Kevin McStay and Liam McHale in Mayo: The trials of being a prophet in your own land

On the homepage of the long-since updated Western People website, a headline haunts: “McStay and Holmes front-runners to replace Horan.”

Kevin McStay may have been a rival of Pat Holmes for the vacancy but after the former’s ambitious presentation was delivered it was a one-horse race. The story is well-known at this stage but how they conveyed that message was amateur hour at best.

Less than 15 hours after it was agreed by the executive that McStay and Holmes would be interviewed, chairman Paddy McNicholas informed McStay that he wouldn’t be recommended.

Resigning in protest at the handling of the process, cultural delegate Gerry Bourke described the episode “a sham”.

Former star Kenneth Mortimer said it was “deeply embarrassing” and was “astounded” the procedure of appointing a manager “could descend into such levels of farce”.

McNicholas, who later resigned after acknowledging errors were made, had claimed some aspects of McStay’s proposal “were simply unacceptable to the county board”.

Liam McHale, McStay’s brother-in-law and coach/selector, put it in plainer terms: “Ours was too radical and had too much change for the county board.”

For a board that had in 2011 shelved Liam Horan’s strategic review recommendations, that wouldn’t have come as much surprise.

McStay later addressed the matter in a statement but he also had words for some of the panel who had privately expressed reservations about McHale coming on board.

“Apparently, some players and members of James Horan’s managerial structure had a problem with some of the comments he (McHale) made over a period of time in a local newspaper (Western People). God love them if their sensitivities were a little bruised. But I must make it clear to all: Having worked at all levels of the game for more than 30 years. I have yet to meet or work with a better coach.”

McStay expanded on those comments at the National Ploughing Championships later that week. “It is lovely to get the chance publicly to say that old nonsense that went on for the last three weeks that some players had issues with him and so on. To me, it was almost shameful. Mayo didn’t particularly need Kevin McStay as the manager but they absolutely needed Liam McHale as a coach. He is Mayo to the bone. For people to question his loyalty to Mayo, well has anybody played as long as Liam for his beloved colours. For that background noise to be allowed filter along for two or three weeks — that was the single biggest disappointment of my application.”

What was the players’ beef with McHale? Martin Carney may be the most omnipresent former Mayo player in the media but hardly the most outspoken. Before McHale joined Roscommon, he would have rivalled David Brady for that “honour” and it was felt he was too careless with his opinions for a man who openly and regularly admitted he wanted to return to the Mayo management team again.

As well as his Western People columns, his remarks in the national media were noted too. There were his remarks about Andy Moran prior to the 2013 final — “he’d obviously be a concern. His fitness would take your confidence away” — Moran would score 1-2 against Dublin.

In this newspaper before the 2014 Connacht final against Galway, he suggested Mayo were past it, likening them to the 1998 team that were beaten by their neighbours, a defeat which signalled the end of an era. “In 1998 we were mentally and physically fatigued. Under John Maughan in 1996 and ’97 we put in a massive effort, left no stone unturned. By 1998 we were gone off the boil. I do see similarities to this team, similar roads travelled. A lot of the team, especially the older guys, looked jaded against Roscommon. The sparkle does seem to be gone. Twelve months ago we beat Roscommon out the gate. This year Roscommon should have beaten us. You could see Mayo were trying hard, but the drive simply wasn’t there” (Mayo beat Galway by seven points).

It was felt he didn’t exactly help Mayo’s cause either when speaking about the opposition.

The day before facing Donegal five years ago, he spoke of how Jim McGuinness’ side looked tired and did not share Mayo’s football nous or tradition. Prior to the ’13 decider, he cited Ger Brennan as a weak link in the Dublin defence: “In Mayo, no disrespect to Ger Brennan, but we’d prefer if Ger Brennan started centre-back because we can match up Alan Dillon with him.”

As most pundits should do, McHale was speaking his mind but too much for the liking of some of whom he wished to coach. But more than anything else, it’s what some of the players felt he represented: The Mayo of championship past.

A part of the county’s history that they, starting under James Horan, have tried to outgrow like the ’51 curse. His hefty contribution to Keith Duggan’s House of Pain: Through The Rooms of Mayo Football tome singled him out as someone who had been scarred by the past, alongside Brady the chief mourner when the morbid fascination with Mayo is discussed.

Evidently though, McHale remains relevant as a coach.

After he and McStay guided St Brigid’s to All-Ireland senior club glory in 2013, McStay pointed out that it was the 10th All-Ireland final in which McHale was involved — “his first to win as a coach and a player. That’s a real sign of somebody. It’s easy for Kerrymen and Corkmen to be coming back here every two or three years because they get an All-Ireland to sustain them. He is coming back in here for his 10th one and now he leaves a champion.”

After Gay Sheerin’s regrettable comments earlier this year, the Connacht final win was ever so sweet for McStay but almost as satisfying for McHale who has worked in Cavan, Clare, Roscommon, and Westmeath since his time under John Maughan finished in 2005. What was personal for McStay three weeks ago is precisely the same for McHale tomorrow.


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