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Former Mayo manager unimpressed by modern game

Sean Rice

Seán Rice

HE’S back home. Back in the West of Ireland, having resided for twenty years in San Diego. Although reared in the football cauldron of his native Galway, Liam O’Neill’s impact on the game was greatest in Mayo, the county of his adoption. Thirty years on and his footprints on Mayo football still endure.
As a player O’Neill was a rarity. He came to work in Mayo when the county’s standard was at its lowest ebb. On the football field he drove himself like no other, trained like no other, thought like no other. Footballers viewed him as a virtual freak of nature, the man who set parameters that only he could reach.
In the eighties he was the driving force of Knockmore’s pre-eminence and with them he won five county senior medals. He helped Castlebar Mitchels to a brace of senior titles earlier, and Knockmore and Swinford to county intermediate success. He even coached Mayo to an over forties All-Ireland win in 1992.
To some small degree his success in Mayo compensated for his disappointments with Galway in three All-Ireland defeats.
The standards he championed were the standards he put in place when out of desperation he was asked to haul Mayo football off the floor. Kerry had beaten them by sixteen points in the semi-final of 1981, and the following year they suffered a similar hiding from Galway in the Connacht final.
Even for a man of O’Neill’s stature the task of restoring pride to Mayo football was challenging. Spirit was on the rocks. Physical training alone would not excise the apathy rooted in their psyche.
Through trials he filtered the best of the potential available. He laid down strict physical targets to be reached and he let it be known to those who baulked that if they wanted victory badly enough those were the values to be achieved.
Reassembling fragmented confidence was slow and painful. But in drawing with Dublin in the semi-final of 1985 certain steel in their character had become evident. At last Mayo were rising from their dark, desolate abyss in Connacht. On the foundation set by the Galway man, John O’Mahony led Mayo in 1989 to their first All-Ireland final in 38 years.
In San Diego, O’Neill picked up where he left off in Mayo, winning four senior championships with North America. Employed by the GAA as games development administrator for the North American Board, he tutored coaches.
In the process he urged the coaches to develop in their students not only the basic skills but also self reliance on the field of play, the confidence to take ownership of their own game, to make decisions without always looking over their shoulder for advice from their coach.
Back in Ireland he is not impressed with the way the game has developed, irked that steps have not been taken to curb the blatant transgression of rules.
“The football field is a sacred place,” he said. “Only the players of the competing teams, the referee and umpires should be allowed onto the pitch. It should not be encroached by team mentors or runners or others.”
He counted seven attendants on the field at the same time during the Tyrone/Monaghan match. “In fact I saw one mentor in confrontation with a player on the field. Only those called in by the referee when a player is injured should be allowed onto the pitch.”
The rule is there and it should be implemented, he said. “You can tell by the body language, who is faking or not. It is up to the referee to evaluate the severity of the injury and make a judgment call.”
He is startled at the deterioration of the game. “The new culture of all-out defence, the amount of diving and faking of injury that has been allowed infiltrate our games is turning neutrals away,” he says.
“Similar practices are creeping into our club games, and all of it is stemming from the example set by the top county sides. We have a lovely product but it is being contaminated.
“People will not continue to pay money to watch the theatrics to which the game has been reduced, watching 13 and 14 players behind the ball, some faking injury and unauthorised officials pouring onto the pitch.
“Once upon a time you would be afraid to face your coach if you feigned injury. Straight away the manager had you hauled off the pitch.”

In the Tyrone/Monaghan semi-final he counted 57 stoppages, each lasting about 90 seconds. It included the issue of cards, frees, injuries etc. “It ruined the continuity of the play. It’s not football anymore. It’s being manipulated.”
He said the game had also drifted away from the skilled use of the foot pass. The hand pass had become almost the principle means of delivery.
“I have come across a footballer in consecutive club and county matches, who did not kick the ball once in either game. Not once in either of the two games. Every ball was passed by hand.
“Catching and kicking are the fundamentals of Gaelic football. You have to perfect the basics. It’s like chipping and putting in golf. They are the essentials. That¹s where the game is won or lost.”
Now living in Galway, O’Neill said the strength and conditioning procedures had improved enormously in football, and players were fitter and faster now. But that did not make the game any more attractive.
He noted in one match a runner came in and out of the pitch forty times during the seventy minutes handing out instructions to players. That should be left to team captains and leaders.
Players, he said, should be able to make decisions on the field without recourse to their coaches. They have got to think for themselves, learn how to take on that responsibility, find solutions to problems that crop up during play.
He felt that Mayo players were at last beginning to make decisions for themselves on the field, beginning to play with confidence without having to look to the sideline to see if they were doing the right thing or what to do next.
He would restrict the hand pass. Ban it from being played back over a team’s own ‘45. It would encourage more use of the foot pass. Players should play with more abandon. There is no need for short dinky passes. That is not a skill.”
He liked the way Mayo went about achieving victory against Donegal. They exploited Donegal’s weakness, he said. “They have improved incrementally over the past five years. They have been through a lot and are playing with confidence. They know enough now and have reached the stage to start winning. I think this could be their year.”

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