Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Pat Gilroy must have felt the love from all over Ireland in the early months of 2012.
With his 6am pre-season sessions hailed as the secret behind Dublin’s All-Ireland football success of 2011, other managers started doing the same.
Jim McGuinness, in Donegal, was feeling the love around the same time too. He famously broke the mould by parking the bus against
Gilroy’s Dublin during that 2011 Championship and the following summer everyone was at it.
Rewind back to the late 2000s and just about every club and county team tried out the big man on the edge of the square trick too after Kieran Donaghy’s switch to full-forward worked out so well.
The GAA is nothing if not unashamedly faddish, a copy-cat organisation, and Gilroy is back at the forefront of change again, potentially making a bold move that could be replicated by clubs and counties across the country in the coming years.
By taking over the Dublin hurlers with a management team of football luminaries, he has taken the traditional view that a manager should be a high profile ex-player in that code and turned it on its head.
Gilroy, a successful businessman, clearly believes good management skills, ranging from communication to delegation, are more important than a deep understanding of the actual game.
Alongside him in 2018 will be Mickey Whelan and Paddy O’Donoghue, his allies when Dublin won that football All-Ireland in 2011, while ex-Galway hurling boss Anthony Cunningham will do the coaching.
Even Cunningham has a strong football background having achieved considered success with the St Brigid’s and Garrycastle footballers and he was part of Mick Lillis’ Laois backroom team in 2016.
So what happens if Gilroy, a football man, is actually successful with Dublin? Will it spell the end for managerial appointments as we know them and lead to more and more figures like Gilroy crossing codes?
“The way an inter-county team has gone now there is a huge management side to it, there’s sponsors, there’s media, there’s county boards to deal with,” responded Cunningham. “And then there is a huge backroom team of management and players.
“Players will be central and top, that will always be the case, and getting the best coaching for them is key.
“But I would say that anyone with football backgrounds would definitely be able to contribute in hurling as well because quite a lot of it now overlaps and there are basic fundamentals. Like, you need to be prepared to work if you lose a ball, how you set up defensively in general, so there’s a huge overlap there. If football guys can do it with soccer and Gaelic football, as we’ve seen, guys can do it in hurling as well.”
As ever, caution is urged. Just like the big man at full-forward routine that didn’t work out for many counties, the devil is always in the detail.
Most county midfielders don’t possess the same soft hands and one-off skill-set as Donaghy while managers that copied McGuinness and parked their own bus often only served to alienate their supporters.
Dublin aren’t the first county to reach into left-field and make an appointment apparently based on strong management skills either. Remember Brendan Hackett in Westmeath?
The former Chief Executive of Athletics Ireland outlined a vision shortly after his appointment as Westmeath’s football manager in early 2010 where he would essentially be a director of football.
His eclectic backroom team included a boxer, canoeist, band manager and sports psychologist yet the group didn’t reach its first summer together, departing in mid-April.
The end of the line came after a meeting between Hackett and his players following relegation to Division 3 of the Allianz League.
Hackett, who previously managed Offaly and Longford, and trained Ireland’s International Rules squad, has since enjoyed success with Kildare minor teams but, in Westmeath at least, the gamble backfired.
It remains to be seen how Dublin’s players and supporters react in the event of poor results early in 2018 or an unsuccessful league. Like the Westmeath players, will they start to question the experiment?
The strong endorsement from hurling people of Gilroy’s appointment suggests he will get the time and space he needs while Dublin officials, for their part, have generally supported their managers through thick and thin.
Cunningham described it as the most positive working environment he’s come across which is quite a statement after leading Galway to two All-Ireland finals.
“You would have to say that Dublin run a really good shop, probably the best in the country,” said Cunningham. “They probably have the best CEO in the country in John Costello, no disrespect to any other county. Even their fixtures, how they go about their business, it’s clockwork really. You have to be impressed. I’ve been there a few months now going to club games and seeing how the thing operates from afar. There are no intrusions of any sort. It’s a huge organisation and it’s our challenge to bring the players up to another level. That’s where the really tough challenges lie.”
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