You don't often hear an inter-county manager saying it was the wrong decision taking on the job, or it was wrong that they were offered the job in the first place. But Pat Holmes did admit last Saturday night that when he was appointed Mayo manager for the first time in 1999 it probably wasn't the right choice by him to take it on or for the county board to offer it to him.
But as of now, he fully believes that the time is right for himself and his trusted partner Noel Connelly to take on the challenge. Both men sat down with the Mayo GAA press pack, last Saturday night after the launch of the new Mayo jersey, the 2015 Cáirde Mhaigheo package and the appointment of Dr Sean Moffatt and Liam Moffatt as Mayo GAA's new Medical Director and Lead Physiotherapist respectively as part of Mayo's new Payer Welfare Initiative. The evening also saw the announcement that Elverys Sports would be staying on as Mayo's sponsors until 2020 at the least.
It was the first time the pair had sat down together with the press since their appointment as the joint managers of the Mayo senior team, five years on from when they last worked together as the joint managers of the Mayo u21 team. They held that role for four years from 2006 to 2009 and along the way collected four Connacht championships and an All Ireland title. The lure of working again with the core group of players who passed through their hands during those four years was one of the main reasons that they decided to throw their hat in the ring to succeed James Horan when he stepped down after this years All Ireland final defeat at the hands of Kerry in September, explained Noel. “Once James stepped the down the speculation was always going to be who was going to take over. For me personally, we were involved with most of this group at u21level over the four years and 80 per cent of the current panel are there now. When we finished at u21 level, we didn't feel it was the right time to go forward with the same group of players, we felt that a break was maybe needed between us and them for a certain period of time and that has elapsed. It's 2009 since we were last together in management and we felt that this was the right time for us to get back on board and again and see where we can take these guys. We think they are an excellent bunch of players and we think that maybe there are players out there that can add to it and we think they have a huge prospect of doing very well and we're excited to be on board and we'll see where it takes us.”
Taking on the challenge
For both men they are taking on a huge commitment but one they felt they couldn't turn down as Connelly went on to explain. “Obviously, I've three boys under eight and Pat has four young lads so there's a seven a side team around there in the future. Obviously, it's a big decision, my wife wouldn't be overly excited would be the answer to it and while saying that she knows it's in my blood, she knows it's all I've loved all my life, she knows also that it's probably the right time for me, If I were to step away from management now and let a few years lapse, I think maybe you could just lose touch. That was mainly the reason I wanted to get back at this moment in time and having worked with Pat before, I have huge respect for him. I played football with him for a number of years, I trust him, I think it's vitally important putting this package together. I think we worked well for four years, a lot of questions have been hopping about, like who'll make the final decision, but these things have always seemed to work themselves out at u21 level and I don't think it'll be any different going forward under the senior set up. I feel when you've someone like that to bounce ideas off and there's scenarios to be solved, two minds are better than one. It wasn't well accepted at home, but she's accepted it and and understanding is there for the next three years.”
For Holmes who initially ruled himself out of the running for the job in the immediate aftermath of James Horan ending his tenure as manager, there's a little bit of unfinished business involved in the job having previously managed the team in the early few years of the century. When I got the call, I hadn't even considered it, I obviously said no, I don't have time for that and then it's like anything when you start to think about it and consider it.” But things changed as time went on he explained, “We started to talk about it and discussed it, I've the same considerations as Noel has with a young family. But you have to weigh that up against the actual opportunity and I got involved with Mayo (as a manager ) in 1999 when I was 33-years-of-age, never managed an u12 team and all of a sudden here was I managing a group of players, who I'd actually played with four weeks previously. I was ill equipped at that time to manage a senior inter-county team and just circumstances threw it my way, being young and having no fear and I went and did it. I don't regret doing it, but looking back it probably was the wrong decision and was probably the wrong decision to be offered it in the first place.
“I just believe that I've learned a lot over the past number of years, there's a gap where your not managing players that you played with or whatever. I've experience working with Noel which went very well and we worked very well together, I don't believe we ever had a cross word in our four years together or a disagreement, we'd discussions alright but never a disagreement. When we started to discuss it, these opportunities you can look about and say when is the perfect time to do this? Is it wait until the kids are grown up or wait until that or this happens or whatever. There is no real perfect time, this is as perfect as it gets for us, in that we have worked with all of these players or 85 per cent of these players for a full year, and it was it if we didn't do it now, it would be never do it. That's the reason we decided to go for it” he said.
The only way is up
Both men are coming in taking over a team that has had four years of total dominance in Connacht and gone close to winning an All Ireland twice under James Horan's watch, when asked what they are aiming for, seeing that the bar has been set very high by the previous incumbent of their position, Holmes was very clear on what he wanted to achieve. “The bottom line for us, if we look back and sports psychologists might say you shouldn't look back, you must look forward. But in 60 years, Mayo haven't won and All Ireland and the bottom line is that best team every year gets the silverware and the rest get nothing. The symbol of being the best is getting the silverware, we haven't got it in 60 years and that just means, we weren't good enough. I'm talking about when you put all the variables into the mix and you talk about ability, performance, management, support staff, injuries, illness, referring decisions, everything has to go into the mix for every single team at the end of the team that overcomes all of those gets the prize and the rest gets nothing. We haven't been there in the last 60 years and people say you shouldn't look back and be weighed down by history and we won't be weighed down by history. But the one thing we've got to do is learn, that whatever the maximum has been that we've got to raise that bar again and that's the challenge we have, with the backroom team we've put in place to reach that maximum and that we consistently preform to that raised maximum, with a view to being able to overcome whatever is thrown at us and that's the challenge. We can say or coat it up anyway we want or whatever, but the bottom line is that we want Mayo to be absolutely successful every time we go out and every-time we go out on the pitch we want to get a performance and every-time we go on the pitch we want to get as close to the ultimate performance. You won't get the absolute perfect performance but we want to get as close as we can to that on a consistant basis and that means that the ultimate this years wasn't good enough, or the last four years or the last 60 years, we've got to raise the bar and see can we overcome those variables coming into the mix. We'll take it one game at a time and we'll be starting with the FBD league and going into national league and championship and we'll be going out to win ever game, as we've always done and trying to improve the levels of performance all the time.”
Things will get underway for the duo on the field in a little under two months time, when the FBD League throws in. While getting to the latter stages of the league is something they would hope to achieve, unearthing a few new players and getting the team primed for championship is the ultimate goal from the early months of the year according to Connelly. “You look at Kerry's preparation for this years championship, it was all about unearthing new players. While the league performances by Kerry were very poor early on, they lost five in a row I think, but they unearthed five or six players. The come into championship with the experience they gained in the league and then come through the championship, it may have been a bit lackluster, but when it came to All Ireland time, they'd five new guys winning All Ireland titles. The league while we'd like to do well and get to the play-offs ,I don't think it's the be all and end all if we don't win it. What we do need to concentrate on is being at our very best in June, July, August and September and whatever we have to do be in the best shape we can be, that's what we have to concentrate on and the FBD and league while we want to do well and it's important we stay in division one and we'd love to get to the semi-final stages and whatever comes after that we'll accept it, but I think we need to unveil and bring a bit of freshness to the squad and if we get that through the FBD and national league it will be a great benefit to us going through the summer months in championship.”
New faces will be given a chance to impress
It hasn't been possible for them yet to meet up with all of this years senior inter-county squad for a number of reasons, but they haven't been told by any of them that they aren't available for next year or haven't discarded any of those involved in the panel either. But they have begun work on getting some new blood up to speed and ready to challenge those who are the current members of the senior panel, Pat explained “the idea is that we've brought in 20 or so guys, of the guys who have shown potential, be it at minor or club level. We've brought in 20 players, put them on strength and conditioning programs, we deliberately and specifically did this because in the past what would happen ,would be someone would be doing well with their club and you'd bring them in during December and January with really no training and having not kicked a ball in two months and have no physical work done and then they don't then live up to the mark, they look off the pace and they're discarded. We looked at the talent we felt was out there form our knowledge of the game and obviously looking at Mayo minor teams from the past number of years and we brought in 20, the idea is they'll go through trial games in late December with a view to seeing how they measure up and compare that against whats on the panel last year and pick what we think are the best 30 or so guys to represent Mayo in 2015. Do we have a list of players we expect to step up? That would be unfair on those players at this moment in time to say who, but we would be optimistic at this moment in time that we will get a number of players out of that.”
With both men having been recently involved with club teams who had players either starting for or on the fringes of the Mayo senior team, they are keen to have a good working relationship with the clubs going on Holmes said. “All the successful counties have a senior team management, county board, clubs all pointing in the one direction working well together. We know exactly what it's like from the club point of view having been involved with clubs, having club players who may not be getting much game time with the county but still aren't allowed to play with the clubs and our view is that we've to work with the clubs. At the end of the day, that's our feeder to the inter county team and at the end of the day we've to work with the clubs and we won't have a situation where were going off to Kerry for a national league game and you've the Michael Walsh League on and you've a guy and your going to bring him to Kerry, but he's got absolutely chance of getting any football. We''ll only be bringing guys that we expect to be used on the day and the rest will be left with their clubs, we'll work with the fixtures to make sure that where is possible players will be available for league games, of course we'd be hoping there'd be a number of stared games and that championship is ran off in the best way possible. We fully believe in the one direction, that includes the clubs.”
Moving on from a messy start
While there's been little doubt that the duo have the credentials to take on the job, how the whole situation was managed from the county board level has been talk of the county for the past number of weeks, as for their take on the appointment process, Connelly laid out their views on it. “All we can say is that we followed the protocol that we were supposed to follow, we got nominated by clubs, we did a pre-interview process with county board officials. We outlined our team and budget costings and all that. Then the proper interview process was to be followed and we (Hollymount-Carramore ) played and intermediate semi-final replay and by the time that was finished, I got a call from one reporter saying that Kevin McStay had stepped down. Now while it was unfortunate and how it was handled wasn't the best no doubt, but for us, we followed the guidelines we were told we needed to follow, we participated in the process we needed to follow. We did everything right as far as we were concerned, the outcome is that we were installed as the Mayo management team and that's all we care about. What has gone in terms of the way it was put out there in terms of media or whatever, we have to disassociate ourselves from that. We have no control over that whatsoever, we've no control over what happened, we have to move on and put it behind us.” When it was followed up with them that did they feel the whole process left them under more pressure, Holmes said that “the bottom line is that when you take on a team like the Mayo senior team, there's any amount of pressure so a few more decibels up makes no difference. I agree with Noel that in hindsight people will say there were mistakes made and we would have preferred if the process had run smoothly, that would be our preference. Things didn't run smoothly and people will realise that mistakes were made, at the end of the day we were appointed to do the job and we're excited about it and are looking forward to it and we'll do it to the ultimate of our ability.”
It's going to be no easy task for the pair to fill the shoes that James Horan has left behind him, but neither Pat Holmes or Noel Connelly will give it anything but their best. How good that will be? We'll start to find out in the not to distant future.