Do you know the feeling club players get in January when a new manager lands and promises to solve every issue, including world peace? Everyone thinks he’s a great fellow in the slog until you reach the summer and realise his only credential is a masters’ in spoofery.
Well Wayne Kierans would have felt the former when Peter Fitzpatrick succeeded the man who appointed him, Des Halpenny, as county chairman last December. Almost immediately the O’Connell’s member would have been eager -- and possibly even under pressure -- to impress; to prove himself again.
Results, however, made last Thursday night’s meeting between both parties a mere formality in that there was an inevitable conclusion, and the option for an extension of Kierans’ term wasn’t explored.
The Castlebellingham man was the first to concede after the Leinster Championship loss to Longford that his tenure ought to be judged on results primarily and while eight wins in 24 games underlines a win ratio not too dissimilar to many of those who went before him, he managed to guide the team to only a single victory from 10 outings during the Fitzpatrick regime.
In truth, the writing was on the wall as far back as last March when the drubbing by Leitrim in Dundalk all but condemned Louth to demotion to Division Four. It was really around that time that county executive members made their decision not to reappoint Kierans in the belief that the season, from that juncture, would last less than a half-a-dozen games and a few months.
The Covid-19 breakout disrupted every avenue towards the swift handover, however; especially with the senior management having not considered their positions over the summer. There was some flak thrown this way when this idea was coined following the mid-October league loss to Cork which resigned the team to relegation.
A championship victory was the primary aim, understandably so, but it was a very narrow-minded approach to take in an overall sense. Louth are now left looking for Kierans’ successor at a time when most club teams have rubber stamped their arrangements for next year. In theory, you’re now scraping the bottom of a deep barrel.
LURKING IN THE WINGS
Former Armagh star Tony McEntee was the man in the frame for much of the year and while engineering a prospective management behind the scenes would seem somewhat ruthless, Louth’s head honchos were ultimately trying to secure the right man, and a big name, prior to the window of opportunity closing.
McEntee was at the senior county final, supposedly as a guest of Statsports when every man and his mother acknowledged the legitimacy of his attendance in another way, and virtually in the role for 2021.
But let’s just say that political difference terminated his appointment and left Fitzpatrick and co in a tricky situation, particularly in the aftermath of the National League victory against Down. Had Kierans successfully negotiated the subsequent championship assignment, it is probable his bid to continue would have gathered momentum.
On the other hand, did he want to stay on? As a remnant, one of the few, of Halpenny’s reign, his capacity was always going to be under threat. Terms within county committees are limited and as with stints in the Dáil, you’re judged by tangible results and Fitzpatrick’s maiden year at the helm of Louth GAA has been about promise rather than visible success.
In that context, was Kierans really interested in continuing? He followed the ‘process’ as he said he would, leading to Thursday night’s Darver swansong, but sources have suggested that he wasn’t altogether displeased at leaving the post.
Relations had become strained post-lockdown when the Louth seniors were stopped from carrying out a fitness test during the club-only window. The guideline-enforcers were determined not to be rule-breakers, even if other counties were willing to diss Croke Park stipulations and allow their flagbearers to get on the hamster wheel prematurely.
BACK FROM THE BRINK
And it’s believed he did, indeed, question his continuation mid-summer until coaxed back from the brink by members of his management team, who were determined to see their duties out until the close of the 2020 campaign.
Neither party, the county executive or senior coaching crew, can look back on the year with much satisfaction. Pointing the finger at each other is a lazy excuse. Kierans’ position was undermined in the search for a replacement, and yet it’s hard to criticise them for ultimately making him a ‘dead man walking’.
There were some very memorable occasions during the 2019 National League, the victories away to Offaly and Down especially, while the manner of the championship comeback in Wexford was extraordinary. The Reds trailed 1-14 to 0-14 with eight minutes remaining, Colin Kelly plotting their downfall having only just joined the Yellowbellies’ camp, but progressed following eight successive points.
The cracks developed thereafter, though. The 26-point demolition by Dublin was hard enough, though it was the events of the following two weeks which really damaged the manager.
Kierans attempted to impose strict protocols and high standards in terms of training attendance and what that represented: if you didn’t have ‘x’ amount of work done, you wouldn’t play. But that’s one thing in a county lush with options, and another in Louth where some give and take needs applying.
Jim McEneaney was dropped from the team that played Antrim in the qualifiers because his pre-organised stag do took place between the Leinster exit and Saffrons clash. Having been a key cog all season, leaving him off caused serious damage. Ultimately, Louth will have a qualifier every year; people aren’t married every 12 months.
Young Irelands’ Derek Maguire was always a peripheral figure and while that may not entirely be Kierans’ doing, more simply had to be done to ensure the Dundalk native was involved. You can’t dispose of such quality, particularly when the fresh batch aren’t in the same league.
However, the biggest mistake was withdrawing Andy McDonnell at half-time of the Drogheda disaster, even after the Newtown Blues player had scored a goal. Personal reasons were afforded for McDonnell’s retirement, but he was clearly hurt by being substituted when Louth could ill-afford to do without him.
It all left Kierans’ hand much weaker and when four more key components -- Ciarán Byrne, Declan Byrne, Ciarán Downey and James Califf (injury) -- didn’t return a matter of weeks ago, it didn’t bode well. Add the seven aforementioned to Louth’s team and you have a side that could plausibly have won promotion and two rounds in the Leinster Championship; instead, look at what transpired.
Alternatively, history may well be kind to Kierans in terms of the number of debuts he distributed among the core of his former minor teams. But that’s of little consolation at this time.
Like the club manager who everyone is eager to catch the eye of, Fitzpatrick has advanced from the winter of his chairmanship, entering the spring where the seeds for decisions he will be judged upon will be sown. They just have to get the right man.
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