How to appoint a GAA manager: ‘The interview process is key to get right man’

Kevin McStay and Billy Lee explain their experiences of the process behind GAA inter-county managerial appointments
How to appoint a GAA manager: ‘The interview process is key to get right man’

A DAY TO SAVOUR: Roscommon manager Kevin McStay urges his troops on during their famous 2017 Connacht SFC final victory over Galway at Pearse Stadium. However, McStay had to navigate a delicate situation to get the job in the first place. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

In a back room of the Limerick House Hotel, the selection committee gathered to mull over who would take charge of the Shannonsiders senior football team for 2017.

John Brudair stood down with the side at a low ebb, without a Munster Championship win since 2012 and relegated to Division 4. One of the committee members was late.

When he eventually arrived, he was offered the job.

“We went through a couple of names on the first night. On the second night, I was either late arriving or the lads decided they’d get there before me,” recalls current manager Billy Lee.

“Whichever it was, the question was put to me that night would I do it? I went away, considered it. I spoke to my friends and family. Decided I’d go for it in the end. To be honest, I’m not sure you had too many vying for the position in Limerick.”

It proved a shrewd choice. Since then, the county has progressed consistently and comprehensively.

In 2020, they won the McGrath Cup, the Division 4 League title, and were the width of the post away from the Munster final. This year, they reached a Division 3 semi-final and were felled at the same stage in the Munster Championship.

So much of their development stems from the formation of the original selection committee. As the winds of change sweep across the country, it is a point that should be considered. How the seeds are sown is a crucial first step.

The committee decides who shapes the team’s future and in what form.

In doing so they help set the county’s mood at the right pitch.

“In the past, there was a lot of fallout about bad interview processes,” explains Kevin McStay.

“In particular, some of the people upset and feeling disenchanted were former players. They had contributed a lot and had a lot to contribute but in the aftermath of bad practise, they were disenchanted with it all.

“In an effort to streamline it and formalise it and stop the constant two months of enquiry, Croke Park came up with a process. A step-by-step guide that you should follow. That was to do it right, but I think also stop all the negativity that came afterwards. In the old days, a guide didn’t really exist. The chairman usually had a big say. He got the executive on board and away it went.”

That guide is the nine suggested steps for appointing a new manager.

The selection committee was the starting point, then it was on to a selection strategy and establishing a list of candidates. Once it was completed interviews were to be scheduled and conducted.

Lee had the experience of having served as a selector under Liam Kearns. In 2016, he saw his county at a crossroads. Serving on the selection committee only solidified his thoughts around the path they needed to take.

The appointment of Billy Lee as Limerick football manager was a shrewd move by the Shannonsiders. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
The appointment of Billy Lee as Limerick football manager was a shrewd move by the Shannonsiders. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

“The first person we spoke to was a Limerick person and well respected. But, you see, we absolutely needed someone who knew the story.

“I don’t know if this is widely known but the management team I’ve had for three years is 100% Limerick. Coach, S&C, goalkeeping coach, selectors, all from Limerick. We knew there were lads in the county capable of doing the job and we gave them a chance. I would stress that. It is about the team around me.”

Brick by brick, the structure had to repaired and rebuilt. Under the stewardship of Paul Kinnerk, the football academy was revolutionised. It was integral that the senior team worked in tandem with this long-term vision.

To fix Limerick, you had to know Limerick.

“You needed to know soccer in the city, where are rugby strongholds, “explains Lee. “You can’t come with these ideas you’ll do X, Y, Z. You need to know the culture within the county. Really know it. You can’t be putting demands on county boards and stuff without understanding the lay of the land.”

When James Horan walked away in 2014 and the call went out for candidates, Kevin McStay was nominated by Ballina Stephenites. His mind was crammed with firm and meticulous plans, everything from their training plan to the jersey design accounted for.

All stored in his laptop, ready to be unleashed. That is where they still are. Proposed but unfulfilled.

“When I went for the Mayo job, there was a formal committee. The chairman, the sectary, and the treasurer interviewed me. They had a lot of different areas to go through. Strategy, style, panels, budget, etc.

“Within that, as the candidate, you touched on the areas that needed changing so there was no big surprises when you get the job. I went through that process; I was the only person interviewed and still somehow didn’t get it.”

McStay had to navigate another delicate situation in Roscommon. At the time, the interview was conducted by an outgoing chairman who was inclined to resist the calls for a new football boss. Yet the trend at the top was for a new direction and an exciting joint ticket of McStay and Fergal O’Donnell had momentum.

“The old chairman interviewed us. I suppose he was keen to show there was a process. The bit that perplexed us was the other two on the committee were former players, younger than us, both of whom we had coached heavily in our careers. Neither had any management experience. We felt it was a bit clunky, awkward I suppose.

“I’ve the height of respect for both of them, both great lads, but it wasn’t a clever choice.”

Lee stresses this point. In his experience, the makeup of the committee dictates so much of what unfolds afterwards.

“All I can speak of is my experience. We’d really good people on the committee who understand the context of what Limerick football was going through. It wasn’t said openly that now isn’t the time to go outside or anything like that. We just weren’t ready for the biggest name in the country.”

McStay had 16 years lodged with RTÉ before he decided to swap the commentary booth for the sideline. It is a transition that is quickly becoming the norm, with various recent appointees following the well-worn path from retirement to media and then management.

Experience, however, has taught him this route is rarely seamless. Interviewing panels consult a wide array of input, from players and officials alike. Some carry grudges.

“It is double-edged. There is a cohort I would say who would see people in the media as not quite what they are looking for. Amongst those who don’t have a vote you could be popular but that doesn’t get the ham home.

“I often think of the generation in the GAA who reluctantly engage with people in the media. I have no doubt, no doubt, for different jobs I went for, the people I would be managing I had commentated on for a match or in a column and may not have commented favourably either.”

Ultimately, what matters most is that the process is conducted dutifully. McStay has been critical of the manner of Jack O’Connor’s “unseemly” move from Kildare to Kerry. In 2014, he was conscious that it would not be right to canvas for the Mayo job while James Horan was still in place. The onus was on all parties to do right by the county.

That is the crux of the gig. Great power, great responsibility.

“At the highest level, it has gotten very like the professional game. The interview process is key. It absolutely has to be done in the right way to get the right man for the job. It is a massive privilege. I would stress this, any county that puts you in charge, that is a massive privilege for a manager.

“You are entrusted with the hopes and goodwill of a county and their supporters. They hand over their best 25 footballers, you need to put shape on them to represent their county to the very best of their ability.

“The idea anywhere would be seen as a retirement home; I wouldn’t like that. My time with Roscommon was hugely enjoyable and hugely challenging at the same time. Even on the darkest day, you knew you were one of the key people in the county. I think you must respect that honour.”

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