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Wednesday 22 January 2020

Is Dubs job a poisoned chalice?

Succeeding a legend could be a difficult task for Dessie

Dessie Farrell will be aiming to drive Dublin on to a sixth successive All-Ireland SFC title in 2020. Photo: Sportsfile
Dessie Farrell will be aiming to drive Dublin on to a sixth successive All-Ireland SFC title in 2020. Photo: Sportsfile
Jim Gavin. Photo: Sportsfile
Mick O’Dwyer. Photo: Sportsfile
Mickey Ned Sullivan struggled after taking over from Mick O’Dwyer as Kerry manager. Photo; Sportsfile

Question: What have Frank O'Farrell, Brian Clough, Bob Paisley, Mickey Ned O'Sullivan, Jarlath Cloonan, Eamonn Barry, David Moyes, Unai Emery and Dessie Farrell got in common?

Want a clue? Try this: Matt Busby, Don Revie, Bill Shankly, Mick O'Dwyer, Cyril Farrell, Seán Boylan, Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Jim Gavin.

Now the answer should be crystal clear: the roll call of names in our opening paragraph all succeeded a managerial giant, one who had led their soccer club/GAA county to unprecedented levels of success.

Farrell - the Dublin version - is but the latest in a line of ambitious managers who have accepted the keys to an uncertain kingdom by following in the slipstream of an icon.

Some of the naysayers have questioned the former GPA chief's wisdom in taking on what they perceive to be a poisoned chalice.

But is it? Dublin have won five All-Irelands on the spin, and six of the last seven, under a manager (Gavin) who achieved this unique feat while changing his team incrementally, year on year.

There is - or there should be - several more chapters left in this Sky Blue saga.

For all that, the history of sport has frequently reminded us that managerial handovers - especially those that involve the departure of a legend - come with no guarantees.

For every Paisley, who went on to eclipse Shankly's trophy haul in spectacular fashion, there is an O'Farrell, who laboured under 'The Shadow of Busby', as a 2011 RTÉ documentary was aptly titled.

Quote

That documentary included the following withering quote from the Cork-born heir to the Scot's Old Trafford throne: "The club has a great reputation. But the people I was dealing with at that time weren't very nice people. And they were vindictive, punitive, and nasty people. Matt Busby was one of the worst of them."

The comparison between O'Farrell and Farrell - or between Moyes and Farrell, for that matter - looks questionable under scrutiny.

In both Old Trafford case studies, the new incumbent inherited a dressing room of high achievers - but the Busby brigade were already in palpable decline, while Ferguson's parting gift of a Premier League title in 2013 would mark the last high of a team in pressing need of regeneration.

In both cases, moreover, the spectre of the old boss looking down from the directors' box cast a very long shadow.

United had become the first English winners of the European Cup in 1968 but, his lifetime ambition fulfilled, Busby initially retired at the end of the following season. At this point the signs of slippage were already reflected in a mediocre league placing of eleventh.

Busby remained as a club director, handing the reins to reserve team coach Wilf McGuinness. One detail of that time tells a multitude: the ex-boss retained possession of the roomy manager's dressing room at United's training ground, with McGuinness diverted to a far less spacious coach's room (Busby would later try the same stunt with O'Farrell, who rightly resisted).

Can you imagine, for a second, Jim Gavin sauntering up to Dublin's DCU training base in the new season? It won't happen.

McGuinness led his side to eighth in his maiden season but was then sacked in December 1970, and Busby temporarily stepped back into the breach until the end of that campaign. Again, they finished eighth.

Thus, when O'Farrell was poached from the newly promoted Leicester City, the cracks in the team of Charlton, Law and Best were already apparent. This was no five-in-a-row force of nature.

Mind you, the Red Devils initially stormed out of the traps and, by October '71, Busby was boasting to the 'Daily Mirror' that O'Farrell was "the best signing I've ever made."

It didn't last. Best, unstoppable up to Christmas, missed the first week of January to spend it with Miss Great Britain. United slumped from top of the league to finish eighth. Again.

Retired

Best retired that summer, then quickly changed his mind, but it went from bad to worse in the new season. Their increasingly AWOL 26-year-old talisman was placed on the transfer list. Embroiled in a relegation dogfight, a 5-0 thrashing at Crystal Palace in December proved O'Farrell's swansong.

Tommy Docherty took over and United survived (just about) but it was a case of delaying the inevitable: they were relegated in '74.

Almost half a century on, it's hard to conceive such a chaotic unravelling of a sporting institution. But it continues to happen, albeit not always in such precipitous fashion.

Consider the passing of the Arsenal baton from Wenger to Emery. The Frenchman, undoubtedly, stayed too long. Emery was singularly incapable of arresting a malaise that extended beyond the pitch and right to the top of the boardroom.

You could say the same about the current Old Trafford regime, except that Ferguson's unrivalled record would suggest he didn't stay too long. Perhaps the craggy Scot's biggest failing was to neglect the rebuilding of a team that he wouldn't be hanging around for … but it's still fair to surmise that Moyes simply wasn't big enough for the ultimate job. Even Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, for all their past achievements and endless self-belief, weren't up to the challenge.

Not every departing legend leaves such an impossible void. Consider Paisley's record post-Shankly: in nine seasons he won six Division One titles, three League Cups, one UEFA Cup and the holy grail that eluded his predecessor, the European Cup, three times.

Shankly, by contrast, had won three leagues, two FA Cups and one UEFA Cup during his 15-year stint - although he had been the architect of Liverpool's rebirth, dragging them out of the old Second Division.

There is even less chance that Farrell will mimic the guaranteed-to-fail approach of Brian Clough who, in 1974, walked into a dressing room of Leeds United legends and promptly declared: "The first thing you can do for me is throw your medals in the bin because you've never won anything fairly; you've done it by cheating."

Those medals included the previous season's league, after which Don Revie (revered by Leeds, reviled by Clough) took over as England manager.

Wrong

Clough had already proven to be a great manager at Derby. He would do so again at Nottingham Forest. But this was wrong place, wrong time, wrong gaffer: he lasted 44 days.

It's a moot point if any of these fraught succession stakes from a different sport in a very different era have any relevance to Dublin.

But there are some GAA parallels. The most obvious is what happened Kerry after Mick O'Dwyer left in 1989: they didn't win another All-Ireland title until 1997.

Even here, however, it's worth pointing out that O'Dwyer, the mastermind of eight All-Irelands between 1975 and '86, failed to emerge from Munster in his last three campaigns (1987-89). Micko's previously all-conquering time was up … but it didn't get much better for Mickey Ned O'Sullivan, who endured a 2-23 to 1-11 humiliation to All-Ireland holders Cork in the 1990 Munster final.

At least O'Sullivan had the consolation of recapturing provincial bragging rights in '91. There was no such solace for the next man in, Ógie Moran.

Curiously, Páidí Ó Sé had challenged O'Sullivan for the original vacancy in '89. Hindsight would suggest that missing out then worked to his long-term benefit.

Several others have tried and failed to hold onto the All-Ireland baton. Cyril Farrell led Galway from the hurling wilderness to win three SHC titles during two separate reigns in the 1980s. Enter Jarlath Cloonan - the first in a queue of Galway managers who tried and failed to bring back Liam MacCarthy until Micheál Donoghue ended the famine, 29 years later.

Now consider how far Meath have fallen since Seán Boylan's epic 23-year reign ended in 2005. However, even this sobering example merits context: having reached the 2001 All-Ireland SFC final, the last four seasons under Boylan were a tale of regression as Fermanagh (twice) and Cavan twisted the back door knife.

Eamonn Barry took over and, before a ball had been kicked in anger, was at very public loggerheads with the board. That didn't end well; nor did the various tenures that followed.

Abuse

Since Farrell's mid-December appointment, parallels have been drawn with his own playing days, which peaked in '95 when he won his solitary Celtic Cross and sole All-Star.

In his 2005 autobiography - 'Dessie: Tangled Up in Blue' - Farrell recounts the background to the "shocking news" that Pat O'Neill and his management team had decided to step down en masse after the '95 All-Ireland win, just as a new league dawned.

Much has been made of Mickey Whelan's ill-starred tenure, one that ended after just two years when a league defeat to Offaly in Parnell Park precipitated personal abuse from a group of supposed supporters. He resigned on the spot.

History would be much kinder to Whelan, who later led St Vincent's to All-Ireland club glory and then was Pat Gilroy's coach, a decade and a half later, when Dublin finally achieved what Whelan the manager had failed to do in '96 or '97: win Sam.

Farrell's memoir paints a very nuanced picture - he liked Whelan but he could see how various issues impacted negatively, most notably the deteriorating relationship between the new manager and his veteran captain, John O'Leary.

But Dublin's latest hot-seat incumbent made a couple of intriguing points.

"There was a reality that none of us really grasped at the time, namely that Dublin were in decline," he wrote. Can you say the same of Dublin today? Hardly.

Farrell also admitted: "A lot of the slackness in our approach was our own fault. Whelan was handed a poisoned chalice."

It remains to be seen whether that same chalice is now his inheritance. Yet that slackness rarely if ever surfaced under Gavin … and it's an attitude Farrell has never accepted as a player or manager.

We can't see that changing now.

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