Having been involved in team management for so long, I find myself drawn towards the action on the sideline as well as the football game itself. I am intrigued by the body language and the general dynamics of the managers who patrol the sidelines.
Last Sunday in Hyde Park I threw my eyes in the general direction of the Armagh manager, Paddy O’Rourke, a number of times. Throughout the first half, he looked relaxed, confident and in control. And why wouldn’t he? His Armagh side were in cruise control and dominant as they comfortably swatted away the rather meek Roscommon challenge. His ace attacker, Jamie Clarke, was in terrific form and wreaking havoc in the Roscommon full back line as he scored 1 – 3 from play. Meanwhile, further along the sideline, Roscommon boss, Des Newton, was all action and he looked agitated and frustrated as it appeared he would have some serious explaining to do after a dreadful season in charge with nothing of substance to show by way of progress. In fact the rumour floating about the place before the match was that the Roscommon players were going to seek a meeting with the officers of the board expressing their disquiet with the team’s preparation for championship football.
I spoke to Liam McHale at half time and we both hoped that Roscommon would not be damaged beyond repair with a humiliating defeat. At that stage it very much looked on the cards. But football is not an exact science and what we witnessed in the second half was quite bizarre. The transformation in Roscommon’s play was nothing short of remarkable. In fairness it was easy enough for them to play well as Armagh simply imploded in the second half. Remember they held Roscommon to five points in that first half, with not a single one of those coming from play. Now Paddy O’Rourke’s body language was anything but relaxed. As early as the 10th minute of the second half he could see his team was faltering as Roscommon were in complete control and were, crucially, playing the game on their terms. When that swing happens in a game, it takes an exceptional team to turn it back in your favour. Unfortunately for Armagh, they did not have the quality of player capable of doing that and Roscommon drove on to record the first real remarkable shock of the championship. At the end of the game, Des Newton was the recipient of high fives and back slapping as the Rossie supporters rushed onto the field to acclaim their footballing heroes. It was so far removed from the atmosphere of 45 minutes earlier and an eternity away from the ugliness of their defeat to Galway at the very same venue a few weeks ago. Football is a funny old game and it reminded me of a statement from an old Mayo supporter many years ago…”Remember John, a slap on the back is only a few inches away from a kick in the arse!”
Donegal are playing with real confidence
In fact last weekend we had it all; managerial casualties ( Paddy O’Rourke and Luke Dempsey ), shock results (Roscommon ), surprise results (Meath ), goalmouth scrambles, yellow cards galore and a few red ones, the occasional melee, and finally the resignation for some teams that have just lost their mojo (Armagh, Offaly, Derry )! One thing that became very clear last weekend however was that Donegal are beginning to look more and more like a force that really could pull off the ultimate prize this year. Their performance last Saturday against Tyrone showed a serious improvement from last season. They seem now to be playing with real confidence. Despite the fact that they line out in a most unorthodox fashion, they are playing a more direct brand of football, with an emphasis on moving the ball into the scoring zone a lot quicker than last year. Last year I hated watching Donegal’s style of play and I felt they had no plan B. This was particularly evident in the All-Ireland semi-final when they had Dublin on the rack after Diarmuid Connolly’s dismissal and did not then have the confidence to go for the jugular by moving just one more forward into the scoring zone. We all complained about their style of play as it was a damnation of the games aesthetics, our beautiful game being destroyed, where we traditionally lined out with six backs, two midfielders, and six forwards. In fact, practically every team in the country now adopts this new style of all out defence and all out attack when in possession of the ball. They (Donegal ) look a different proposition this year with a return to a semi-orthodox style. Watching them last weekend I got the impression that every team in the country will hate playing against them. It would also seem at this stage that there is only one Donegal man hurting…. Kevin Cassidy. He must surely realise that he made an enormous mistake by not adhering to the ‘party whip’ last year! Oh while I’m at it, do not rule out these Tyrone boys just yet. They are a real stubborn lot and they will not be as laid back as their near neighbours when they visit Hyde Park next weekend.
I wanted Kildare to win
When I think of managers who give off the vibe of being relaxed and in control, I cannot but think of Kieran McGeeney, the Kildare supremo of the last five years. He is one of those guys who appears to be once removed from the scene on match days. During my time on the sideline I was the complete opposite and would arrive home from a match, completely worn to a thread after kicking every ball, running from the backline up to forwards with wreckless abandon. But McGeeney, who frequently walks the allocated zone with arms folded displaying a calm exterior, appears to be the most relaxed person in the stadium. However, despite the emotionless display, he must have been hurting like hell last Sunday as he witnessed his season’s plans come unstuck against a new, fresh, and rampant Meath side. I felt sorry for McGeeney and Kildare. I wanted them to win as they deserved at least a Leinster title after their years of hard work. They, more than any other team, had more near misses and poor luck during this time. But this week Kildare must realise that they are at a crossroads. The smart ones among them will realise that they are just not good enough. Despite the ultra professional set-up and all the money spent on expertise, they do not have sufficient quality players who can deliver when it matters most. They look like a manufactured team, big, athletic, and super strong, but who do not possess enough instinctive forwards who can play off the cuff with guile and awareness and can kick a score when a game is in the balance. Kildare have been a fantastic team in many ways these past four/ five years but they have no silverware after their endeavours. They have many fine qualities, some fine players, and have produced sparkling football on so many occasions. But where to now for them?
Meath on the other hand were fantastic. I spoke briefly with Seamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney last Monday evening. He was the happiest man in the country and he, more than any other person involved in sport, deserved to be. He faced down a county board that wanted him removed from his position as county manager, but while others might have walked, he refused and garnered enough support to hold onto the job by his finger nails. Why he wanted to do so, I will never know. But that said, I was genuinely pleased for him as he gave the two fingers (metaphorically speaking ) to his many detractors with the classiest performance of the weekend. Good on ya Banty.