Before a family break in Westport last month, Mayo was strictly football for Tony McEntee. And that week, it was strictly holiday.
“I didn’t mix much with the local people.”
And after that week, Mayo was strictly football again.
“I only see what’s in the camp.”
It isn’t that McEntee is so cold as to avoid getting a sense for the forlornness in the county; the confines of MacHale Park provide him with ample examples of how the team are going about trying to slake that yearning, thank you very much.
“There’s clearly a huge following there from the FBD League to home league games and then the championship. They’re very passionate and we would have that in Armagh too. Fortunately, we got the break and won the All-Ireland in Armagh and I think that’s all these people want too, isn’t it? A bit of success.”
He enjoys being the outsider. Fellow selector, Kerry’s Donie Buckley, could be regarded as another but now into his fourth season with Mayo is well embedded. McEntee ain’t that. Not yet anyway. For all the philosophies he shares with manager Stephen Rochford, his independent voice is as much of an appeal.
“There is a different way of dealing with somebody you don’t know. A lot of the players wouldn’t have known me, from playing, from management, from anything. And I think it allows me to bring in a different angle whether it would be how I view those players or in approaching them in respect to challenging them on different aspects of their football and that. I think that’s particularly useful when you have someone like Stephen who is very much a players’ manager in respect to dealing with people. He’s very much a good man-manager. With Stephen, Donie and Seán (Carey), we all complement each other well. It’s A1.”
Not much has surprised McEntee since he first made the three-hour cross-country drive from Crossmaglen to Castlebar last winter. “I knew the opportunity was there to work with a top class bunch of players who had potential. They haven’t delivered just yet in terms of taking the Sam Maguire but I saw this as an opportunity to work with that group and to learn and help them at the same time. I had no false hopes from this group, just big promises that we would work together and get success.”
Helping to manage Mayo isn’t all that far removed from Crossmaglen or St Brigid’s in Dublin, McEntee believes. “County footballers aren’t much different to those at club level in terms of needs whether they be coaching, just listening or dealing with problems at home and otherwise. You get this impression that inter-county players get everything they want and are therefore fitter, better, stronger or whatever. The reality is they’re not. They maybe look after themselves better and are more ambitious than some club players but, for the most part, it’s just working with a better bunch of players.”
A group with conviction too. McEntee received that message loud and clear when they forced out Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes. “They clearly know what they want and in doing that they’re willing to put in the work to get the results. It wouldn’t make sense otherwise. This is their sixth All-Ireland semi-final in a row so they’re clearly a driven bunch. They’re very focused on what they want to do but having said that they’re not doing it on their own. They’re taking direction, they’re doing what Stephen wants. It’s not like the players are running the show and Stephen is just facilitating; it’s quite the opposite and they’re buying into it.”
But it took time. In the early part of the year, splitting the camp’s training between Castlebar and Dublin’s Clann na nGael Fontenoys, where McEntee presided over matters, was arduous. “We would have a dozen to 15 people in Dublin and under the new management it was very hard to get the message across to a geographically split camp. Working on two sides of the island, it was tough. Mayo, for right or wrong but mostly because of their geographical perspective, only train twice a week, Tuesday, Friday and maybe Sunday on occasions. It would be less than most others.”
It didn’t help a new management either that Mayo came back later than usual from off-season and had injuries to key players. The patchy Division 1 campaign, which only came good towards the end, was an effect but there were no such mitigating circumstances behind the Connacht semi-final defeat in June.
“When it came to the Galway game and the result, it allowed us to prioritise what was more important here in relation to some of the things that go on within inter-county set-ups. It made us realise if we didn’t do something and shake ourselves up this was going to be a fairly poor season and for the players what they did at the end of last season was all going to be in vain. Very quickly after that defeat we were in a position where we could move ourselves forward, focusing on winning one game at a time.”
A sweeper under a Mayo team involving Rochford, McEntee and Buckley would have been the last thing most people would have anticipated. In his Irish Examiner column in August 2014, McEntee wrote of Mayo’s drawn All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry: “Mayo, presumably due to the hype around James O’Donoghue, decided to play with a sweeper. Let’s stop right there! This was the winning and losing of the match.”
But let McEntee stop you right there once more. “I saw Rory Gallagher in the paper the other week saying people get a notion in their head and they just run with it. He was talking about the performance of Michael Murphy and people thinking he was playing poorly or injured. I think Mayo have had this too and Stephen and the management are fighting with this. It takes games and games and games before this notion dissipates. One of those notions really is playing defensive when we actually play with six forwards and are actually one of the only teams who plays with six forwards. We’re not too annoyed about perceptions and in year one of whatever project Stephen has with Mayo I think he’s doing a good job so far trying to take on the headaches from last year and built from it. So far, he’s done well and Mayo are back in a semi.”
James Horan reckons Kevin McLoughlin is the most talked about sweeper in the country. Without going into too much detail, McEntee indicates McLoughlin is being asked by the Mayo management to be something more than the conventional sweeper.
“I remember talking to Kevin after the Galway game about the feedback from the TV (analysis) I told him not to worry about what they were saying because that wasn’t what we were asking him to do. And Kevin is a smart fella. He said: ‘I watched it with my girlfriend and I was able to say “that’s not what the management are telling me to do”’ and therefore he wasn’t worried about it. That’s important because as a person playing a new role like that it’s going to take time for it to bed in. The Tyrone game was the best one for him so far.”
The win over Tyrone was also Mayo’s most complete 2016 SFC performance although that wouldn’t be hard. McEntee knew it wasn’t superb but it sure was sufficient. “Their game management has improved. In the second half against Tyrone particularly when it was coming close to the end, they seemed much more comfortable within themselves and were able to keep hold of the ball a lot more even though that is not something we might have encouraged at that stage. Their ability to see out the game was impressive enough though it was dangerous on occasions. It’s not perfect by any means. There is resilience there, though. Are they better than previous years? I don’t know. They’ve a lot of experience and at some stage are going to have to draw on it and Tyrone was one of those occasions.”
Last Saturday week also saw McEntee rival Donegal’s Maxi Curran for the title of most energetic “maor foirne” this year.
“There is this thing that players cross the line on their own. Not really anymore. They still need direction and guidance and you need to get messages into them. In the heat of battle, players aren’t expected to get everything right nor are we on the line either. But where we can give guidance, we do and isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? I like the idea that the “maor foirne” can go on and give instructions. I think it’s a positive step in the GAA and I hope it’s something that they don’t restrict.”
Mayo should hope for the same.
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