A MOMENT IN TIME Then Mayo manager Mike Solan celebrates with the cup in the dressing room after the 2016 All-Ireland U-21 Football Championship Final at Cusack Park, Ennis. Pic: Sportsfile
Mike Solan reflects on five years managing Mayo teams
HE was always able to strike a balance between being their manager and their friend.
That’s one of the compliments you hear most from young players who served under Mike Solan. Many of the Mayo Under-21s and Under-20s who were in his squads say the Ballaghaderreen native was able to find a balance between being an authoritarian and being a confidante.
It’s why they hold Solan in such high regard and probably why the 38 year-old enjoyed some great days during his five years managing Mayo under-age teams.
He announced his decision to step down as the county Under-20 boss back in October.
Solan was young and ambitious when he succeeded Niall Heffernan ahead of the 2016 Under-21 season. Resilient and steely in mindset too, given that he would have been fully aware that he was taking charge of a group that had won an All-Ireland Minor title three years earlier. So nothing less than silverware would have been considered a success.
An All-Ireland Under-21 crown in his first term duly ticked that box.
Mike Solan’s approach to management was heavily influenced by his own footballing career; one that was cut short by injury and left him with the desire to ensure every player he worked with reached their full potential, or close to it.
“In my own football career, it probably suffered with a few injuries,” he told The Mayo News recently. “So you were always hoping that you could provide a really positive environment for young lads to work in.
“That’s because they have enough pressures outside of football, with college or whatever else is going on in their lives. We wanted to make sure that when they came into play football you wanted to make it enjoyable for them, because to me it was an honour and a privilege and not everyone gets to do it.
“We wanted them to love ever minute of coming in and being there, and we felt that if they did that, if we provided that environment for them, it gave them the best chance to perform to the best of their ability.
“There’s bumps on the road too, up and downs for every management team and playing group, but our philosophy was that we wanted to have a group of lads looked after well and prepared well so that when they finish, ultimately they’re ready to play senior football.”
Managing young, talented and equally busy footballers is not the easiest job in a world where so many external pressures and distractions exist.
That’s why Mike Solan placed a huge emphasis on preparing his players mentally as well as physically, and that’s where his good friend (and fellow Ballaghaderreen man), John Ginty, came in.
Ginty was always lauded for his sports psychology influence on those teams.
“Social media became a much bigger part of people’s lives when I first got the job,” recalled Mike Solan. “I can remember back in 2016, the Cork [U-21] goalkeeper Anthony Casey got a lot of stick on social media [after the final defeat to Mayo] and that element became way more prevalent in people’s lives.
“It was in their pockets and on their phones, which was with them all the time, so it was something that we had to be aware of and had to advise the lads on, but to be fair they were mature and sensible on that front.
“We had great fellas in there, the likes of John Ginty did a huge amount of work with the lads on the psychology side of things and it was a big influence on the group. You were hoping to look after the players in every way you could, on and off the field.
“But definitely the social media side of things has become a factor for everybody that has played sport at that level. Over the last five or six years it has certainly become something you have to be wary of.”
A national school principal by profession, Solan exudes humility but, when asked to reflect on his favourite part of his five-year stint with Mayo, you might expect him to say that famous All-Ireland Final day in Ennis in 2016, or the Connacht Final in Hyde Park in 2019?
Instead he cites ‘the ‘bit of craic’ during and after training and the ‘lads you get to work with so closely’ along with the hustle and bustle of match preparation.
Watching Galway win the All-Ireland Under-20 Final at Croke Park last Saturday week couldn’t have been easy for him. Few can forget their penalty shoot-out victory over Mayo in Castlebar on an atrocious day in February.
Solan admitted that the ‘temptation was there’ to stay on in charge after the ‘frustrating circumstances’ in which Mayo had exited the Connacht championship on penalties in their first game in what he described as ‘horrendous conditions’.
On the other hand, Mike Solan would have been quietly proud watching the recent All-Ireland Senior Final, particularly as he felt it was the Under-21 management’s sole job to ensure as many of the the players he coached as possible made the transition to senior.
For the record, eight of Mayo’s starting XV against Dublin played under Solan at one stage or another while three others who appeared off the bench too.
It’s not a bad legacy.
“It’s lovely to see those lads involved [with the senior team] on a personal level,” he admitted. “Because you know how good those lads are and how hard they work to get to that point. It’s very pleasing from that side.
“But they are all really talented lads, and I think they would have made their way to the senior squad whoever was coaching them because they had the talent and were willing to work hard.
“We were delighted to get our couple of years with the players and we’re absolutely delighted to see so many of them go through. It’s lovely to see lads that you got the chance to work with go on and make the best of themselves.
“That’s all you want.”