It nearly became a running joke on the Mayo News GAA podcast – Aidan O’Shea should be playing at full forward.
Every time Kevin McStay appeared on the show for the last three or four years, he’d say it again. Aidan O’Shea should be playing at full forward. I heard a rumour I couldn’t substantiate this week that McStay had said it on television after the 2013 All-Ireland final, that O’Shea didn’t have the legs for midfield in Croke Park.
So it’s been either a 10-year campaign, or a four-year campaign – regardless, he’s been fairly consistent on the topic. But what happens when the hot air of the punditry seat meets the bracing fresh air of the Allianz National Football League?
Jim Gavin used to say that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. The reassuring thing about battle plans laid out in the pundit’s chair was that they never actually had to meet an opponent.
Kevin McStay had lots of challenges when he took on the Mayo job, not least a rump of Mayo support that remained sceptical. In these situations, what look like hard calls can be the politically easy ones.
Aidan O’Shea has always divided opinion – jettisoning him could have been a statement move for someone in McStay’s shoes to make. It would have said – ‘I’m the boss, I’m here to make tough decisions’. It would also, as he and the player have both proved over the last two months, have been categorically the wrong decision.
It could hardly have gone any better for McStay and Mayo this year – in relation to O’Shea, and more generally. The risk/reward formula for putting an ageing big man on the edge of the square is daunting, particularly when the big man in question has spent a few unhappy 20-minute spells at full forward in big games in the past.
But they were unfazed. This time, he was going to be a full forward who could drift out occasionally, as opposed to a midfielder stationed at 14 for a few brief periods a game. They were actually going to work on his skill-set as a full forward, rather than posting him there as a last resort. The results, as seen in Ballybofey on Sunday, have been impressive.
Would we have called McStay a hypocrite if he’d gone into MacHale Park, taken one look at O’Shea and decided “actually, he doesn’t have it. I was wrong”? I certainly wouldn’t have. They are two different jobs. Pundits work off what they can see, and so do managers. And managers see a lot more of their players than pundits do.
Which brings us to Meath. After two rounds of the league, this intercounty management lark would have seemed pretty simple to McStay’s former RTÉ colleague Colm O’Rourke. Two wins from two, seven goals scored, and winning plaudits all over for playing a refreshing style of football – Meath would take risks with the ball, but there would be freedom of expression. They would play in the fashion that their manager had spoken about on television for years.
Since then – spirit-crushing defeats live on television to Derry and Dublin. A late collapse at home to wily old Mickey Harte’s Louth, who successfully bored them into submission. And a draw against Limerick, the only point Limerick got before getting rid of their own manager and getting relegated with a weekend to spare.
Radiohead once asked for “pragmatism, not idealism” – and Meath fans could be forgiven for wanting some of the same. Meath’s kick-first policy looked pretty good in unseasonably mild conditions on a perfect pitch in Páirc Uí Chaoimh first day out. It worked pretty well against Clare, the other relegated team, in week two.
But it looks as if that wet and wild evening in Owenbeg against Derry, when Meath kicked ball after ball into an over-matched and outplayed full-forward line, punctured whatever fragile optimism had been built up.
Killian O’Gara took his goal for Dublin brilliantly on Saturday evening, but the manner in which the Meath defence was torn apart by one run was almost startling to see. Watching on television, one was idly waiting for three Meath players to enter the screen from the left, and stop Eoin Murchan in his tracks. As it was, he was left completely alone to carry the ball from his own 45 to the Meath 45, where he found O’Gara, who was also completely alone, to find the back of the net.
O’Rourke may feel as if he would be betraying his principles if he set up his team to play in a way that he has decried in the past in a television studio. But that’s not what the Meath County Board hired him to do.
Punditry isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s a much easier job than managing a top-level sports team. Erik ten Hag’s first principles as Manchester United manager lasted about two weeks, before a 4-0 loss to Brentford ended that dream. If he’d spent the previous 20 years on English television outlining his non-negotiable playing style, he might have tried to ride it out. But that’s not what Manchester United are paying him to do.
O’Rourke spoke very well on Saturday evening about how this is a multiyear project for Meath. The first casualty of that project might have to be his idealism.