Ciarán Murphy: Talking coherently on TV is no guarantee of managerial success

Kevin McStay is back in intercounty management with his native Mayo, joining his erstwhile RTÉ colleague Colm O’Rourke in swapping the TV studio for the sideline for 2023.

If you were a Meath or Mayo footballer with a vindictive streak then there’s plenty of potentially incriminating tape there for you to review, as both men have been talking about the game and talking about their own counties on RTÉ for many years, but that would surely be emotional energy better spent elsewhere.

For O’Rourke, Meath’s summers have been reasonably short and reasonably brutal recently, and so any criticism that O’Rourke may have doled out to players he’ll now be sharing a dressingroom with, has been off-Broadway to some extent. Mayo is a different story, of course.

The quality of Dublin’s football over the last 10 years may have been exemplary, but it was hardly a gift to television punditry. What can you say about another disciplined, professional Dublin performance?

Mayo, on the other hand, were the gift that kept on giving. People couldn’t get enough of them, and so in print, on radio and primarily of course on television, their performances were pored over, individuals lauded or scapegoated in equal measure, and throwaway remarks from TV personalities are surely stored in the minds of players, and maybe more pertinently their families.

That presents an intriguing question for McStay. He may not know, and maybe he doesn’t or cannot care, about remarks made by him that have stuck in the craw of players now in his charge. But does he try to find that out by degrees, or does he try to lance that potential boil early on?

Another point which makes the appointments of O’Rourke and McStay interesting is that many people thought their chance to manage their native county had passed. And so their punditry never, to their credit, seemed to be funnelled through their own desire to take over a big county.

McStay was, in fact, hauled over the coals by his own people last year for being insufficiently critical of John Small’s challenge on Eoghan McLaughlin, which left McLaughlin with a broken jaw.

He called it as he saw it live (which is to say he was sympathetic towards Small), revised his opinion on The Sunday Game later that weekend, and outlined why he had a change of heart in these pages two days after that. But that still didn’t insulate him from accusations that he was a poor enough county man to be saying such things on live television.

McStay the TV pundit was not for some reason universally loved but what was never in doubt was his authenticity and his sincerity when dealing with Mayo or with any other team, and he certainly never made a habit of speaking with half an eye on how it might play out with the various stakeholders in Mayo football, as the McLaughlin incident obviously showed.

There comes a time in many pundits’ lives, and this is prevalent across all sports, when they pick a lane, and decide that they are going to stay in media and not use it merely to stay visible while they pursue their next coaching position.

It happened with Alan Shearer on the BBC’s football coverage, and his punditry immediately improved out of all recognition. When Shearer made that decision, and started to look on television work as just that — work — as opposed to simply the most effective way to stay in the minds of club chairmen if he fancied being a manager some day, the results were clear.

There are still plenty of examples of talking heads in sports media who are there purely because of the “availability heuristic” — which is basically a way of saying that the people who hire managers and head coaches are idiots, and will remember first and foremost those people who they saw most recently talking coherently about the role they are looking to fill.

Davy Fitzgerald and Micheál Donoghue were also perfectly fine members of The Sunday Game team this year, but it was obvious to me throughout the summer that they had at least one eye on returning to the sidelines in a managerial capacity. And the best way to stay in people’s minds, was to stay on people’s television screens. Both men are, of course, in charge of intercounty teams for next year.

Gary Neville had built up an excellent reputation as a Sky Sports pundit before his brief dalliance with management at Valencia. That looked a big miscalculation when he was sacked after less than four months in the job, and people even speculated that his analysis work would suffer as a result of his failure; that no one would take him seriously after such a disaster.

His subsequent career trajectory would strongly suggest that the Valencia experience has instead informed his punditry and deepened his outlook on the game. But that chastening experience proved that an ability to talk coherently about your chosen sport on television is no guarantee of managerial success, as all our departing Sunday Game pundits may soon discover.


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