By Anthony Hennigan
23 weekends. That’s how long the wait between the time of Kevin McStay’s appointment as manager of the Mayo senior footballers on August 22 last and his new team’s first game of the 2023 National Football League. Already his workload is “outrageous”; we know that much because the man himself said so last Tuesday night when he met the press – local and national – at Hastings Insurance MacHale Park for the first time since his annointing as Mayo County Board’s preferred successor to James Horan.
Flanked by Stephen Rochford and Damien Mulligan, two members of an extensive backroom team to which further appointments remain to be made, the Ballina native spoke extensively about the work he has, is and will be undertaking in advance of assembling a squad that, he stressed, will need to hit the ground running if wanting to leave an imprint on the coming season.
Announcing Rochford as his assistant manager and coach, and explaining that Donie Buckley will coordinate all coaching, Kevin McStay also revealed additional responsibilities for his other coaches and selectors Damien Mulligan and Liam McHale. Mulligan will serve as club liaison and McHale is liaison to the Mayo U20 team.
Dr Sean Moffatt and his assistant Dr Lisa Cunningham head the medical team, Garrett Coughlan remains lead physio and a new position as Head of Athletic Performance has been created for Conor Finn, with his previous strength and conditioning role yet to be filled. Former Mayo senior footballer Evan Regan is team nutritionist, Niamh Fitzpatrick, who worked with the Mayo team during the tenure of Stephen Rochford, joins as psychologist, with responsibility for logistics and communications falling to Sean Finnegan and Liam Horan respectively. As well as in the area of S&C, Kevin McStay intends to appoint both a performance analyst and goalkeeper coach.
Beginning with his motivation for applying yet again to finally become manager of Mayo, discussing the interview process and his emotions, aspirations and expectations now that he has the job, the 60-year-old retired Irish Army lieutenant colonel fielded an array of questions from a roomful of media who seemed fascinated to know if sat before them was the man who might oversee something Mayo have been unable to achieve since 1951. Just don’t expect McStay himself to engage in any talk about All-Irelands.
The following is an entire transcript.
KM: I think there was if I’m truthful. When you’re tired and you’re beat and when you want a bit of time to recover… I suppose you should never say never, should you? But there was only one appointment that would have changed that and it was my own county and thankfully it has come to pass. It was a big competition and we just feel very privileged, very honoured to get the green light to manage Mayo football for the next four years and we’re certainly very focused on that now and really going to give it our best shot.
KM: Very quickly. I had some people in mind on a page, particularly this man (Stephen Rochford) to my left. I teased a lot through a third party and got a sense that yeah, this could happen. I had a list of backroom guys I wanted to have with me and there wasn’t a Plan B on that list. Once he said yes, and a few more joined the team, we were all in. That was very quickly, perhaps within two weeks, and then we immediately started focusing on getting ready for the interview because we rightly anticipated it was going to be a very rigorous process. I want to commend Seamus (Tuohy) and the board for that, they put together a serious interview group. I’ve done a few military promotion interviews that I thought were tricky and difficult but this was just short of two hours, so it was a very rigorous process. And signs were on it; when you look at the calibre of candidates up against our plans, very high calibre, and the teams that they brought to it, I think it’s a great marker for Mayo GAA that we could get that calibre of competition going for the position. I think that can only be good for Mayo football. Lots of those guys in the backroom teams have already gone into other counties and I think that can only be good for Mayo. They will come back to the fold in the future, I’ve no doubt about that.
KM: No, because I was very much aware that there was a process agreed by the previous chair and the current chair and that there was a methodology. And I had seen that in action with some of the other age groups, the 20s, 17s, they had used that template. So it was always going to be a very upfront and transparent process and in fairness, it absolutely was. Some of ye might have had comment on the length of time it took but there were reasons. We, the candidates, were kept very well informed of the timelines, when we’d be called and so on. It was nerve-wracking though, it was a hard wait, but it’s been worth it.
KM: Yes, being honest. I’m 60 now, I had a few goes at it, and I had no sense that there was going to be a vacancy. I thought James would stay on for another year or two. He was doing really good work; okay, they had a season he would have wanted a bit more out of perhaps, but he was doing a lot of transition with young players, the squad was getting strong again. You know, Mayo lost two games in the championship, to Galway and Kerry, so it’s not like they are out in the desert wandering around, there’s still a very strong group there. So I didn’t see a vacancy and I was kind of moving on with things. But once it came, it’s my county, it’s where I’m born, it has a massive attraction for me as a person because I always felt I could bring something to it. I didn’t want the job just to say that I was the Mayo manager, I want the job because I feel that I have a lot to contribute, I feel I can make a difference. And the guys I’ve got around me, that’s why we’re in it, we really feel we will make a difference, we couldn’t be in front of you otherwise. [If we do] remains to be seen, I can’t tell the future, but what I do know is that we are going to dedicate a large portion of our lives to giving this a massive shot.
KM: It would be an easy piece of symmetry but no, not really, because club football and inter-county football, you can’t compare them. The inter-county game is just so different.
KM: Collaboration I’d say. That’s the way I’m going to go about it. I’d be daft not to be using the sort of experience and know-how and knowledge that’s around me. I feel we’ve been able to get a very strong group into the room at the same time to drive this on for the next for your years. There’s huge experience there. Stephen has had a marvellous experience at club and with Mayo. Wouldn’t I be daft not to be using that sort of knowledge? And Donie and Liam and Damien are going to chip in. It’s a matter of facilitating all the guys in the room and figuring out what’s the best plan for us. I’m using the analogy of a jigsaw and that’s what it’s going to be; figuring out the pieces, who has the key insight into what it is we want to do, and I know there’s enough know-how and knowledge in that room that we’ll figure out most things, I think.
KM: No, there couldn’t be a demarcation line. Donie will obviously lead the coaching side of it but Stephen, Damien, Liam are outstanding coaches in their own right so they’ll pop up, whether it’s defensive work that we are doing, or midfield. I mean the game itself is multi-faceted so the coaching will be multi-faceted. If one or two of the coaches have a particular leaning towards some aspect of the game, then of course I’m going to delegate that and pump that for all it’s worth. It’s going to be a collaboration but I will be trying to facilitate all aspects in as much as I can. The characters are strong enough to mark where they want to go with this and yet their understanding of the way the group has to work, it won’t be an issue.
KM: Something I just wouldn’t be interested in setting are goals… but I will give you these. I want to have a really strong pre-season. We’ve met a few times now, the full management group, and we’re very keen to put in place the ability, the facilities, to have a really strong pre-season because we think that this new season, nobody has lived through ahead of us. Having a strong pre-season will set you up very well for it. After that, it really is about hitting the National League date at the end of January in the best shape we can from the pre-season and then game by game by game, because there is no time to breathe in this new season. We reckon there’s twenty games if you’re going to get to the end of the road and there’s about 26 or 28 weeks to do it, so it’s game on game. So you can see now why the pre-season is our focus. Build out the backroom team, finish that off, draft a panel, go to the club games, tidy up the panel, get ready for the pre-season, get through that, bang – hit the National League. That’s our only focus at the minute. Game by game. Cliches sometimes are true!
KM: Yes, we’ve communicated with all the players from last year’s panel. It’s one of the lovely parts of my life where I’m essentially retired now, I’ve time to give to this. I’ve a good run at September, October, November, meeting players, getting to know players, building up small baby steps in relationships with them. That’s ongoing and I’ll get to as many as I possibly can over the next six or eight weeks. I’m looking forward to that.
KM: The Roscommon experience was fantastic for me and I’m so glad I had that experience, the highs and lows, which are going to be with any inter-county position. But am I a better manager as a result of it? 100%. I’m going to be a better manager next week and a better manager next month because I’m learning stuff and picking up bits and pieces all the time, especially around the group I’m in. That whole period with Roscommon I see as nothing but beneficial because I met so many challenges head on and it was a great time. I’ve no doubt I will be leaning on those experiences over the next four years as well.
KM: Every county sets out to win the All-Ireland, or 16 of us do in 2023, and we know there’s pressure. But two things I keep on saying to the boys, this will either work out or it won’t work out, so what’s the point killing ourselves sweating everything in between it? What we want is effort and focus to be ready for the challenges. That’s the big part I see, because none of us have ever lived [the new format]. Our pre-season now gets huge focus, putting the panel together, these National League games now are big, big games and we have to be ready for them and please God we will.
KM: In the first instance, to get into our group will require very high standards in everything you do, in the way you go about your business. Obviously we’re looking for guys with real character, probably first and foremost. Talent will be important but it won’t be key. The desire to live the life of a Mayo footballer and do the things that are required to keep us really, really relevant will be the main thing.
Regards the football, I can give you a sense of what I feel it would look like but then we’re up playing against an opposition that has a packed defence so it’s not going to look like what I think it looks like. The opposition will be a major aspect of how we set up but all things being equal, we feel there is a Mayo style of play. We would certainly be looking for high skill levels, athleticism, we would have a preference for foot yet totally understand that if you can’t get the foot-pass in you have to have quick hands and that will be required. But getting the ball out of defence very quickly, getting it up the field very quickly to where we have the chance to create opportunities and scores; that’s a very simple outline but that’s what it is, trying to get the balance right between our defence and our forward line.
While people will probably like to zone in on our forward play, we have to have our defence absolutely rock solid. That’s going to be the keystone of everything we do; we can’t win championship games if that balance is wrong so that will be important to us. But again, it’s a jigsaw, it’s multi-faceted and this is the challenge and where we have a great opportunity with the people that are in the coaching group. They have a lot of experience of how to try and get this balance right.
KM: I think it’s almost unfair – but I understand it. It won’t be something that will overly bother us. We understand the reality but you must also understand the reality of the football level we are playing at which is it that it can only be game by game. We couldn’t possibly be putting targets there for down the summer when I haven’t even put a panel together. I have so much on the things-to-do list and that the boys have to get stuck into yet. The idea that we’d have a big target, that’s not any way I’d go about it, I don’t think it’s healthy. I think it’s much better to be the best you can be every match that comes up and see where that brings you. But, of course, preparing all the time for the challenges as they grow; that’s what this season will be all about.
KM: I’m not going to go there. I’d love to win the FBD now and see where we’re going.
KM: Because it’s half a madness, it’s half a disease. We think we can make a difference, we feel we can, and that was the lure of managing Mayo for me personally. It wasn’t to tick a box. It was the idea that I could bring something different that might make a difference. I don’t know if it will or not, we have to wait and see. But the first measure I’m going to have of how we’re doing as a management team is did we get everything right for our pre-season; have we the right people in the right places; have we built out our backroom team; are we really pushing hard now as we push towards the end of December; are we ready to hit the ground running in January. They’re the sorts of measurements and goals that I have. Of course I see the first round of the National League looming out there, I just can’t wait to see the draws and see where we are and where we’re travelling to. Everything else then is, you prepare hard, the opportunity arises, can you grab that opportunity. That’s the space I want all of us to be in. That if the ball bounces for us here today, no matter what the game is, we’ve worked hard and we can turn this into a real opportunity. That’s where we’re going with it.
KM: It is a challenge to get that right. Stephen has been working on that side of the house, the S&C side, trying to understand where we need to start from if our key focus is January 29, working back from that date. We feel we can get the time in. We’re just waiting to get dates now from Croke Park about when the gate opens (when inter-county training can resume) and get cracking at it. You won’t be winning anything major in that pre-season but if you don’t get it right you could lose some major things in the pre-season because the season is almost week on week on week – that’s the nature of these new competitions that are in front of us. And there will be very few building blocks from January 1; when the ball is thrown in, you get an injury in that period and it’s going to be difficult. If you don’t come into the season fit and in good shape, it’s going to be hard to find the time to get right.
KM: Mayo have had big squads over the years. We have numbers in our heads that we want to work towards. We want to keep the numbers as low as possible for the sense of a standard, that to get into the group will be difficult. But of course, the squad must be very consistent right across, that the guy who is number 29 or 30 can jump into a big National League or championship match and contribute. That’s another massive challenge to build that out.
KM: We’ve agreed with the board and with the U20s that we will certainly be looking very strongly and very seriously at what talent they have and getting them ready to play for Mayo into the future. We’re kicking rocks and turning them up, anything we can find that can improve our chance of winning a game we’re after it.
KM: We as a management group see it as very significant. We’re thrilled that Niamh (Fitzpatrick) has agreed to come on board with us. She’s a very high calibre person, an expert in her field. She’s been the psychologist to three Irish Olympic teams, the ’96 Wexford team and so on, and she’s worked with Mayo previously in Stephen’s time. I know the players, when they meet her, and from talking to some of them also, they’ll be delighted. We’re very excited to have her on board, she’s just a high class lady and a great addition to what we want to do. It emphasises and underlines, I hope, to the players and to our supporters, that we’ve worked really diligently as a group, Stephen in particular – he has been an incredible help to me in the last five or six weeks building out all the different aspects of it. The idea that we could get Niamh on board, I think it’s going to be a very significant part of what we do in 2023 and I’m really looking forward to working very closely with her and I think the players will too.
KM: It’s not causing me any issues. Punditry, I certainly set out to do it as fairly as I possibly could. I certainly never tried to be personal. But my job was to critique games, to examine games, to analyse games. I did that to my very best ability, as you guys will analyse me and analyse our teams and that’s fine. But I hope I never played the man so in that respect I don’t think it’s an issue.
KM: I can assure you that working on Mayo people to get them up and out to matches doesn’t take much work at all. Mayo people are just fabulous supporters and I can go back 40 years to my own experience. They’d follow us no matter what’s going on. They have a passion for the game, they are very passionate about all their teams, but in particular the flagship team, the senior team. So we’re looking forward to seeing them out in their droves when it comes to National League time, I’m sure they’re going to be curious about what we’re doing – and I see that as only good.
KM: That all makes sense to me. Kerry are champions in the country and Galway are champions in the province – and a target for any of us living in Connacht – but we feel we’ll be competitive against all the teams. I outlined that our two championship defeats were to Galway and Kerry who ended up in the final, so we’re in that space of top six, top eight, top four. But it doesn’t matter what number you put on it, our challenge is to be massively competitive. The nature of the Connacht championship, when the neighbours face up to each other, it doesn’t really matter where you are, there’s always a possibility of you beating them on any given day. I think Roscommon, Galway, Mayo in particular, show that. They’re going to be in the pot and that’s going to liven it up immediately. But we’re not targeting anybody, we’re targeting ourselves. Get ourselves right. I can’t be worrying about what’s going on in Galway until we meet that challenge. Our challenge is how are we doing? Are we doing things well? Are we doing things to the high standards that we’re going to insist upon? Are we going in the right direction? And then the results will be the metric, I fully understand that. We’re all around the game a long time to know everything is grand when the wins are out there, so that’s the target – to win games. We’ll take that one by one and see where that gets us.
KM: It’s very, very important and we’ll place a high priority on it. We’ve appointed Liam Horan to that position, that’s how significant we see it. Mayo are a very interesting story for everybody and I understand that, but from our side we want our messages to be coordinated, consistent, we don’t want ambiguities or doubts around it. So we’re always aiming to give a correct, consistent, solid message. Of course we want good media relations, we see the general media as the conjugate to our supporters, that’s how we talk to our supporters. And of course we want to keep their sense of involvement because they own the senior team, we’re just managing it for the people of Mayo. We definitely want them to feel very involved in what it is we’re trying to do. Now, we can’t tell them the formations and the team, even though I’ve got about six letters already picking the team! I got another letter that went through James’ whole panel of 41 or 43 players and told me who I should keep and who I shouldn’t keep. But that aside, the communication is very important. In this modern world everything is instant and we have to embrace that. We know what we want to do in terms of meeting you guys and giving you the bits of information we can give you, and you have to understand that it works the other way as well. We’re all pretty experienced at this stage and the hope is that we’ll get it pretty right.
KM: Mayo have an excellent medical situation in place and in fairness to the board it’s not an area they have ever neglected. We’re very, very happy with the level of expertise we have around the place. The E.R. is not full of bodies or anything like that, the health check for us is decent and the expectation is that they will all be part of a rigorous pre-season. That’s our hope.
KM: It is very important but I could say it’s vital and then we’re beat in the first round in January and then what does it mean then? But it is something we talk about. We’ve a fabulous new stadium. I got a tour around the place from the staff, I was out on the pitch, and we really have a stadium to be proud of. That’s the positive side that I want to take from the stadium; a beautiful new surface, the dressing-room areas, the warm-up areas – this is a class stadium. We’d love to make it a fortress and we’re saying we’re doing it but lose your first National League match and that’s that plan up in smoke. But it’s on our minds to make this a difficult place to come to because we will have championship games at home, please God. If we get the performances right, then this does become a difficult place because we know we’re going to have big support here. We’re going to have a raucous enough 10,000 bodies in here supporting Mayo every National League match, so that’s a big positive.
KM: Honest to God I am. The workload is outrageous but I’ve the time to give it. Myself, my wife, my family, we agreed I would dedicate the next four years of my life to this challenge so I have the space to do it. It’s lovely going to the matches, we have great championships here in Mayo, but not only that, I haven’t been down at these games for 20 or 30 years perhaps and the venues are fabulous. The competition is serious and there are plenty of good footballers around the place. I’m meeting people and they’re very positive and very nice and courteous to me but I know that when the ball is in on January 29 all that changes fairly quickly too. So you won’t blame me if I continue to enjoy the honeymoon for another little while.