‘There’s nothing like inter-county management’

HE’D been there already, pacing the line as Kerry hurling manager, and there had been spells afterwards as a Cork selector, and as Wexford manager. When John Meyler was asked earlier this year to take the Kerry U21s for a few sessions, he saw green shoots for the Kingdom seniors. He went back.

“I felt, looking at them, that there were half a dozen lads with real talent, that if they were developed and nurtured, with maybe three years of hard work, fitness work and so on you could turn them into a real team.

“Kerry won the vocational schools hurling last year, so obviously there are players there, and I felt if you had half a dozen of the U21s, a couple of the minors, and a few of the older lads – with the effort and commitment on top of that – you’d have a chance.”

However, he wouldn’t do it until he had a meeting with the players.

“And they asked me awkward questions – ‘why did I want the job and so on’ – and I said I had a grá for it. I’d been out of it since Wexford, so it gave me a chance to get back in. There’s nothing like inter-county management.

“That night, though, I formed a players’ committee. I said ‘I want six of ye to represent the players’ but I left and went home, I just told them to get on to me and tell me who they’d picked.”

Meyler was one of the Cork selectors involved in the 2002 strike on Leeside, while his departure from the Wexford job was also linked to player power. His thoughts on management have changed from the old mantra of ‘players play and managers manage’.

“That’s too simple. I’d have said that myself a few years ago, but it’s a holistic approach now – ‘we’re all in this together’. I said to the Kerry players, ‘this is what I want, come back to me with what ye want’.

“What used to bug me, in Wexford especially, was that players need to look at themselves as well. We played Kilkenny six times and lost six times, and I’d be up at 5am the next morning watching the video. I’d be saying ‘I should have done this or that’, and blaming myself.

“When I say everyone has to look at themselves, that’s total management. That’s probably easier in Division 3 than in Division 1, where the likes of Kilkenny or Cork are going to beat you eight or nine times out of ten.

“But it’s moved on from ‘players play and managers manage’. You’ve to look at the big picture and everyone has to sing off the same hymn sheet. Now you have to see things and anticipate what’s going to happen – if a fella’s child is sick you must give him room, rather than the old way, which was ‘you’re not here you’re dropped’ and that’s it.”

Were the player conflicts of recent years inevitable? “Fellas are better educated now, they’re better able to speak their minds and they won’t put up with things. With the economic situation now fellas have to work and look after their jobs. I learned from my experiences with Cork and Wexford, how things have to change. I give ownership of the thing to the players, then I meet with them and work with them to solve any problems which come up. There has to be open discussion with players – managing through communication.”

What’s the standard of player available to him? “Compare Kerry to Cork, say, and it’s one division to Cork’s seven divisions. Cork have seven picks, Kerry have one. Johnny Clifford said to me once, ‘my problem is I’ve to pick one from three, you’ve to pick one from one’.

“And that’s a difficulty in Cork compared to Kerry. Denis (Walsh) has to pick one from three goalies, Donal Óg Cusack, Martin Coleman and Anthony Nash. I don’t – I generally have one player for each position.”

With that in mind, the chances of repeating the golden day of his first term with Kerry, the 1993 Munster championship defeat of Waterford, look ever more remote. Or are they?

“No. It’s achievable. Look at the success of the Tipp U21 footballers. What you need are lads going to third level. That’s key to Kerry developing – lads playing Freshers and Fitzgibbon hurling. Our ‘keeper is the sub No 1 for Limerick IT, so he knows Joe Canning. That should affect how he thinks about the game. Another lad plays with Mary Immaculate Collage, another with Galway-Mayo IT, but you’d need more of them to play Fitzgibbon and Freshers.

“They go from minor to Fitzgibbon to U21 hurling. And you’d be trying to get the younger Kerry lads on that track – and there’s more security with a degree in terms of jobs as well.”

The recession is now a huge consideration for the GAA as a whole, says Meyler.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the impact of that yet, really. Young fellas need meaningful employment to stay in their locality and if they don’t get it they’ll go where they can get it. Clubs have to respond to that, and it’s affecting all clubs – and some inter-county panels. Not this year, but you’ll see it definitely next year, because I don’t think it’s really kicked in yet.

“You can’t blame fellas – starting a family, mortgages and so on, that’s as hard now as it ever was. One of my players said the other night to me, ‘I have a job and I have to look after it’. If you’re 26 or 27 and thinking of buying a house, you can’t put that off forever – and they’re the important guys for a club or intercounty team as well. They’re the mainstays.”

There are other challenges: Meyler would love to see the Munster club hurling league revived – “that would help Kerry clubs a lot,” – but he doesn’t see the passion for the big ball in Kerry as a problem so much as an opportunity.

“Football in Kerry is a huge benefit to the hurling in that we can learn from their success. Sean O’Shea, Pat O’Shea’s brother, is involved with Dr Crokes and he’s involved with us – he’s come up to us and he’ll tell the lads that Colm Cooper is kicking a ball for 40 minutes in the field every evening — and that they’ll need to do the same thing.

“In fairness, they’re very interested in the hurling, and there’s great work being done in Kerry in hurling at all levels.”

They’ve got the right man at the top level.

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