The hardest thing in Irish sport: Mickey Ned O’Sullivan on the challenges of management

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The hardest thing in Irish sport: Mickey Ned O’Sullivan on the challenges of management

Mickey Ned O’Sullivan: Dropping a player was something he always found difficult. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

An All-Ireland senior football medalist and manager of his native Kerry as well as Limerick, Mickey Ned O’Sullivan casts a wide net when it comes to sporting challenges.

First off, difficulties faced by managers...

“I’ve three or four things in mind,” says O’Sullivan.

“With team sport, and particularly in Gaelic football, it’s always seemed difficult to win two titles in a row.

“In the last 25 years Kerry have done it and so did Dublin, obviously, but nobody else in the last 25 years.

“It puts Dublin’s achievement in perspective but in general it shows how hard it is to create an environment where the hunger and drive for success is greater the second year than the first. With most players they win it the first year and that’s it. For 95%, the hunger will never be the same the second year compared to the first.

“Dublin have managed that so well, brought in a couple of players every year to keep everyone on edge and kept the hunger.

“But it’s one of the most difficult things to do, because the manager’s own hunger dissipates a little after the first title unless he has a fierce need.”

And a need to change. The temptation for a manager is to do the same things that brought success first time round. It’s hard to move from the tried and trusted.

“You won’t achieve by doing the same. You must do something different at a higher level, to a higher standard.

“But creating the dynamic within the group is very difficult — it must be, because back-to-back titles haven’t been achieved too often.

“The ethic of the team is significant here. When Pat Gilroy came in with Dublin, he weeded out players who wouldn’t put the team first. There are always guys who can’t do this, who can’t put the team first, and that eats into morale.

“You give them the opportunity to buy into the team ethic, and if they can’t do it, they’re not team players and will ultimately corrode and destroy the ethic of the team.”

Dropping a player was something O’Sullivan always found hard: “I saw an interview recently with Kieran Donaghy about being dropped (with Kerry), and I was amazed at the positive way he accepted it. He made a big effort and came on and contributed.

“A manager may have a selection process in place, he may give feedback and have good, honest conversations with players — but as a manager you also know how much the player has sacrificed for years to get to where he is.

“Dropping him is very difficult. If there’s a good communications process in place, the player will accept it.

“But as a manager I found that difficult, though it’s something that has to be done.”

Dealing with the unexpected can be a problem for manager and team alike.

“Take the All-Ireland ladies football semi-final between Galway and Cork last season. That was switched from Parnell Park to Croke Park at the last minute, and that’s a disaster for management and players.

“For players the ritual before the game is everything — they do the same things in the same order before every game, allowing them to focus totally on the game itself.

“You can only imagine what it was like for the managers and the players even more to have the pre-match preparations thrown out, down to their visualisations of the venue and playing there.”

The responsibility of taking a kick to win an All-Ireland — or rugby international — is a huge challenge for a player, O’Sullivan adds: “Take Stephen Cluxton in 2011 and Dean Rock in 2019. Dean’s kick was more difficult but both were kicks to win the game. Those situations call for mental strength, resolve, focus, skill, bottle, confidence — and it all has to come together in a pressure situation.

“The other example of a pressure score was Jonathan Sexton’s score against France in 2018, where the team had to work the ball into position to get the dropkick to win the game — and ultimately the championship.

“Now he knew how important the game was, it was maybe 35 metres out, in open play ... it was different to a free kick because all those outside factors came into play, kicking under pressure in open play.

“A penalty shoot-out in soccer is another hugely difficult situation. The manager often leaves his best kicker to the last, because that’s often the kick that wins the shoot-out, so being that person, having the nerve and technique to put it away ... and having to do so after a walk from the hallway line to do it?

“You see it in the body language of the kicker as they come up to take the kick, how confident they are. Or not.”

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