“MAYO on top of the world after nine-point defeat” read the headline on An Spailpín Fánach, one of the best GAA-related blogs on the internet, after last August’s All-Ireland semi-final.
The article reflected the general feeling on Mayo’s 1-20 to 1-11 reverse to Kerry; that there was no shame in that green-and-red selection falling away in the second half and ending up on the wrong end of a hammering.
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The episode represented that rarest of things: GAA fans with realistic expectations of their team. A Connacht title and a surprise win over then-All-Ireland champions Cork represented a fine season for Mayo.
Unfortunately for their manager, James Horan, there is no way it will last. If you think that a bold prediction, consider John Maughan’s last stint as Mayo boss. In his second season, Mayo won the Connacht title at their leisure, scored a surprise win over then-All-Ireland champions Tyrone, and lost to Kerry by eight points in the All-Ireland final.
See the similarity? Well, 12 months later, Maughan was out the gap. In 2005, his Mayo side ran Kerry – at that stage arguably the second-best side ever to play the sport – to three points. But Mayo were not on top of the world; Maughan resigned within 48 hours. I don’t know whether he would have been welcome to stay on if he had wanted to, but his departure was not lamented.
There are only two possible outcomes to managing a reasonably high-profile county side; deliver Sam Maguire, or begone. For counties of slightly lesser stature, a provincial title will buy you a few years.
Of course, Maughan had a more mature and gifted side at his disposal than Horan does; and Horan will also get more time, because the experience of walking out of Pearse Park, Longford, with their heads somewhere south of their ankles is still fresh in Mayo people’s minds. Horan will also get time because he comes across as a driven, fresh and intelligent coach.
But there will eventually come a day when even a three-point defeat to whoever the best team in Ireland is at the time will not save Horan; when the forum posters and phone-in merchants will fill the post-mortems with declarations about every half-decent club player in the county that he has overlooked, and WHY CAN’T THAT EEJIT HORAN SEE IT. Unless, of course, he does better than any Mayo coach has done since 1951.
The prime case study of this disease is Seamus McEneaney. As a supporter, Banty seldom missed a Monaghan match, home or away, in the awful post-1988 years when the once-great Farney army were placing a few miles behind the also-rans. When he took the reins for the 2005 season, it must have been one of the proudest feelings of his life.
It must also have been one of the most daunting. Monaghan had lost by 15 points to Armagh in the Ulster championship the season before; the four goals they conceded against Longford in the first round of the qualifiers proved it was no off day.
Banty took what for him was the job of a lifetime and gave Monaghan the turnaround of a lifetime. Within months they were hoisting silverware; within three seasons they were running Kerry to a single score, and they repeated the dose the next year. As late as 2010, they were a game away from an Ulster title. Soon after, Banty was told that the county board would hold a vote on whether he should stay on.
Long-serving player Vinny Corey went some way to summing it up at the time: “I was playing for Monaghan six years ago and you were finding it tight to beat the Londons and Leitrims. It tells a lot that we are disappointed at not winning the Ulster title. Five or six years ago, it wasn’t even on the radar. The set-up there is as good as could be. He’s still the best manager in the county.”
Allow me to go further than decorum would allow Corey and sum it up more succintly: A manager who took Monaghan from the embarrassment of failing to keep the thing kicked out for long in the first round of the Ulster Championship to within a missed goal chance of beating the aforementioned second-best side ever to take to a football field was now being told by a coterie of gobshites that he may or may not be worthy of the job.
The only fuel for such stupidity is cliches about the need for a “fresh voice” to avoid going “stale”. The two wins from 12 outings that Monaghan recorded last year are more than such people deserve.
The examples are everywhere. Kieran McGeeney has done a similar job in Kildare as Banty did in Monaghan, but already the “Sam or bust” whisperings are beginning. That day will come for James McCartan and Jim McGuinness too. None of those managers are in danger of losing their posts any time soon, but this is how it works. What starts as the whisperings of madmen puts pressure on the manager to deliver a trophy that no-one in their right mind would have expected him to win when he took the job. The media declares it’s time for his side to make the breakthrough. And when it does not come – usually because the team was not quite good enough in the first place – even reasonable men succumb to the brainwashing and start using phrases such as “he’s taken them as far as he can” and “fresh voice”.
The benefits of sticking with a decent coach are there for all to see. In his third season in charge of Meath, Sean Boylan was not only still to deliver a Leinster title, but presided over a 10-point championship loss to Laois. Would any Meath manager survive such a shaky start today? Hell, Eamonn O’Brien did not even get another crack after a season where Meath won the Leinster Championship.
In grown-up countries, such knee-jerk-tabloid-hack madness is not entertained. Take the US, where Phil Jackson has delivered 10 NBA championships in his coaching career, but only received one coach of the year award. Conversely, there are American college head coaches who have won very little silverware but are revered in their given campuses and hold their jobs for decades.
The difference is that the Americans have had the revelation that the standard of player available might have something to do with it; they also realise that only one team can win a given competition, and so that does not mean that the manager of every other team is an idiot. They look at win percentages, not some half-baked idea that “a new voice might shake things up”.
James Horan, Kieran McGeeney, James McCartan and even you, Alan Mulholland, yet to oversee your first NFL game, beware. It might not be this season, or the next, but some day, the gobshites will come for you.