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5 challenges facing Kevin McStay as Mayo manager

As ever, Mayo will make fascinating viewing next season.

1. Pressure of job

27 YEARS AFTER he first applied for the position and eight years on from his last attempt to take the reins, Kevin McStay is finally the Mayo manager.

kevin-mcstay McStay is leaving punditry behind once again to take charge of an inter-county side. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

His 2019 autobiography was called The Pressure Game, but he’s about to enter a whole new world of pressure as boss of his native county. There are few jobs in Irish sport as highly scrutinised as the Mayo hot seat.

McStay is well used to the spotlight. His TV role with RTÉ and Irish Times column made him one of the most high-profile pundits in the country. His previous stint with Roscommon left him with no doubts about what inter-county management involves. 

After stepping down as Roscommon manager, he reflected on a “challenging and sometimes exhausting” period of his life. He announced his retirement from inter-county management in his parting statement. 

However, McStay has once again decided to give up the relative comfort of punditry for the lure of one of the top managerial jobs in the country. As was the case for his predecessors, only an All-Ireland title will represent success. 

2. Keeping Keegan on board

One of McStay’s first priorities will be ensuring he retains the services of Lee Keegan for 2023. The Westport defender was one of Mayo’s best players this year and he remains a vital cog in the Mayo team.

lee-keegan-and-robert-finnerty Mayo’s Lee Keegan and Robert Finnerty of Galway. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Keegan’s man-marking, ability to break forward and leadership qualities make him an indispensable asset. Speaking last month, he said “there will be a lot of hard reflection over the next few months to see where I am personally.” 

There will also be speculation around the future of Aidan O’Shea, although McStay is likely to keep him on board. O’Shea remains a useful player for Mayo. Even if his status as a certain starter is no more, he is a positive influence around the group and still capable of making an impact on the field. Identifying the best role to employ him will be important.

3. Managing injuries

James Horan was desperately unlucky to lose Tommy Conroy to a season-ending cruciate injury in February before Ryan O’Donoghue went down with a groin problem in the summer. In addition, Cillian O’Connor didn’t look back to his best following his layoff from a torn Achilles. 

Much of Mayo’s Sam Maguire ambitions depend on having that trio fully firing in the championship. Their workload must be managed next season and a winter of doing the proper prehab work is essential to give them the best chance of staying fit. 

Another decision to be made surrounds free-taking duties. O’Connor’s record speaks for itself, but O’Donoghue took up the mantle impressively in his absence during the league and thrived with the extra responsibility. 

tommy-conroy-with-eoghan-ban-gallagher Keeping Conroy fit is vital for Mayo. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

4. Fending off Galway

In an interview with the Irish Times, McStay indicated that Mayo’s focus would be on using the Connacht championship as a platform for their assault on the All-Ireland. 

“We weren’t in the Connacht final this year and that’s where we have to begin,” he said. “I’ve always argued that the provincial championship is the best base camp for Mayo going into the All-Ireland. James Horan’s teams became dominant in the province and then started to appear regularly in All-Irelands.”

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With the round-robin format coming into the Sam Maguire competition next season, the provincial championships will be of less importance. However, given Galway’s emergence as a force this year, McStay will be determined to re-establish the upper hand in that rivalry.

5. Managing his star-studded backroom team

McStay has surrounded himself with an army of coaches who have a wealth of experience managing top tier counties. It’s likely he’ll oversee the operation with the military-like precision he learned through his career in the army. 

Dividing coaching responsibilities between Stephen Rochford, Donie Buckley, Liam McHale and Damien Mulligan will be an important part of McStay’s job. Rochford is tactically acute and, by all accounts, a brilliant coach.

Buckley made his reputation in teaching proper pressing and tackling, but there’s plenty more to the Kerry native than that. McHale will bring intelligent coaching and insights from basketball, while Damien Mulligan adds freshness and extensive knowledge of the club season. 

McStay is fortunate that he doesn’t have a transition to deal with as such, given how Horan blooded O’Donoghue, Conroy, Oisin Mullin, Eoghan McLaughlin, Jordan Flynn, Matthew Ruane and Enda Hession during his second stint. 

How that crew react to the level of coaching they’re about to receive will be another intriguing factor of the season ahead. 

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Kevin O'Brien

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