Counihan retains the enthusiasm as Cork set out on familiar journey
The manager’s tenure has been one of notable accomplishment, writes KEITH DUGGAN
The streets around Croke Park always feel strange to people who are used to visiting the Jones’s Road on summer Sundays when the fans swarm and the air pulses with anticipation.
Conor Counihan is one of those. He has had an early start: a train which left Kent station before the blackbirds had begun their dawn chorus to attend the launch of another National Football League and yet another GAA season in a meeting room in the vast interior of Croke Park.
There is a maudlin air around the northside this morning: it is damp and preparations for the removal of Kevin Heffernan are taking place just up the road in Marino.
“I only met him once or twice,” Counihan says softly after taking a seat in the hotel across the road from the stadium. Black and white stills of 40 and 50-year-old championship matches are framed on the walls as if to confirm the GAA seasons march on relentlessly.
“But since I was growing up he was a phenomenon . . . not just in Dublin but across Ireland. That whole movement – Heffo’s Army – it gave the edge that was missing to the GAA. From the outside, it was like a cult thing. I don’t believe he meant for that to happen . . . it was just the way he managed that team. I spoke with people who knew him and he was really years ahead of his time. He was something else – he forced the pace of managers after that.”
Force of calm
It is easy to forget just how long Counihan has been a custodian of Cork football. His time on the pitch did overlap with Heffernan’s – he was emerging as a tough and assured young defender when the Dubliner was still patrolling the sidelines.
Counihan was a force of calm and authority in Billy Morgan’s stylish side of the late 1980s and laughs when told the highlights of their incendiary All-Ireland finals against Meath had featured on a Sunday evening documentary on TG4.
The show was as compelling as it was simple . . . snippets of GAA matches with contemporary pop classics in the background. Had Counihan been flicking through with the remote, he would have happened upon his 27-year-old self.
“Oh God . . . don’t be bringing age into it at this stage,” he groans. But the thing is, he has been there since, serving as a selector for Billy Morgan and then for Larry Tompkins. There was no master plan. “It just seemed logical. And then when a chance to do the job came up, well, I just thought . . . yeah, let’s give this a go.”
His tenure has been one of notable accomplishment. Cork’s first All-Ireland in 20 years arrived in 2010 and this year, the Rebels are chasing – or, as has often seemed the case, waltzing – towards their fourth league title in a row. And yet for all that, Cork are still seen as something of a puzzle.
Somewhere between their absolute demolition of Donegal in the All-Ireland quarter-final of 2009 and their audacious comeback against Dublin in the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final, Cork produced a body of work that was daunting.
They closed that period out with an All-Ireland final win over Down, an unexpected opposition, thanks in large part to a brilliant and demonstrative second half from Donnacadh O’Connor, who is normally almost bashful in his demeanour.
“That happens. Guys can be demonstrative on big days in a way that can be out character. It can be the same in the dressing room – a guy who doesn’t often talk can have much more impact. It is interesting. People surprise you.”
That day was Cork’s annunciation: they were physically huge and athletic and fast; they had leaders, they had natural score-getters, they had gifted free-takers and they had a range of substitutes who could make other managers weep. At their best, they looked frightening. But with the plaudits came an expectation – an almost an unspoken obligation – to translate their potential into further All-Ireland titles.
That they fell short in the past two summers has drawn criticism, not least within the walls of Cork county. Cork’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Donegal was probably the game of the last year’s championship for pure speed and score-taking and theatre but afterwards, Counihan had to field questions about Cork’s fitness, about the tactical aspects of the game and about why Cork didn’t win.
And he answered the questions truthfully but didn’t mull over them for too long afterwards. If his time in the game has thought him anything, it is the most obvious truth: only one team can win the All-Ireland on any given year.
“I said to our lads when they came off the field after that game: did we feel we really emptied the tank? And I am not sure we did. But some of that was due to Donegal overpowering us. At half-time, we were doing okay, might have been a point or two ahead. We had a few opportunities early in the second half and didn’t take them.
“But in terms of tactics – in any season, there can only be one winner. That doesn’t make every other manager a loser. Some of the best managers in the game can be operating in the lower divisions and don’t get credit they deserve. ”
Like everyone else, Counihan sometimes marvels at the speed with which a GAA season travels now – at the precision that goes into training, into devising diets and strength programmes, at the emphasis on team psychology and at the monastic discipline with which the best young footballers in all counties are expected to live.
And he moves with the times – happily – except that in some corner of his mind, he worries all of the fun is being drained from the game.
He imposes a rigorous weekly timetable on himself so he can manage the Cork football team but is clear he is doing the job out of enjoyment.
Sometimes he looks at young players now and wonders if they even have time for enjoyment.
In the 1980s, the likes of Niall Cahalane and Tompkins trained with a private ferocity that was exceptional – “Sometimes I was watching on and sometimes not so far behind,” is Counihan’s summary of his place in their company – but it was never ultra-serious, all the time.
He fears it is too easily forgotten that in street clothes, today’s footballers are like any other young men . . . struggling to get on in a ruined economy. After Cork won the All-Ireland in 2010, several players appeared on the Late Late Show to discuss how difficult it was to find work.
“Thankfully with employment, most guys are back doing something. It may not be in the job they set out to do but my attitude right now to anyone is that if you have a job, you are in a fortunate position and you mind it.
“And there is a sense that employers might be worried about having guys involved in GAA teams because of the time demands. I certainly have a rule that if a guy has to work, he has to work and that is priority, much as I would like to have him. We have to prioritise.”
Much as he wants to win, he also wants to make sure that none of the players who train under him end up as “crocks” after they retire. He feels an obligation towards them.
In his working life, Counihan drives a 100-mile round trip to Charleville, where is chief executive of St Joseph’s Foundation, which deals with providing assistance and services for people with physical and learning difficulties and for offering support and advice to their families. It demands his full attention and he has made a conscious effort to divorce himself from the fascinations of Cork football between nine and five each day.
He goes straight from work to training twice a week. He finds it an absorbing privilege to deal with such extreme ranges in physical experience, working with people whose courage and grace in the face of profound physical challenges always humbles him and then training some of the best athletes he has encountered.
He works with families who are making monumental efforts just to ensure their child has a reasonable quality of life and after that, none of the pressures of the GAA world seem all that pressing. His work reminds him of how lucky he is.
“Absolutely. Not many people in the general population can really understand it unless they have a child with a disability themselves. It is just a phenomenal challenge and there are really, really marvellous people out there. What they are doing for their kids . . . I don’t think that as a State we recognise it often enough.
“For me, working with those people and families is a great leveller. You go in on a Monday morning after a match and you might be feeling sorry for yourself and they know how to react. They teach you an awful lot. So going to Cork training then, is a great breath of fresh air.”
He still feels that way. It is different for Cork footballers. Rebel teams have accepted it is their destiny to earn the hard way the affections of a county where hurling has always grabbed the soul. Counihan is only half joking when he says the squad knows their supporters personally.
“It is only a very small band of people who are with us through thick and thin. As for where we sit in the affections of Cork . . . that isn’t one that would worry me. It hasn’t always been fashionable to be a Cork football supporter but the ones we have are magnificent. Some would even turn up to watch us train. I always say to the players they owe it to themselves and their families first.”
This is a chaotic time of year. Division One has become such a claustrophobic competition that managers feel the pressure almost immediately.
Counihan shrugs when asked why Cork are so good in the league before making the reasonable point that he has a deep squad of players to choose from.
He makes his way across the road. The big stadium is empty and silent. Tonight, it will be different. Cork will bring their small, loyal crowd and their expansive, sweeping kicking game and if they are their best, they will look irresistible. Conor Counihan can’t promise they will win the All-Ireland this year but he wouldn’t write it off either.
“We have to keep moving. In 2010, we went out, won it, and it was great. It is really challenging to reach a height and then stay there. This idea of putting two and three together – it is a big challenge. Someone said to me that getting to the top of the mountain is the easy part.
“Equally, it is not realistic to say it can’t be done. Small things could have turned things for us, yeah. I haven’t dwelt on that too much either. Maybe in 10 years time, we will reflect on it. But this year . . . ah, sure, if everything goes well, we think we can be competitive.”
He vanishes into the building, hoping to be back at the train station before too long and feeling, like all Cork men adrift in the capital, the gravitational pull of the south.
Summer promise The ones that got away
All-Ireland QF 2009
Cork 1-27 Donegal 2-10
It looked like being Cork’s summer: the Munster championship had revolved around a fractious replay with Kerry, which they won.
Then they steamrolled Donegal with a performance that made them look invincible before putting All-Ireland champions Tyrone to the sword.
There was little doubt that they had been the best team in Ireland that summer.
Kerry, of course were waiting in the final and it was there that Cork finally wobbled, going down by 0-16 to 1-9.
League Final 2011
Cork 0-21 Dublin 2-14
The reigning champions fell into a hole in the second half as Dublin moved into an eight-point lead. Then, with a quarter remaining, Cork roused themselves.
They chipped away with point after point until suddenly there were back in the game. Ciarán Sheehan clipped the winner and left the Dubs with more questions than answers. It was another occasion when Cork looked unstoppable.
Nobody watching would have seen Cork losing to Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter final and the Dubs winning it all.
All-Ireland QF 2012
Cork 2-19 Kildare 0-12
Kildare have been ultra-competitive under Kieran McGeeney and give nothing away easily so the sight of Cork easing into an eight-point lead against the Lilywhites was further indication of their phenomenal scoring capacity.
The most telling statistic of the match was that Cork went 22 minutes without a score and still produced 2-19.
They went into All-Ireland semi-final against Ulster champions Donegal as favourites but their championship ended there.