It’s never nice to think about a manager being sacked. No one likes to hear knives being sharpened on the whetstone. Inter-county managers, for all we malign them, take a job with a massive amount of risk vs reward. When we praise the commitment of players, we often forget that the manager is there with them step for step, giving everything they have mentally to prepare their men to the best of their ability. It’s a job where being shown the door is often a very real threat.
This Saturday in Omagh, the glint of steel will be visible for both managers. For Meath’s Mick O’Dowd, the knives are a clear and present danger. With Mickey Harte, they’re still sheathed for now.
Firstly to O’Dowd. This one gives me no pleasure to talk about. One does not need to be a soothsayer to see that O’Dowd’s job is very much on the line. A good run in the qualifiers is probably not enough to save him. The hurt within the county over the sensational loss to Westmeath is very real and very palpable. As a Meath man in exile, what struck me in the aftermath of that defeat was a sense of resignation to the result.
Attitudes had not been positive among the cohort I spoke to in the build up to the match.
There was a sense of inevitability once Westmeath began to turn the screw in the second half. No Meath fan seems to have been truly surprised, an indictment itself. Too often in recent years there have been late game collapses. Kildare last year in the Leinster semi-final probably should have beaten Meath at the end but they just ran out of time. The days of Meath fans not being worried once the deficit was less than seven and assuming leads would be held on to are long gone.
In O’Dowd’s favour, he has overseen a huge turnover in the playing personnel. In three years, the Joe Sheridan generation of Meath footballers who debuted around 2003-2005 have largely disappeared. Stephen Bray and Kevin Reilly are the only hold overs form that time. A new generation spearheaded by the likes of Bryan Menton, Brian McMahon and Conor Gillespie have taken over the team. The problem is that an evolution in players has not led to a change in the fortunes of the county. It’s arguable that the team has gone backwards.
After a brave showing against Dublin and a last-twelve loss to Tyrone in 2013, Meath proceeded to get annihilated in last year’s Leinster final and submit to Armagh in the Qualifiers. Failure to secure Division One football has been a bone of contention in the county. Combining this with a lack of discernible structure and identity in their play and the meekness of the Championship showing this year, it’s very hard to see where Mick O’Dowd can go from here. When there are voices in Meath reminiscing about Banty, and all of that song and dance, you know times aren’t great.
For Mickey Harte and Tyrone, the discussion about his management career is very different From the outset, let me state that I am in no way calling for Mickey Harte’s head, so don’t dare get that idea in your head. One of, if not the most influential men in the history of Tyrone GAA, Harte has earned the right to pick and choose his time of leaving. However…
To paraphrase Dave Chappelle, the best reason for settling down is so that you’re not the creepy old guy in the club. There is an art in sport of knowing when the fat lady is starting to tune up on your career. Any person in any job eventually gets burned out and looks to pastures new, especially in a job as high pressure as management. No great manager wants to be pushed, or to leave when no one wants you anymore. However, this is a fate that had fallen most of the greats. Sean Boylan’s twenty-three year tenure with Meath ended with a qualifier defeat to Cavan. Mick O’Dwyer left Kerry after three Munster final defeats in a row. I am sure that Mickey Harte has an ideal leaving scenario in his head. Probably third Sunday in September, Sam under the arm, ride off into the sunset.
Sadly, it’s hard to see this happening now, or soon, for this Tyrone team. Certainly, they are among the top ten teams in the country, but that’s not going to be enough to get them up the stairs of the Hogan Stand. Since their 2010 Ulster title, the last one they won, they have made the semi-finals once. They have run Donegal extremely close in Ulster, but there is a series of diminishing returns. Twice in the last four years Tyrone’s championship has ended in July. As their Golden Generation has aged and fell into retirement, the replacements haven’t been of the standard. Of course, it’s ridiculous to expect a team to replenish instantly (even Kerry struggled in the aftermath of their great team of the 80’s), but for whatever reason Tyrone just aren’t getting the same out of themselves as they used to. The Red Hand men could always be relied on for a dogged qualifier run to turn a bad year to good. You struggle to see that potential in this team. If Tyrone loses this Saturday, there may be calls for a new voice.
So, one way or another, there may be calls for a managers head by five o’clock Saturday evening. For Mick O’Dowd, the knives are being sharpened as we speak. For Mickey Harte, no one wants to speak about the knives, and are ignoring their presence, but defeat could lead to them being unsheathed.