Finals are about a lot more than the players that take to the field

The winning and losing of a final may happen off the field – thanks to the support staff

Team management is not an exact science. Though there is ample theory and evidence to guide experience, it is as much an art as anything else.

What works with one team may not, and invariably does not, work with another.

Clive Woodward led England to Rugby World Cup glory in 2003 and was a shoo-in to lead the Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005.

However, the type of coach that wins a World Cup in the manner that Woodward orchestrated is very different to that which is required to pull a team together from four nations in quick time to compete in a three-test series.

Even a coach of his calibre did not see this.

He amassed the largest backroom team in Lions history, selected the largest player squad ever to travel on tour and was still wiped out 3-0. 

Since then players on that tour have commented on how team spirit never quite sparked. There were suggestions people were still familiarising themselves with the roles of some of the backroom on the flight home and a distinct feeling it was England 2.0 that took on the All Blacks in those Lions’ jerseys.

The team a manager brings in to ensure the athletes unite, develop, progress and achieve under their watch need to be aware that they are also competing against their opposite number.

Finals are about a lot more than the players that take to the field. 

They are about the team that supports those players. When people say the best team always wins, I understand that to mean everyone involved in that team. The players are the public showing of the applied work of the entire personnel honoured with the right to wear the crest.

When people talk about match-ups, I believe that also includes everyone involved. That is something that should excite them and drive them to do their best work at every opportunity because on the day of days, everything plays into the result. 

There are no hiding places in elite sport, no matter what your role is the preparation of the athletes for competition time. On Sunday, Mayo play Dublin in the All-Ireland football final in one of the biggest sporting events in Europe that day. 

Though 30 players will take to the field for the throw-in, there are also 50+ others off the field competing against each other.

This group includes sSports psychologists, nutritionists, coaches, medical teams, stats personnel, not to the mention the two managers.

It doesn’t matter what size your backroom team is so long as everyone, especially the players, are absolutely, positively aware of his or her role in making the boat go faster.

Hierarchy and status play a key part in building a robust, successful support team. As long as everyone has been sold on the vision and their place in the realisation of that vision in an honest way, then everyone will know where their place is so that a united front is experienced by the players at all times.

But if successful management is part science and part art, it is also part good timing. Sport is riddled with cases of managers inheriting a team at the wrong time- or at the right time - as the case might be. Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea FC in 2012 springs to mind – winning an FA Cup and a Champions League trophy after only 3 months in the job.

There is no disputing the quality of Jim Gavin as the Dublin manager, but he was fortunate with his timing. Pat Gilroy before him got Dublin over the line after his predecessor, Paul Caffrey, had done his fair share of the heavy lifting.

The team Jim Gavin inherited had been through significant change in culture and coaching and were ready for a manager like Gavin.

In the other corner, Stephen Rochford too is fortunate with the timing of his appointment. He inherited a team of seasoned campaigners with a chip on their shoulders. Unfairly ridiculed for their part in the dismissal of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly last season, they have more to lose this year than any year previous. 

Furthermore, they had seen enough over recent years to quickly realise Rochford, like Gavin, was adding value only where needed and was not one to change for the sake of it. 

Subtle things like that encourage a squad of players to buy-in to a new manager’s methods with ease. Hence, the lack of panic from Mayo as their drive for a sixth consecutive Connacht title went by the wayside. For this Mayo squad, this season was never about winning the sixth of anything, only the first of one thing – an All-Ireland medal.

Of course, the main protagonists in a final are the players and the head coach, but make no mistake, if there is a crack in the infrastructure, it will break wide open when the heat is on in a final, as Mayo are all too aware of from their visits there in 2012 and 2013.

That is what makes this final such a difficult one to call. The safe money is on Dublin and the emotional money is on Mayo. Everyone thinks they know what Dublin are capable of, and they’re probably right. But no one knows what Mayo are capable of, not this time, except Mayo. 

At the heart of this contest are two managers who will tactically think and out- think each other long before a ball is even kicked. Two managers who are completely confident in their preparations and happy with the routes they’ve taken to the final.

But as you watch the game unfold on Sunday, think of the match- ups at play off the field. In addition to the importance of having a strong bench, the winning team invariably also has a strong support staff. The multitude of practitioners for whom it is their All-Ireland final too.

The author is a skill acquisition specialist across sport, with extensive experience in football and hurling at inter-county level. He has been a regular contributor to the Irish Examiner’s Championship coverage this season. Follow him on Twitter: @DrSkillAcq 3

In the latest Irish Examiner GAA Podcast, Mary White, Anna Geary, Sarah O’Donovan, Linda Mellerick and Elaine Aylward join Peter McNamara, Rory Noonan and Larry Ryan to discuss Kilkenny’s All-Ireland senior camogie final win over Cork.


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