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Mick O’Dwyer didn’t need a GPS reading – he trusted his instinct

We have been privileged to have had some brilliant managers in Gaelic football over the decades.

23 September 1984; Tim Kennelly, 2nd from left, leaves the field at half-time alongisde Kerry manager Mick O'Dwyer, centre, and then Kerry County Board Chairman Sean Kelly, right. All-Ireland Football Final, Kerry v Dublin, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE© SPORTSFILE

Pat SpillaneSunday World

EVEN though the GAA inter-county season is nearly five months into a deep hibernation, it’s still generating headlines.

The recruitment of new county team bosses has kept the pot boiling since the All-Ireland final.

Appointing a new inter-county management team is now a big production. The process is almost akin to that of a new Taoiseach naming the Cabinet.

The list of portfolios to be filled grows with each passing year.

The add-ons include a forwards coach, a defensive coach, a goalkeeping coach, a strength-and-conditioning coach, a psychologist, a sprint coach, a fitness coach, a nutritionist, a team of statisticians, a videographer, a gear manager, a medical team headed by a doctor and a number of physiotherapists, a logistics manager, a media liaison representative and, of course, selectors.

The average size of an inter-county backroom is 20 plus, though some of the bigger counties have twice that number.

Unquestionably, these add-ons bring a lot of expertise and knowledge to the table.

However, there is an element of the herd mentality about the process.

So, if one county has 20 in their backroom team then others feel obliged to copy them, regardless of the quality of those they recruit.


God be with the days when Mick O’Dwyer managed Kerry on his own. He literally did everything. Aside from the players, only a couple of masseurs attended every training sessions.

The selectors turned up on the Tuesday before games to pick the team, but, otherwise, were rarely seen.

While attending Championship matches around the country I often bump into the team statisticians, who usually work up in the stands.

I like to pick their brains, so I always ask them what does the manager most want to know at half-time.

I imagine you know the answer already – turnovers, of course.

The thing is the great GAA managers – such as O’Dwyer or Brian Cody – didn’t need a statistician to tell them what they could see with their own eyes.

Not alone did they see it in real time, they had enough confidence in their own judgment to act on their instincts. Nine times out of ten, they got it spot on.

I was chatting to Ruby Walsh recently about why trainer Willie Mullins is a notch above the next in national hunt racing.

Ruby Walsh enjoyed success on Kauto Star at both Down Royal and Cheltenham. Photo: Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Ruby revealed that Mullins does all the usual stuff, like making sure his horses are blood-tested regularly.

But what sets him apart is his innate ability to recognise when a horse is moving well on the gallops or when they need extra work.

He could have been talking about O’Dwyer.

He didn’t read GPS readings or energy-expended data to know when a player needed to do extra or less training.

He managed to design fitness programmes which catered for the individual needs of each player.

Modern-day fitness gurus will scoff at his unscientific approach. But it worked.

Micko always had us peaking at the right time. We were never undercooked or overcooked.

We have been privileged to have had some brilliant managers in Gaelic football over the decades.

Take your pick from O’Dwyer, Kevin Heffernan, Jim Gavin, Sean Boylan or Mickey Harte.

Jack O’Connor can now be added to that list, having guided Kerry to a fourth All-Ireland win.


By the way, I am not going to rank the top five managers.

The last time I did it one manager was so miffed at where I placed him he refused to take part in a radio discussion with me on an entirely different subject.

I had no regrets though – if I was compiling the list again, I wouldn’t place him any higher.

Incidentally, when lists of great football managers are compiled one name is nearly always omitted, which is a shame.

Kerry native Eamonn ‘The Doc’ O’Sullivan trained Kerry to eight All-Ireland victories (1924, 1926, 1937, 1946, 1953, 1955, 1959, 1962) in a 39-year period, stretching over five decades.

So, like O’Dwyer, he was involved in a record eight All-Ireland wins.


The last time he trained Kerry in an All-Ireland final was in 1964, when they lost to Galway. My late father Tom was a selector, and he died suddenly a few days after the game.

Dr O’Sullivan wrote a book ‘The Art and Science of Gaelic Football’, which was published in 1958.

It was only the second book on GAA tactics to be published – the first was also written by another famous Kerryman, Dick Fitzgerald.

Dr O’Sullivan wanted players to stay in their set positions, win their own ball and move it on as quickly as possible.

His vision was to reduce ‘clutter’ and he backed his players to win their one-on-one duels with an opponent.

Had his vision survived, it would have spared us all the scourge of the blanket defence.

As regular readers of this column know I believe GAA management teams have been infiltrated, over the last 25 years, by a collection of bluffers, spoofers and the modern version of snake-oil salesmen.

The first wave of new-age managers were physical-education teachers, who had graduated from the newly established National College of Physical Education in Limerick.

Several of them were classmates of mine in Limerick. I was astonished at how they suddenly became experts on Gaelic football after graduating, because while in college they didn’t show a lot of interest in the game.


Their legacy are the training cones and the intricate drills – which I am convinced were designed to impress spectators at these sessions, rather than being of much practical use.

A lot of them were spoofers – but, boy, could they talk the talk. Come to think of it, a few of them were never found out and have survived to the present day.

The next wave were what I label the SAS brigade.

Heavily influenced by what was happening in rugby, they believed the secret to success was flogging the players on the training field.

Their tortuous training sessions became legendary. Their legacy is keeping orthopaedic surgeons busy, replacing the hips and knees of players who endured years of overtraining.

More recently the painting-by-numbers coaching fraternity have come to the fore.

Their philosophy was based on ‘parking the bus’ once possession was lost – and also holding on to the ball for dear life.

This style of football is still the number-one option of a lot of the weaker counties, as well as being quite popular at club level.

But its obvious limitations have been exposed by the better teams.

Any time I pen an article on these themes my critics jump on the bandwagon.

I’m accused of being old-fashioned, of living in the ‘Good Old Days’ – and refusing to embrace the fact that Gaelic football has evolved.

So, for the record, can I repeat, yet again, that games in the past were far worse in terms of quality and entertainment than the majority of current matches.

The skill levels were inferior – as was the fitness, strength and conditioning levels of the players.

I’m all for evolution – but only on the basis that it is improving the game.

The problem with a lot of the so-called evolution in football was that it was based on a damage-limitation, safety-first approach.

Thankfully, we have moved on.

Jim Gavin began the revolution with Dublin – and virtually all the top teams have followed suit.

Gaelic football is now in a good place. Better still, it has become more competitive.

I expect to see one of the most competitive ever All-Ireland battles next year.

Coming into the summer of 2023, Dublin, Galway, Mayo, Derry, Armagh, Tyrone, and even Donegal, are all capable of knocking Kerry off their throne on any given day.

What has made the difference is the calibre of the team management now operating at inter-county level. The quality of coaching is the best I have ever seen.

One of the key elements of a successful manager is their ability to delegate responsibility and surround themselves with talented people.


A key component of Kerry’s success this year was Jack O’Connor’s decision to recruit Paddy Tally and Mike Quirke. They complimented each other: Tally was a defensive expert, whereas Quirke was a forwards coach.

The trend is continuing. New Westmeath boss Dessie Dolan has added Jason Sherlock to his team.

2 September 2018; Dublin Manager Jim Gavin, right, and his assistant Jason Sherlock during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Kevin McStay has recruited Donie Buckley and Stephen Rochford to the Mayo set-up.

Former Galway boss Kevin Walsh is joining John Cleary in Cork.

Mayo’s James Burke is going to Cavan, Donegal’s Colm McFadden is joining Sligo as a forwards coach, while Colm O’Rourke has tapped into the successful coaching set-up of Meath’s All-Ireland winning women’s team.

All this augurs well for the new season. But it does comes at a financial cost.

Ironically, one of the big arguments put forward in favour of the split season was that it would reduce the amount of training at inter-county level, which in turn would drive down costs.

I’m not too sure about the validly of that assumption. It looks like spending on inter-county teams is on the rise again.

Nobody in Kerry will complain now, with Sam wintering in the Kingdom, but it cost close to €850,000 to finance the senior team this year. Kerry can afford it, of course.

The board had a surplus of close of €1m this year, with royalties from Kerry sports gear surging to €547,000.

It pays, both on and off the field, to have David Clifford in your ranks.

But there is still a Celtic Tiger feel about the money which county boards expend on their senior teams and I fear much of it is wasted.

A cost-benefit analysis study of this expenditure would be very revealing indeed.

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