THERE was a piece online in the aftermath of Roy Keane’s departure as assistant manager of the Irish football team debating the possible reasons for failure in management of a hefty bunch that played under Alex Ferguson.
Now there are arguments to be had on the accuracy of this idea in the first place – it seems a bit early to be writing Ryan Giggs off for just one example – but the central point was of interest in the development of managers and coaches and just what separates the best from the others.
There might be something in the suggestion that managers like Ferguson (and say Brian Clough) obviously had something of genius about them but that it was a very specific power of personality that made them special and that this sort of influence is almost unrepeatable no matter how many years are spent studying it. Joe Schmidt isn’t entirely in the same category but there’s something similar again in the difficulties in this succession post World Cup, where a culture has been created on the basis of the strength of personality of one manager more than a set way of playing that could be copied.
Brian Cody with Kilkenny will be similar, where whoever takes over there will find it almost impossible to recreate the absolute hold that Cody has grown there purely based on his beliefs in how hurling should be played.
And then we had Stephen Kenny’s story during the week, where we recall Brian Kerr telling a story a few years ago about spotting Kenny first as a young player and then seeing the potential of a hungry young coach on the sideline opposite him (and beating him) aged just 22.
Kenny worked his time through various youth and senior teams and leagues and disappointments to get to the top job and if there’s anything to be taken from that pathway it might be that there’s a lot more to becoming a successful coach than just having played the game at a high level, that there is something in learning the job through experiences and just having a real passion and vision for developing players and teams. He has a way of playing football that he wants to impart onto his players.
He can noticeably take individuals and a group and improve them and teach them to play a visibly Stephen Kenny type of football and that’s not an easy thing to do at all. We’ve seen this assumption in every sport that an ex-player with a certain skillset is expected to have the natural ability to pass that exact skillset onto players with no evidence that this is the case.
Like Robbie Keane’s inclusion in the Ireland coaching ticket where there’s this idea that the Irish strikers will now just inhale his street-footballing smarts or striking instincts or say where a tough former defender from the GAA world is brought in to give a team his mentality, like it’s just that simple.
The top ex-players who make a real difference in the coaching world, by the way, tend to either be visionaries with clear philosophies, Pep Guardiola or Pochettino or Jim McGuinness even, or guys who’ve shown real hunger to seek knowledge towards the end or immediately after their playing career. Ronan O’Gara springs to mind.
But think of the most innovative coaching jobs done in hurling in the recent past and Paul Kinnerk comes to mind right away, a gaelic footballer with Limerick who dipped into helping out with hurling teams at a reasonably young age while injured and has developed into one of the most influential people working behind the scenes in the game, playing a serious role in taking two outsiders to All-Irelands in the last five years.
Think of someone like Mickey Moran in club football, who has been involved with teams forever and just has that knack of improving players with simple coaching ideas on the field and who made Slaughtneil one of the stories of the last few years in club football. These are coaches with very particular ideas on playing the game and who are perhaps slightly obsessed with the idea of passing that vision onto players and the creation and improvement of teams.
Think of Dublin footballers and you might credit Jim Gavin initially but it’d hardly have come together but for the pure coaching work of Mickey Whelan behind the scenes over the years. We’re talking coaches here who can make a difference to clubs or entire counties, who can work with a team and within maybe a few months you’d recognise they were being coached by that person and within a year or two of work they have most likely altered the whole way of playing of that group of players.
This matters in the GAA world right now and in Cork in particular, where there’s been a tendency to neglect the pathways of coaches at times in favour of the search for a quicker, more obvious fix. Not just at intercounty, club level too.
Managers come and go and the process leaves a kind of random mix of half-ideas and systems without any real continuity. Cork football has lacked a broader vision at almost every level for an age and either doesn’t have the culture of developing coaches who might implement something different or hasn’t given those coaches the platform often enough.
Clubs have tended to look at recently retired senior players for inspiration rather than take the time to think differently. There are bright coaches with energy and ideas working at underage and with divisional and development squads who need the right structures and spaces to implement their ideas, who need to be allowed find their way and perhaps create a new Cork way in the meantime.
The right coaches can make a difference. We’ve seen that too often now to ignore.