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New faces on familiar road

Frank Roche profiles four new bosses, home-grown or imported, all seeking a flying start

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Séamus McEnaney. Photo: Sportsfile

Séamus McEnaney. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Séamus McEnaney. Photo: Sportsfile

For 11 new inter-county football managers, this weekend is a significant milestone. The Allianz League throw-in. The start of serious business.

It won't make them or break them, but it might well establish the early narrative.

Will the honeymoon period extend for another week? Or will they find themselves on the back foot already?

Jack O'Connor is one of those new managers, his arrival in Kildare breathing fresh optimism into a football-mad county that is forever hoping.

It was different back in February, 2004. Kerry were craving rejuvenation, no more than Kildare, but they had just replaced one iconic figure (Páidí Ó Sé) in the hotseat with a relative unknown.

And then O'Connor's league baptism ended in disaster, Stephen Lynch boxing home the winning goal almost five minutes into stoppage-time.

"The longest journey of my life was coming home from Longford that night," O'Connor would later write in his memoir, Keys To The Kingdom.

"I just remember driving back with Declan O'Sullivan in the car beside me and not a word said ... I hoped the ground would swallow me before we got back to Kerry."

Now for the good news: a humiliating start is not always a portent of doom. Kerry went on to win the league that year - and then the All-Ireland itself.

This will be O'Connor's first senior posting since 2012 - and his first outside Kerry.

He will be joined on the carousel by ten other 'newbies', not all of them rookies.

In Division 1, Dublin's Dessie Farrell has the biggest shoes of all to fill while Séamus McEnaney returns for a second twist with Monaghan and Pádraic Joyce hopes to usher in a brave new world with Galway.

All three are featured here, as well as O'Connor. Joining the latter in a Division 2 dogfight will be former Tyrone defender Ryan McMenamin in Fermanagh and another Kerry export, Mike Quirke, in Laois.

There are just two new managers in Division 3 - Rory Gallagher's trawl through Ulster takes him to Derry while 2011 All-Ireland minor winner David Power is back home with Tipp.

There are three more new faces in Division 4: Davy Burke with Wicklow, Michael Maher with London and, most intriguingly of all in Wexford, Paul Galvin ... who played for O'Connor, in Longford, all those years ago.

Someone old . . . . Seamus McEnaney

Never go back. It's one of the oldest of GAA truisms - a plea to former bosses tempted by the lure of a second coming with the same county.

Except, of course, that sometimes it proves a resounding success.

Think of Liam Sheedy's second tenure with the Tipperary hurlers. Or Cyril Farrell's second spell with Galway (we'll airbrush his third). Or, in football, Jack O'Connor's league and championship double in 2009 when he returned for some unfinished business with Kerry.

For all the above, however, you'll find just as many who struggled to revisit former heights: Babs Keating (Tipp) in hurling, John O'Mahony (Mayo) in football to name just two.

And now it's the turn of Banty ...

Seamus McEnaney's first spell over his native Monaghan ended after six eventful seasons in 2010.

Irish Independent columnist Dick Clerkin, who soldiered under McEnaney, doesn't agree with the "never go back" thesis. "It's very much down to the individual and maybe how things were left in the past and what they've done since," he says.

"Seamus might have left in better circumstances back in 2010, and at that stage it might have been difficult to see him coming back in.

"But to his credit, he got involved with the county minors, had good success with them, bringing them to an Ulster title and almost an All-Ireland final. Then took on the U20s.

"He is now familiar with a lot of the new players that he'll be looking to bring into the senior set-up. So he has gone about it the right way."

Next question: is he inheriting a group on a downward cycle, one that consistently mixed it with the best under Malachy O'Rourke?

"Listen, you could make the same analogy about the group of players that Malachy got," Clerkin counters.

"They've had a bit of a dip, like we did ... now it might be the right time for those senior players to get a second wind, the likes of Darren (Hughes), Drew (Wylie), Conor (McManus), who are still not old. These guys are a perfect age to have another good cut at it. Somebody like Banty coming in, with energy, could give these guys a second wind."

For all that, having just stayed up last spring, Monaghan's sixth consecutive year in Division 1 could be as much about survival as anything.

"Being brutally honest," after last weekend's McKenna Cup final display against Tyrone, Clerkin admits: "There would be an element of nervousness going into the league in terms of, well really, where are these new players and what can they bring to Division 1 football?"

Someone new . . . . Pádraic Joyce

Already you get a sense that something is different out west.

And not because Galway have come out on top in the FBD Connacht pre-season parade - after all, they had also done so twice, in 2016 and '17, during Kevin Walsh's five-year tenure. Beating Roscommon last weekend, however impressively, is no barometer for the season to come.

But Pádraic Joyce has made other decisions and said other things that hint loudly at a more progressive style of play from Galway, one that might help propel them from frustrating nearly men into genuine All-Ireland contenders.

First up, he made Shane Walsh his captain. To give this signal honour to such an unashamedly flair footballer was a striking choice.

Walsh then revelled in the extra responsibility last Saturday, top-scoring with 1-8 in the FBD decider against the Rossies. After which his new manager gushed: "He is a class footballer and I have watched a lot of them over the years. He has got both feet and would remind you of Maurice Fitzgerald and these lads that played in the good times way back. The reason we gave him the captaincy is he has shown great leadership since we came in."

Under Walsh the manager, Galway shed their reputation for Fancy Dan flakiness - and came closest to a significant breakthrough in 2018. But their ultra-cautious set-up and propensity for ponderous build-ups proved not just a fan turn-off, but ultimately counter-productive.

Pronouncements by his successor have spelled out the changes he plans to make: using the foot far more, delivering faster ball into the forwards, replicating the Corofin template.

Now it's time to walk the walk. In fairness, as Galway's greatest footballer of the modern era, Joyce was not just wonderfully prolific, but had the mentality of a hard-nosed winner.

"Our aim is to win another All-Ireland - simple as that," he boldly declared last November. "Anything less will be seen as an underachievement."

The bar has been set ...

Someone borrowed . . . . Jack O'Connor

Kildare's football relationship with Kerry has been something of a love-hate affair.

On the credit side, Mick O'Dwyer was the Messiah from a faraway Kingdom who ended Kildare's 42-year Leinster famine in 1998. He then vanquished his native Kerry in that year's semi-final to bring his increasingly giddy Lilies to within touching distance of Sam.

Micko also imported his own son from the deep south; Karl duly became an All Star dressed in white.

And the debit column? Even if their paths don't cross too frequently, Micko's '98 outcome was more the exception than the rule. Their three subsequent SFC collisions all yielded Kerry wins, by margins of eight (2002), a grisly 27 (2015) and 12 (their 2018 semi-dead rubber).

Enter Jack O'Connor, another multiple All-Ireland winner with Kerry hoping to revive this slumbering giant.

It's a big ask partially because this generation of Kildare footballers have flattered to deceive far more than they've achieved.

Not all their fault, when you consider the Sky Blue elephant in the adjoining room ... but O'Connor is still taking over a dressing room yet to tap into its full potential.

Several factors should ease the transition ... starting with a modicum of advance local knowledge from his recent backroom involvement with Moorefield, the adopted club of sons Éanna and Cian.

This meant he already knew Moorefield boss Ross Glavin, who is now part of his management team - another plus.

Finally, his recent retirement from teaching has given O'Connor that most precious commodity - time - to embrace senior county management for the first time since he vacated the Kerry hotseat in 2012.

The long haul from south Kerry could be a drag, but whereas Micko always professed an undying love of mechanical propulsion, Jacko is happy to merely declare: "I don't mind driving."

As for initial targets, top-flight promotion is a very realistic goal, with Roscommon and Armagh the most likely rivals.

O'Connor has previously shown a capacity for making instant impacts, winning league and All-Ireland doubles in his first year with Kerry (2004) and in the first year of his second coming (2009).

That noughties Kerry team contained all-time greats. He's starting at a lower base in Newbridge, but that won't dampen expectations.

Someone blue . . . Dessie Farrell

This is, depending on your mindset, either the perfect job or a poisoned chalice. Do you fancy managing the most talented, most driven, most coldly clinical squad in Gaelic football?

Or are you scared stiff at the thought of succeeding Jim Gavin, the only manager to achieve five in a row, in the eyes-wide-open realisation that no matter how well you do, comparisons are likely to be unfavourable?

Dessie Farrell himself summed up this double-edged Dublin sword better than most a fortnight ago. "I've always taken the approach that there's two ways to live your life," the new Sky Blue boss reflected.

"One, as a timid soul. Sort of year by year, month by month, week by week, possibly even hour by hour as a timid soul. Or the other is to perhaps do the things that frighten you at times. This thing stimulates me. It challenges me."

Officially, the challenge starts against Kerry tomorrow. The reality is that only one cannister will matter when his first year is being judged, even if a few league wobbles will raise eyebrows and a Leinster shock is unthinkable.

Dublin are behind the training curve and have yet to unveil their full management team - neither is Farrell's fault. They are without Stephen Cluxton and Con O'Callaghan, for now, and might struggle to hit the ground running. But, even half-cooked, they can be a force of nature.

Farrell's past success with so many of the current squad is a plus, but his leadership pedigree has never been in doubt. Coman Goggins, who succeeded him as Dublin captain in 2002, remarked: "I've a lot of time for Dessie. You'd mark him a couple of times in training - he was a hard guy to mark, because there was nothing soft. If he felt you were slacking off, he'd make sure that you didn't by giving you an auld rattle."

Goggins, who grew up watching Farrell as "one of those icons of the Hill", concludes: "It's a great opportunity for him to mark out another chapter of his career in terms of Dublin GAA and the legacy that he's left."