How do you win an All Ireland? By Tim Dowling
This is the question that perplexes GAA fans and county boards alike. What do you need to win the All Ireland and how do you go about getting it? In recent times more and more counties are figuring it out. The last 25 All Ireland football titles have gone to 10 different counties and of that 10, 7 counties won more than one title, also 4 counties won their first ever title. The previous 25 titles were divided up among just 7 counties with only 4 winning more than one and only 1 county winning their first title.
Hurling is traditionally dominated by the big 3 of Kilkenny, Cork and Tipp but in the last 25 years, Offaly, Clare, Wexford and Galway also won titles and all except Wexford won more than one. There was also a good spread of contestants in the final with Limerick, Antrim and Waterford also contesting finals. That’s 7 different winners and 10 teams participating in finals. In the previous 25 years, Wexford, Galway and Offaly did break the grip of the big 3 but only once each and nobody else contested finals. 6 winners, 6 finalists and 22 titles going to the big 3. It should be noted that the big 3 have reaffirmed their grip on the Liam McCarthy cup and have won the last 13 titles. This return to form coincided with the introduction of the back door in the hurling championship and Offaly are the only outsider to win a title since when they came through the back door in its first year 1998.
Football’s back door followed 3 years later in 2001 and Galway came through the long route and won their second title in 4 years, since then 5 more teams have claimed the Sam Maguire cup.
So how is it done? Well if you ask your average, thinking GAA man you will most likely get this answer. Put more emphasis on your underage teams and have quality players coming through feeding the senior teams. Sounds reasonable and sensible but is it true? Well not necessarily, it seems minor success is of minor consequence. Kerry last won a minor football title in 94 however they have won 6 senior titles in that time. Laois on the other hand have 3 minor championships since 96 and have only 1 Leinster senior title to show for it. 10 teams have outperformed Kerry at minor level since 94 but no one has outperformed them at senior level and of the last 7 counties to win All Ireland senior football titles only Tyrone had won a minor in the 7 years prior to their senior success. Galway’s hurlers really finish off the point in style with 6 minor titles in 13 years from 99 to 2011 and not a hint of senior success, only one final appearance which ended in defeat to Cork.
So u21, that’s where you look right? Well it depends. Some counties have followed up u21 success and some haven’t. Kerry built on their successes after winning football u21’s in 95 and 96 by claiming Sam in 97, they then won the u21 again in 98 and continued to build with further senior success in 2000. Tyrone did likewise after winning u21 titles in 2000 and 2001. Similarly, Kilkenny’s u21 hurlers have been successful claiming 5 All Irelands in the time that Brian Cody was winning 8 with the seniors. But how relevant are these titles. Take Dublin football for example, people may look to the u21 successes of 03 and 2010 as the foundation of their senior success in 2011 but only 2 players off each of those teams made the senior winning side, less than one third of the starting team and slighty more than one fifth of the total. So of the 19 Dublin players used in 2011’s All Ireland senior final only 4 had All Ireland medals from underage football. 15 players came from unsuccessful underage teams if they played underage at all. So while the underage successes may have been factors they were certainly not the biggest ones.
Then of course there are the teams that failed to build on u21 success. Limerick hurlers won 3 in a row from 2000 to 2002 and Galway hurlers have won 3 of the last 8, while neither converted it into senior success Galway have a chance to put that right in a few weeks. Conversely Tipperary hadn’t won an All Ireland u21 hurling title for 15 years prior to their last senior success.
In football it’s not much different. Derry, Westmeath and Armagh have all won titles recently but haven’t followed up with even a good showing at senior level in the ensuing years and all find themselves currently omitted from the list of footballs main contenders. Again Galway are the biggest losers with 3 u21 titles in the last 11 years while their seniors continue to underachieve dramatically. I think at this point it’s fair to say that the theory of senior success coming from underage success is flawed at best. Look no further than this year’s All Ireland senior finalists Donegal and Mayo. Between them they have one underage title in the last 25 years.
So the question remains, or does it? Over the last number of years there has been increased emphasis on finding the right manager. County boards, supporters and in many cases players have blamed their woes and flat performances of their team on the man in charge. Furthermore the recruitment and interviewing of potential candidates has put much ink on paper throughout the country not to mention their rumored wage demands. Added to that, the excitement a big managerial appointment creates in a county cannot be ignored, one only has to look at the crowd in Aughrim for Mick O’Dwyer’s first game in charge. The venue hadn’t seen so many spectators since the annual Baltinglass, Rathnew brawls of the mid 90’s. It all points to one thing, the manager has become the most important factor in winning an All Ireland or at least that is the opinion of several county boards and much of the media. The stats back them up, of the last 7 men who have managed the All Ireland senior football champions, 4 have done it in their first year in charge. 2 have done it in their second year, only Pat Gilroy had to wait until his third year to taste success and regardless of who wins this year’s final it will be the managers second year in charge. All 7 were managing at intercounty level for the first time too. Additionally most success stories of late that didn’t end up with an All Ireland title have come early in the managerial reign such as Mick O’Dwyer’s and Paidi O’Se’s Leinster titles with Laois and Westmeath, Tommy Breheny’s Connaght winning Sligo team and James McCartan’s All Ireland finalists Down, all achieved in the first year in charge. Sudden turnarounds like this show that the players were there, they just needed the right man in charge.
In hurling its not so simple. Only two of the last 7 All Ireland winning managers have done it in their first year, one was John Allen who was already assistant manager of the champions Cork and his appointment was regarded as continuity rather than change. The other was Michael Bond who took over a battle hardened and experienced Offaly team during the 98 campaign, his achievement was getting one more kick out of a dying horse rather than introducing new players, methods or tactics. The longest building process of the 7 was Cork’s Jimmy Barry Murphy who finally won an All Ireland in his fourth year in charge in 99. Anthony Cunningham may break the trend in the coming weeks but while success has taken longer for hurling managers it cannot be denied that all of their appointments brought instant improvement to their counties performances. Just like the football managers all 7 were managing at inter-county level for the first time.
So that’s the answer, find the right manager. It seems most county boards would agree but are they looking in the right place. Never before have we seen so many managers from outside the county and never before have we seen so many managers managing multiple counties. The same names seem to be popping up all the time regardless of the geography involved. The facts are quite clear here, counties rarely find All Ireland success with outside managers. A notable exception is Offaly who’s last 3 All Ireland winning managers have been from outside the county. In hurling Michael Bond (98) is from Galway, Eamon Cregan (94) is from Limerick and in football Eugene McGee (80)is from Longford. Aside from the Biffos the only non native winning manager I can find in either code over the last 40 years or so is John O’Mahony, the Mayo TD won 2 football titles with Galway in 98 and 01. Despite the number of outside managers today, over the last 6 years only one each in hurling and football have brought a team to an All Ireland final. Mickey Moran with Mayo in 96 and Davy Fitzgerald with Waterford in 08. All 4 managers in this year’s finals are natives. If history is anything to go by then it seems clear that you must appoint a manager from within the county.
Next up for the managerial appointments sub-committee is who to go for among your own, former players, successful underage and club managers or highly qualified sports professionals. Continuing with the history lesson, former players seem to be the way to go, preferably successful ones. Of the last 14 different winning football mangers over the last 25 years only 4 have not played intercounty football but that 4 to their credit have 9 of the 25 titles. Half of the remaining 10 also won All Irelands as a player. That statistic might not seem overwhelming but when you consider that in most counties, the number of All Ireland winners are scarce when compared with the total number of people involved in football it becomes more impressive. Ironically Kerry who have All Ireland winners in abundance have had Sam delivered the last 4 times by 2 men who never even wore the Green and Gold.
In hurling the picture is far clearer, over the last 25 years there have also been 14 different winning managers and again 4 did not play at inter-county level but they only have 5 titles. Of the remaining 10, 8 have won All Irelands as a player. So it seems obvious that former All Ireland winners are the way to go and failing that you should at least choose a former player.
Further information required? Yes there is, it may seem ridiculous to ask a potential manager what he does for a living but one profession seems to dominate the list of All Ireland winning managers and that is teaching. The list is impressive. In recent years the following teachers have won All Irelands. Football – Billy Morgan, Pete McGrath, John O’Mahony, Mickey Harte and Jack O’Connor. Between them they have 12 of the last 25 All Irelands. Hurling – Eamon Cregan, Ger Loughnane, Michael Bond, Brian Cody, Nicky English, Donal O’Grady and John Allen. They have won 15 of the last 25 All Irelands. So 54% of the last 50 All Ireland senior titles have been won by teachers, a remarkable statistic. People may point to the free time they have or whatever other reason but it is exactly that, a reason. It doesn’t change the fact that most All Irelands are won by teachers so you might take a look in the school house before you appoint your next inter-county manager.
Who’s next? In hurling apart from Anthony Cunningham there aren’t any exciting candidates. He is in his first year, he’s a former player and All Ireland winner and he’s already in the final so it doesn’t take a genius to suggest that he might win it. Davy FitzGerald is another who ticks most of the boxes but he has a lot of work on his hands to bring Clare back into contention despite 2 recent success at u21 level. 2 of the big 3 have well established managers in Brian Cody and Jimmy Barry Murphy and it looks like Tipperary will return to former manager Nicky English to fill their current vacancy. Anthony Daly’s Dublin look to have peaked under his tutelage if he decides to remain at the helm and it seems just as unlikely that Wexford, Offaly, Waterford or Limerick could get their hands on Liam MacCarthy.
Football’s contenders are far more interesting. The standout candidate is Jimmy McGuiness, a former player, All Ireland winner and while he isn’t a school teacher, he has a similar occupation as a lecturer. In two years he has turned a mediocre bunch of individuals into an intimidating team, which at times look invincible.
The other man on the line in next Sunday’s final is James Horan, he’s not a teacher and he hasn’t won an All Ireland but he’s from Mayo and he was a fine player winning 2 All Stars. His impact on the Mayo team was recognized when they beat championship favorites Cork in last year’s quarter final and defeated Kerry in this year’s league semi-final. While they don’t quite look like the finished article yet they are in the final and a traditional Mayo Croker choker is highly unlikely.
Eamon FitzMaurice. FitzMaurice ticks all the boxes, a native, an All Ireland winner and a teacher. As Kerry manager how can he fail? He already seems to be a very popular choice with the players and while he’ll be looking to rebuild, many of the old guard committed for at least another year following his appointment.
Colm O’Rourke. The RTE pundit again ticks all the boxes but his problem is, he doesn’t have a job yet. His name is in the hat for the vacant Meath job and while he seemed reluctant at first he has confirmed that he will attend an interview if requested. O’Rourke also has managerial pedigree both with his school St Pats in Navan and with adults at both club and national level, impressively managing Ireland to victory after the reintroduction of the International Rules Series in 1998.
Peter Canavan. The Tyrone legend is a teacher and an All Ireland winner but he is not a native, currently managing Fermanagh it is outrageous to suggest that he will win an All Ireland with them but is he just getting a feel for inter-county management so he can take over from Mickey Harte in the Tyrone job when he chooses to retire? If Canavan has a plan to rebuild Tyrone, his time may be better served by managing their u21’s.
Jim Gavin. The favourite for the Dublin job has kept a low profile despite winning 2 of the last 3 All Ireland u21 titles and like Pat Gilroy he was an All Ireland winner himself in 95. As an army officer he should have as much free time on his hands if not more than a teacher as the outbreak of war remains quite unlikely.
Dr. Cian O’Neill, the dark horse among the pack. O’Neill has to be on the radar of Kildare’s county board when Kieran McGeeney decides to step down. The Moorefield man has worked as a physical trainer with Limerick footballers, Tipperary’s All Ireland winning hurling team in 2010 and is currently working with the Mayo senior footballers. Only in his mid-thirties, he is one of the most qualified and sought after trainers in the country as director of Physical Education in UL but O’Neill also had success as a player and his impact at full forward for Moorefield’s Kildare senior championship winning teams at the turn of the Millennium left many within the county wondering why he wasn’t a regular there for the Kildare team.
So that’s how you win the All Ireland, statistically speaking of course, easy isn’t it?