Most inter-county football managers have been appointed and are bedding in with their respective counties at this stage. For those stepping into management for the first time it is an exciting time. There will be lots of enthusiasm to get the show on the road. Because of the lengthened closed season this year, however, they are forced to wait a little while longer before they get the opportunity to see the talent or, in some cases, lack of talent at their disposal. For the likes of Kevin Walsh, Luke Dempsey, Mickey Moran, John Morrison and Glen Ryan, to name but a few, there will be all sorts of advice flowing from various quarters regarding players who maybe didn’t play the previous year. Most of these players didn’t feature under the previous management for a combination of reasons no doubt, but there are many who will argue that some of these lads never got a fair chance under the previous regime. Others may have missed out because they were studying abroad and just couldn’t give the required commitment. Some may have been injured and did not make it back onto the championship panel.
Others again may have fallen by the wayside or not seen eye to eye with the previous management, but are now reinvigorated and excited about the opportunities of togging out for the new manager. Some of these players, particularly the troublesome ones, will now display great enthusiasm and make all sorts of promises to the new manager. Promises that they have turned the corner and can now be relied upon to be totally disciplined and committed for the new season. It is common enough these days to come across players who declare themselves the very best in the county at playing football. They normally fall into one of the aforementioned categories and can be relied upon to make all sorts of excuses why they just couldn’t give the type of commitment required the previous season. Invariably, to compound matters these lads subsequently go on to turn in mighty performances in the club championship during the summer. The new manager will normally invite everyone to participate under his new regime, wiping the slate clean with the guarantee that everyone will get a fair crack at making the panel under his stewardship. Those lads who struggled with their fitness in the past will provide evidence of new training regimes that might involve six nights a week running, not to mention strength conditioning work in the gym. They never felt so good in their lives and can’t wait to get out on the field to display their talent to the new man! It all sounds so familiar to me. You take a chance, ignoring the advice of those who know these fellas so much better, and decide to give them a shot, without promising them anything.
You watch them in those first few outdoor training sessions and you begin to wonder how previous management could have got it so wrong. They look so good but then marking is so loose and easy that anyone would look good at training these early nights. You move on to the next stage and give them a start in the first challenge match of the New Year. Again they bamboozle all with their smart angles of running, their quick anticipation, and now everyone is beginning to laugh excitedly about the prospects that lie ahead when the national league starts. The naysayers have now turned and are nodding in agreement with you that these lads could make all the difference for the coming year. Against better advice from the smart, wise old head of one of your selectors you throw them all on for the first round of the national league. After all, they deserve it as they haven’t missed a training session since October. One of them is in the running for slimmer of the year, and it’s only February! They promise great things, swear blindly that they will not let you down and are delighted to be back. In their eyes they should never have been let go in the first place. All goes brilliantly well in the first 20 minutes of that first competitive fixture and the boys are more than holding their own. However, as the game progresses and the pace and intensity begins to turn up a notch or two they begin to take on water and before long they are listing badly. Missed tackles, poor work rate and apportioning blame to team mates is now the common theme amongst them. To save embarrassment you call them ashore as soon as you can. Then they depart the scene later that evening with a promise that management and selectors would definitely be looking out for them once the club scene gets under way in a few months’ time!!
You don’t have to do coloured boots to play well
It’s not today or yesterday since Pat Spillane suggested that his grandmother would run faster than the Armagh full back. The man he was referring to was none other than the no nonsense power house of a full back, Francie Bellew. Fancy dan full forwards are given little credence by Francie, and his incredible strength will often have a full forward on his arse before he can even think about selling a dummy. Francie doesn’t do white boots, dyed hair, or fancied colorued wrist bands. He is “auld stock”, and you can picture him sitting at home at dinner time tucking into a good wholesome dinner of bacon, cabbage and spuds. He is a throwback to the old days when footballers wore auld baggy shorts, odd socks, and would relish the half time break to light up a Woodbine so as to get through the second half. Not to mention the drop of the quare stuff before the game got going at all! Francie has been considered one of the best defenders in the modern game. He has already won four All-Ireland club medals with Crossmaglen Rangers.
He also made Spillane eat his words by winning an All Ireland medal in 2002 with Armagh when they defeated Kerry in the final. He did of course go on to win an All star award the following year, embellishing his reputation further as a fan favourite. I sat back in the comfort of my armchair on Sunday last to watch Crossmaglen play St Eunan’s of Letterkenny in the Ulster club semi-final. The Letterkenny men were out of the blocks like Olympic sprinters, dominating the opening quarter, to lead by 0-5 to 0-1 after 14 minutes. But Crossmaglen and particularly Francie are no ordinary team. They haven’t won four All- Ireland club titles in recent years for nothing. Trailing by four at half time a lesser team might have panicked. It was then we realised what experience is all about. Some of the big names stepped up to the plate and delivered towering performances when it mattered most. Oisin McConville, the McEntee twins, Aaron Kiernan and the aforementioned Francie put their shoulders to the wheel and literally carried Crossmaglen over the winning line. Francie was subsequently awarded man of the match, having led the charge from the front, proving that you don’t have to wear coloured boots to play well!