As eight of the LDL Premier Division’s 11 clubs prepare to resume league hostilities this weekend, public opinion has yet to settle on who is best-equipped to edge what promises to be the tightest title race in years.
With several well-matched sides still in the hunt, and no clear favourite emerging, one would assume that the Fran Mullally Trophy will ultimately be grasped by the shrewdest tactician, who can best mask his unit’s flaws and accentuate their positives.
However, recent history suggests that a coach’s interpersonal skills may be just as – if not more – important at this level. Bookended by Carew Park’s double-triumph in 2013 and 2016 under Albert Slattery, sandwiching victories for Pike Rovers and Janesboro, the trophy’s last four winning sides have been presided over by three very different men with one vitally important common trait.
Despite applying differing mixtures of honey and vinegar to achieve their goal, Slattery, Michael Sheil, and Janesboro’s Shane O’Hanlon are all said to possess a natural aptitude for commanding respect from their playing staffs.
Now that we are a few years removed from Pike’s five-year period of one-horse-race hegemony, in which the Hoops’ squad was simply too strong not to beat its rivals to the league, it appears that any club can grab a piece of the pie in this new competitive era – provided they don’t choose a manager with a tin ear for dealing with people.
According to the testimonies of those who played under them, all three of the league’s aforementioned recent winners have little patience for lateness, absenteeism, or ill-discipline. All three are also said to maintain an appropriate distance from their players, wisely choosing not to socialise regularly with those under their auspices. A shared ability to retain players also applies across the board, suggesting strong one-on-one man-management skills, and a capacity to get guys invested in a project.
While none is without their flaws – as the admirably modest O’Hanlon admitted by bringing in Aidan Ryan’s coaching acumen this summer – all have managed to motivate their sides over the line at the dawn of a period in which multiple clubs have the resources to spar with the previously untouchable Pike.
Certainly, none would have matched the clanger dropped by one peer, who – upon entering his new charges’ dressing-room for the first time after a particularly impressive friendly victory – decided that warning his perplexed audience against getting sneaky with him was preferable to a simple introduction and congratulations.
Nor would any have exhibited the disgraceful disloyalty shown by another short-lived former contemporary, who marred his tenure in a prior role by leaving a player waiting in vain for a lift that was never going to arrive, after failing to inform the stranded teenager – and regular passenger – that he was dropped.
While the above two anecdotes painfully demonstrate how wrong clubs can get it when it comes to sizing up a candidate’s interpersonal attributes, their committees also need to secure a certain degree of coaching expertise if they want to be competitive.
A continued increase in the number of Uefa-licenced coaches plying their trades at Premier Division clubs has also helped to narrow the gap between Limerick’s top sides in recent years, with seven of the league’s 11 teams now boasting personnel that have attained that level of qualification. Clubs without the ability to attract such high-calibre candidates run the risk of falling behind.
Of course, while it is tempting to point out that two of the three names lauded above have not “done their badgers” as Dean Windass once famously tweeted, it is indisputable that Janesboro, Aisling Annacotty, Ballynanty Rovers, and Geraldines have all improved since beefing up their coaching rosters with proud badger-wearers this season.
In addition, newly-promoted Nenagh and Kilmallock, who join Regional United in comprising the other three clubs with Uefa street-cred, have both already comfortably surpassed pre-season expectations, adding further weight to the argument that training ground preparations matter more than ever at junior level.
Care must be taken however, as an ability to read and analyse the game does not necessarily always go hand-in-hand with formal qualifications, nor are those qualifications always genuine.
It is not long ago that one of Limerick’s most successful junior clubs was hoodwinked by an individual making false claims about his employment history within a foreign professional league, and it is probable that another Premier Division side has fallen foul of false Uefa-licence claims in the even more recent past.
All of which draws the conclusion that clubs need to tread extremely carefully in the managerial minefield if success is to be theirs. As for this season’s crop of chiefs, Sunday’s tasty-looking round of fixtures is the latest test of their mettle. Who do you think will come out on top?
Born Offside is published weekly in the Wednesday edition of the Limerick Leader; this article originally appeared in the January 4 edition of the newspaper. You can follow the author @alanob2112