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The Recipe For Qualifier Success - By The Managers Who've Actually Done It

The Recipe For Qualifier Success - By The Managers Who've Actually Done It

This morning Mayo found out that they will face Fermanagh in the qualifiers after losing to Galway last weekend. The winners of the All-Ireland have not come from the qualifiers since Cork captured the title back in 2010.
Since the qualifiers were introduced in 2001, six teams have won through the backdoor - Galway in 2001, Tyrone in 2005 and 2008, Kerry in 2006 and 2009 and finally Cork in 2010.

This year though, might well see a return to the old pattern. Mayo and Cork are already in the qualifiers and within weeks two from Donegal, Monaghan and Tyrone will join them. Defeat will undoubtedly sting but those sides - and perhaps Mayo especially - will not have given up dreams of All-Ireland glory just yet.

Balls.ie spoke exclusively to three of the managers to have guided teams through the qualifiers and lift Sam Maguire that September - John O'Mahony with Galway in 2001, Jack O'Connor with Kerry in 2006 and 2009 and Conor Counihan with Cork in 2010.

Here are the approaches each manager took, and their assessment of Mayo's chances through the backdoor.

John O'Mahony (Galway 2001)

O'Mahony won the All-Ireland through the qualifiers the very first year they were introduced. His Galway side got beaten by Roscommon in the Connacht semi-final by four points and O'Mahony admits that the defeat came as something of a bodyblow.

"That day against Roscommon - we didn't play well at all. I had a training schedule ready to give my players straight after that game because I thought we would win it. Afterwards I had to ask myself what I was going to do to lift the players.

"What we did was - we gave the players ten days off because we had three weeks until the next game - and I told the players in the dressing room afterwards that I wouldn't be contacting them for ten days.

"On that particular evening, I remember going back to the players after the ten days. Usually, we'd have been togged 10 or fifteen minutes before training was due to start. But that evening everybody, and I mean everybody, was togged 30 minutes before training.

"We started a simple process of a match, 15-against-15, and after 20 minutes I said to my selectors, 'We'll call this off because they are knocking lumps off each other.' I blew the whistle and we went in and had a meeting where we knocked more lumps off each other. That meeting was absolutely crucial.

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"The players challenged the game-plan and the tactics and we challenged the players' implementation of our tactics. What you do in a meeting like that is you start with the rough stuff and you finish with the more positive stuff. But it got very hot and heavy in there.

"It's easy to look back now and say that it all worked out in the end, but I genuinely didn't know how it was going to go. The first game after you've been beaten - no matter how big the team is - you are going to be very vulnerable. We played Wicklow in Aughrim and we were very vulnerable. As it happened we actually won in the end by nine points but your whole belief systems are cut to the core.

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By the time the All-Ireland final against a Meath team who had hammered Kerry by 2-14 to 0-5 in their semi-final came around, O'Mahony sensed his team would not be beaten, regardless of how impressive Meath had been.

"I knew that we had traveled a journey both physically and mentally - and I had a fair idea that it would take a very good Meath team to beat us. I just couldn't see that happening."

As well as the highs of the qualifiers, O'Mahony has also experienced the lows - a defeat against Longford in 2010 brought his stint as manager of his native Mayo to an end - so he's uniquely placed in terms of advising what not to do as well as what to do.

"I also have experience of when the backdoor didn't work in 2010 when Mayo lost to Longford. That's where I can compare the two reactions. In Galway, leaders stood up in the dressing-room and looked for a collective solution to the issues. They asked serious questions.

"On the other hand in Mayo, we got turned over by Sligo - who beat Galway afterwards so they were quite a good team - but we just weren't at the races. We went up to Longford and got beaten. I'm still convinced to this day that had we won in Longford that day - we'd have gone a long way and gone on a bit of a run because we had most of the players that are still there today when you look at it.

"The backing from the Mayo county board wasn't as strong as I'd have liked. We arrived at our first training [after losing to Sligo] and we weren't told that there was a hurling game on first so our whole plan for warm-ups and that were changed. That was the opposite of what I experienced in Galway.

"Mayo now will be meeting teams that have won a qualifier so they could be vulnerable. Even though Galway won by nine points against Wicklow in the end on our first day - I was worried on the sideline as we were so vulnerable. That's something to look out for."

Jack O'Connor (Kerry 2006 and 2009)

O'Connor is one of two double winners of an All-Ireland through the qualifier route along with Tyrone's Mickey Harte. Perhaps most famously, Kerry's defeat to Cork in Munster in 2006 led to the experiment of playing Kieran Donaghy at full-forward against Longford in the qualifiers - a move that is still paying dividends for Kerry managers today. O'Connor says that the first port of call for any manager in the qualifiers is to adjust their tactics.

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"Obviously the team will need to be re-jigged a bit because the team that was out the last day wasn't good enough. I remember in 2006 against Cork, it was obvious we were going to get beaten with 15 minutes to go - we took a good beating - and I was actually standing there with my selectors saying to them 'lads we need to be looking out there at areas we need to improve.'

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"Our system wasn't functioning and it was down to that that we decided to put Kieran Donaghy in at full-forward.  You can't go back with the same system because it didn't work the first time and it won't work a second time. It gives the players something different to work with too. You need to come back to the players and say 'we are going with a different style of play here' or else they won't buy into it."

O'Connor agrees with John O'Mahony's tactic of calling a meeting where anything goes.

"There probably needs to be an open forum too where everyone throws their tuppence worth on the table because when you come out of it and start afresh, it's important that you bring everybody with you. And the thing is, a run in the qualifiers will leave you with a far happier panel than if you go straight through."

"We've been bemoaning the system for years now but if  you do get going in the qualifiers - you'll have plenty games and that's what the players want. You can use more players as the games come quick and fast - that helps moral in the camp as well. The qualifiers can be a godsend as you can find your best team almost by accident as we did in 2006.

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"In the qualifiers everybody is more alive as you are playing week in and week out. It improves you as a management team because you have more decisions to make and no time to second-guess yourself.

"It's the way managers and players want the bloody thing. You want games and not to be training for five and six weeks at a time. It's well documented that there is more training per field game for Gaelic football than for any game in the world so the qualifiers are a way of beating that.

When it comes to genuine All-Ireland contenders from this year's qualifiers - O'Connor has not written Mayo off quite yet.

"I think there are three or four teams that can win an All-Ireland. I think the other teams have dropped off and maybe even sub-consciously given up.

"I think if the stuff is in Mayo, going to the qualifiers and getting a good run of games could actually help them. What was another Connacht championship going to do for Mayo? They aren't trying to win Connacht Championships - they are trying to win All-Irelands.

"In 2006 after we were beaten by Cork we gathered in the hotel to have a meeting. Seamus Moyhihan said the Munster Championship wasn't our priority this year... the priority was an All-Ireland. So that put the Munster Championship to bed for us and we just got on with it.

"That's what Mayo have to do now and in many ways while this was tough to take, they'll put it behind them and it could be the makings of them."

Conor Counihan (Cork 2010)

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Counihan's Cork side were beaten by Kerry in the Munster semi-final in 2010. Coming into the qualifiers, they faced Cavan and Wexford who they beat handily enough, but then needed extra-time to beat Limerick. They then neat Roscommon and Dublin before beating Down in the final by a point. Counihan admits that even though managers take the glory of winning - there is nothing they can do once the ball is thrown in.

"When you lose a game in the championship you are scratching your head at this stage.  I think it's a collective responsibility. Players win matches at the end of the day. I was talking to someone recently about Mick O'Dwyer as one of the greatest managers the game has ever seen.

"But I remember being at a qualifier game between Cavan and Wicklow in Breffni Park when Micko was in charge of Wicklow and this was in 2010 - the same year that we won it. Things were going great for them. They were eight points up with 20 minutes to go and Cavan had lost the plot.

"They had two men sent off and then lo and behold didn't Cavan win the match. . To me, in a way, it showed me not to be too hard on myself because Wicklow had one of the greatest managers of all time on the sideline and if he couldn't turn it around then nobody could."

"If you haven't got the players who can drive it on when you hit a rocky spot - then you have nothing."

In terms of the qualifiers this year, Counihan admits that serious Mayo have serious questions to answer.

"Mayo are a team who have been through the mill over the last couple of years. You would look at their performance the last day [against Galway] and ask if they were in the right zone. You have to give credit to Galway but you have to ask if Mayo were mentally ready for it.

"I'd be worried for Mayo because when you look at that game they lost against Galway - it wasn't really the young players that won it for Galway. It was the older players who have been around for a while and they never did it before against Mayo so what changed this year?

"That often happens and can often be out of the control of management. A player can get it into his head that "yeah, we should be a good bet for a quarter-final at least" and it's too late to change things then. Mayo have had their wake-up call now so it's up to them."

"After we lost against Kerry, I said to the players: 'we've put too much into this, not just this year but in the last few years to give it up this easy'. We had to show a bit of resilience and show it.

"I told the players they needed to forget about All-Ireland finals at this stage and just take it week by week. Just over one hour's football can get everything back on track. It's do-or-die at this stage and maybe that'll bring out the best in people."

Read more: The Draw For The Next Round Of Football Qualifiers Has Been Made

Paul McNulty
Article written by
Admirer of all things Stephen Ireland. Comparatively lesser interests in Mayo football, horse racing, athletics and boxing.

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