Two weeks ago the Westmeath County Board presented Colin Kelly, from Louth, as their new senior football manager.
Kelly’s appointment meant that it was 25 years since Westmeath had one of their own in charge and, at the board meeting, questions were asked about why an internal candidate was not sought.
“Colin’s not bringing anyone from Louth,” Sean Sheridan, county board chairman, told delegates who wanted a native to take charge. Sheridan soothed those club members further by assuring them that Kelly, installed for three-year term, wanted “a Westmeath team around him.”
Kelly’s credentials are impeccable – if you support Louth, that is.
He is Louth’s all-time top scorer, and with his manager’s hat on, steered them to a Leinster under-21 final in 2012, where they were defeated by Jim Gavin’s Dublin. He has also led the county’s seniors to back-to-back promotions in the NFL.
One delegate at that board meeting, Ned Flynn, said that while he expected there to be little opposition to Kelly’s appointment, the feeling among clubs was that a Westmeath man should have been chosen.
“Are we sure we couldn’t have got someone local?” Flynn asked.
Others from the floor backed him up.
“What has Colin Kelly got that the others don’t have?” one delegate asked. Sheridan said prospective candidates from Westmeath were approached, but had declined for various reasons.
That meeting was a good barometer for the mood around the country at the moment. The trend of appointing outside Gaelic football managers was red hot not so long ago. At the start of this decade, of the 26 counties that had hired at least one outside football manager over the last two decades, 19 of them were at their most competitive during that period.
There has been a change in mindset since. Now counties are more likely to look within. In 2018, a considerable 19 of the 32 counties will be managed internally. Interestingly, the top five Gaelic football counties all have homegrown managers, with Monaghan the highest placed to look to an outside man.
Monaghan are a classic example of how an outside manager can work, however. Malachy O’Rourke has transformed their fortunes with successive League promotions and two Ulster SFC wins in 2013 and 2015. They know their best chances of progressing further lie with him.
Kelly’s predecessor in Westmeath, Tom Cribbin, is another example of a county aligning itself with a suitable outsider. Cribbin guided them to two Leinster SFC finals and won the hearts of the Westmeath players with his passion and commitment. He also helped the team fund-raise, put a massive effort into ensuring his players were happy off the field, and put some of his own resources into trying to drive Westmeath up the ladder.
“Dublin are getting up to €800,000 a year in sponsorship while the vast majority of other counties struggle to get €30,000 per year,” Cribbin said. “So you have to do all you can to give your team a fighting chance.”
Cribbin did that and much more. The players respected him for it.
More and more, however, counties have identified that the best way of achieving progress is with one of their own. The progress of Turlough O’Brien – a respected, passionate manager over his native Carlow – is a classic case study.
This year Carlow had their best championship run in 73 years. “It’s a balancing act,” said O’Brien’s coach Stephen Poacher. “The players have to believe in a system and they must believe in the manager. But there has to be a plan as well. And unity. Without those it doesn’t really matter where a manager is from.”
The Carlow manager knows his county inside out. “We have found a few junior and intermediate players to bring onto next year’s squad because we feel that is needed,” O’Brien said.
Many outside managers – Eugene McGee in Offaly, John O’Mahony in Galway, Anthony Daly in Dublin, John Evans in Tipperary, have left lasting legacies. Evans laid down foundations for Tipp football, starting with under-age development. He has just taken the Wicklow job – Evans will rebuild there too.
“It’s nothing new to me,” he says. “I went in to Tipperary and things were at a low ebb. I think they had won three or four games in the previous three years, or something like that. It’s about rebuilding; that’s my strength, that’s my forte.”
Sometimes, though, a county can have short-term vision when appointing an outside manager, seemingly, just for the sake of it.
Finally, after seven outside appointments, Offaly look likely to appoint Kevin Martin, a solid lieutenant who gave years of service for his county. It gives them some bit of long-term perspective. So too does Dublin’s appointment of Pat Gilroy as their hurling boss – there was a real hunger to give that job to an internal candidate for the first time in nine years.
There is both a necessity and room for outside managers but the point is they have to buy into a county’s culture. While minnows Carlow currently look to have it right with O’Brien, they also had it right with Liam Hayes at the helm.
“Liam is a Meath man but his dad [the late, Jim, who played for Carlow for 12 years] came from Palatine and Liam managed us as if he was one of our own,” says former Carlow forward Brian Kelly. “We had some big wins and we could see Liam hurt more than any of us when we lost too. You’d never have known Liam was from outside and we reacted to his passion. I think that’s the key – it doesn’t matter where your manager is from as long as he cares about the long-term.”