Joe Kernan: Shoot-out in the last chance saloon
The punishing demands of inter-county team management will be felt more than ever by three Ulster bosses this weekend — and none of them will set a foot inside the province.
Kieran McGeeney (Kildare), Seamus McEnaney (Meath) and Justin McNulty (Laois) face massive assignments, the outcome of which could have a decided bearing on their respective futures.
McGeeney is the managerial old hand since he is in his fifth year in charge of Kildare but the level of expectation within that county is high — very high.
A Leinster title should it be delivered will be dutifully accepted but will do little to sate the craving for the Sam Maguire Cup which has been so much in evidence within this football-mad county lately.
As fate would have it, McGeeney goes head-to-head with McEnaney at Croke Park on Sunday where their respective teams will be bidding to reach the Leinster final in which they would meet either Wexford or Dublin.
And for McEnaney, the memory of the corresponding match last year is still all too vivid.
His side lost by 0-16 to 0-10 to the Lily Whites on that occasion, thus making it a dismal first season for him at the helm of operations.
If anyone is still in any doubt that managing a county team is not a pressure-cooker existence, then I would ask them to reflect on the performance of Eamon O’Brien, McEnaney’s predecessor in the Meath post.
He delivered a Leinster title in 2010, albeit in somewhat controversial circumstances at Louth’s expense, but a Leinster title all the same.
In doing so, Meath beat Dublin by a whopping 5-9 to 0-13 in the semi-final having despatched
Laois after a quarter-final replay. If that is not doing it the hard way then I don’t know what is.
And what was O’Brien’s reward for his endeavours with his native county? The sack.
The Meath board, clearly convinced that their team was good enough to win the All Ireland title, disposed of O’Brien and brought in McEnaney.
Just a matter of weeks ago, the Monaghan man had the dubious distinction of taking Meath into Division Three of the National League — alien territory for a county that won All-Ireland titles in 1987, 1988, 1996 and 1999.
Their dismal league run came to a depressing conclusion although like a lot of other managers, McEnaney had to struggle with injury problems during the course of the competition.
The reality now is that McEnaney is under huge pressure to mastermind a win over Kildare on Sunday and that’s far from a straightforward task given the Lily Whites’ bubbly form so far this year.
McGeeney will have them fired up for this one, you can be sure of that.
There are murmurings within GAA circles that this could be Kildare’s year in terms of landing ‘Sam’ but the claims of Dublin, Cork and Kerry — and dare I say it Donegal — have nonetheless to be taken on board. Should Kildare win on Sunday — and they are strong favourites — then the Meath county board is certain to take stock of just where they will go from here.
There has been friction and rancour within the county in recent months which culminated at one stage in a no-confidence vote in McEnaney at a meeting but he still managed to retain his post despite this.
Defeat on Sunday would not, however, do his status or reputation any good.
Similarly, Justin McNulty is under fire in Laois following his team’s exit from the Leinster Championship at the hands of Longford.
McNulty has since amended his side but when they face Carlow on Monday night this will be anything but a neighbourly contest.
Laois simply must win this one if McNulty is to stay in charge — they cannot afford a further slip-up.
McNulty was an outstanding player with Armagh when they won the All-Ireland title in 2002 and his qualities as a tactician and motivator are sound.
But he is entrusted with getting the best out of a Laois side that has undergone a transition lately and this is certainly not proving easy.
Yet there can be a thin line dividing success and failure in the championship series. Should Laois hurdle Carlow, there is every chance that they could become revitalised and perhaps make further progress through the qualifiers.
And should Meath upset Kildare, their recent failings may not quite carry the same level of gravity in the eyes of their frustrated supporters who spent their most disappointing winter on record.
While it reflects greatly on Ulster football to have managers in charge of counties in other provinces, it is also important that these bosses are enjoying a degree of success.
Patience is not a virtue which is shared by county boards and fans as the clamour for glory continues to grow.
Like many other people, I follow the fortunes of Ulster’s ‘exiled’ managers closely, aware that they are proving worthy ambassadors for our province.
It is my sincere wish that they all achieve a level of success over the course of the coming weeks.
The reality now is that McEnaney is under huge pressure to mastermind a win over Kildare...