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McEntee is starting to make a mark on Mayo

McConville and Kernan can see old pal's influence ahead of glory bid

By Declan Bogue

Published 17/09/2016

At the helm: Stephen Rochford and Tony McEntee will lead Mayo into the All-Ireland final against Dublin
At the helm: Stephen Rochford and Tony McEntee will lead Mayo into the All-Ireland final against Dublin

Tony Mac? Oisin McConville considers the one line that might sum up his lifelong friend, team-mate and, for a spell, manager. Tony McEntee.

What's the one quality that sets the Mayo selector and All-Ireland winner with Armagh apart?

"Well, you would never die wondering what he was thinking, put it like that," McConville deadpans, alluding to McEntee's straightforward means of communication.

There is an old Tony Mac yarn revolving around one time the Armagh panel held a meeting. Each player was to say one negative and one positive thing to the player beside them.

The room hushed as truths were laid bare. But there was astonishment as McEntee turned to another player and said baldly: "I just don't think you're county standard."

A show-stopper? It's nothing personal.

Even with that in mind, McConville was still surprised by how swift the transition was when Tony became his manager, and not team-mate, at Crossmaglen.

"The first time you came up, you just knew it was different," he reflects. "I just knew our relationship had changed and he was the manager. I did what I was told.

"It didn't matter how many years we had played together, the amount of time we spent in the square in the town kicking the ball to each other. None of it mattered. It all paled into insignificance."

He knew that was the deal, and that while Tony would largely leave him to his own devices, there would be times he had to reel him in too.

"I knew that had to be the way, but you might expect a bedding-in period, maybe even a honeymoon period. But with him it was instant," he says.

As a player, McEntee suffered the curse of versatility. Employed here, there and everywhere in fire-fighting missions, he did not start the 2002 All-Ireland final, but his contribution when introduced was vital, maintains then-manager Joe Kernan.

"Tony was our sticking plaster and unfortunately it probably didn't do him any favours that he played in so many positions. But you could play Tony from full-back to full-forward," Kernan emphasises.

"When he came on in the All-Ireland final, he probably touched the ball four or five times. Most people would have dived and fell on top of balls, but Tony toe-poked, palmed and made the little touches to an Armagh man. He simplified everything."

In a dressing room full of future managers, Kernan had him earmarked.

"Tony was one of the leaders - maybe one of the quiet leaders as he wouldn't have been one for shouting," he says. "Until you go into management you don't know what you are going to get. What he brought to the table with Cross was simplicity but with 100% endeavour."

Earlier this year, Joe's son Aaron - who Tony managed to two All-Ireland club titles - wasn't convinced about Mayo. Recounting a conversation they had by text and his misgivings about their form, he said: "His reply was that, with new management and new ideas, it was always going to take time for all parties to adapt and trust each other".

That is borne out, perhaps, in the tweaks and changes the elder Kernan has noticed with Mayo as the summer has gone on - such as quicker delivery to the inside forward line.

Drawing comparisons to the Cross team that McEntee and Gareth O'Neill managed, Kernan recalls: "Their team perfected the kick pass; the movement, the space, along with that work ethic.

"You can see a wee bit of his influence now coming in with Mayo. Andy Moran, one that people wrote off two or three years ago, is having the season of his life because he is getting good ball in. That's the type of stuff Tony brings. Simplify the game, you move it early and support and work hard."

Then he adds something unexpected. He says: "I was talking to him last week and I asked him, 'well, what will you do next year?'

"He said, 'Joe, do you know what, I might go back to help the under-6s or the under-8s'.

"He is in an All-Ireland final this week. On the crest of a wave, but I think he would be just as happy with the under-age next year. I think that epitomises the humility of the man."

For outsiders, McEntee accepting Stephen Rochford's invitation to join Mayo was an odd one. He had been on the cusp of taking over Down the year before only for a breakdown in communication.

But since he took the role, the suspicion grew that he was there as the winner, the man who had done it all.

McConville says: "The more I hear that, the more I think that's rubbish.

"Yes, if you are doing the right things and you are saying the right things, but there comes a time when boys will question you. Just because you have won something doesn't make you good in the changing room, doesn't make you good in the training pitch or anything like that."

Then again, McEntee has never had a problem backing himself up.

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