simply needed to find out how much their players were paid. He revealed the wage bill at Premier League clubs, starting with those who pay the most and dropping to those who pay the least, more or less mirrored the table. Although wages might be a crude way of analysing a player’s talent, it’s still difficult to argue with the markets.

Barcelona provide an excellent example. Feted for their beautiful football, they also happen to have the highest wage bill of any soccer club in the world.

Although dismissive of the role of managers, Finkelstein observed three individuals in the Premier League consistently defied his wages model: Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and Sam Allardyce. And this information perhaps helps explain why the cult of the manager has become so pervasive in the GAA.

Unlike professional sports, where teams can buy fresh talent, counties have to make do with whoever is living in the county. Given the limited scope for improvements in playing personnel, it stands to sense that counties will try to make those extra gains by having a Ferguson, Moyes, or Allardyce at the helm.

If one man can produce a 10% improvement, it can be the difference between winning and losing. In the case of McGuinness, it can be the difference between getting beaten in the first round of the Ulster SFC to Antrim or winning the Sam Maguire.

By this stage, it might seem that I’ve realigned myself with the camp which says managers win games. That isn’t the case. There is absolutely no doubt managers can transform the fortunes of a team. We know that. We’ve watched Donegal rise from qualifier chaff to All-Ireland champions.

However, the central planks of Donegal’s success were organisation, cohesion and fitness. No team could cope with their defensive system. No team could thwart their clockwork counter-attacks. The key ingredient he brought to Donegal was machine-like teamwork.

But already in this year’s Championship we have witnessed Donegal’s big advantages no longer carry the same weight. A Down team later minced by Derry in Celtic Park could have put the Tír Chonáill men out of the Ulster SFC. Evidently, the opposition is catching up. The competitive edge, that extra 15% gained from their manager’s superior tactics, didn’t apply against Down. Donegal beat Down because Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy landed scores Down couldn’t.

But what will happen when Donegal come up against a team better drilled but with better players? Again, soccer might provide the answer. Consider how Ferguson fared in the Champions League.

As the manager of the wealthiest club in England, hiss talent and huge financial backing helped him land 13 league titles. But when United went into Europe, Ferguson encountered good mangers with bigger cheque books and better players. During Fergie’s 26-and-a-half years at Old Trafford, United won the Champions League twice.

Ferguson is one of the greatest managers of all time, yet even he had his limitations against teams with better players. And this brings us back to this year’s All-Ireland SFC. Those who believe it is a battle between the best managers couldn’t be more wrong. As things stand, there’s not a huge amount separating Jim McGuinness, James Horan, Jim Gavin, Mickey Harte and Eamon Fitzmaurice. Whatever margins exist won’t dictate the destiny of the Sam Maguire. The same, however, can’t be said about the pool of playing talent in these counties.

Noticeable gaps exist between the capabilities of the footballers from Donegal, Mayo, Dublin, Tyrone and Kerry. Those who want to identify the winners of this year’s All-Ireland are therefore advised to forget about the managers. Donegal’s recent advantages no longer apply. The sidelines have been levelled.

For this season, what the old men have been telling us is right. The county with the best footballers is going to win this year’s All-Ireland.


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