Brian Cuthbert embarking on an exciting mission with new-look Cork
Dublin’s opposition at Croke Park are on the rise thanks to a man who has served a long managerial apprenticeship
Brian Cuthbert: “I want us to be resilient, at the same time a bit flamboyant and a bit exciting, confident – and that they will die with their boots on if they are going to die.” Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Mick O’Dwyer’s smile was tight, his rascal dial turned up to 11. It was the third Sunday of September 1993 and he was sitting across from Michael Lyster as the RTÉ cameras rolled. All- Ireland final day and not one but two Cork teams involved. Pressure.
In such matters, a Kerryman will be gracious where he must and opaque where he can. The two Cork teams had ended Kerry’s summer away back in June, meaning minor and senior Munster finals without Kerry involvement for the first time since 1935. This called for a delicate touch, charitable words dressed up in their best clothes so they could be taken for generosity.
“Well Michael,” he said, “this Cork minor team is very strong. Fine big fellas across the field. It’s a regular feature of Cork minor teams. Fine big fellas...”
Indeed, by the time he finished, you could be in little doubt as to their fineness or their bigness. Whether they were any good or not was for you to decide.
Brian Cuthbert tells the story 21 years later, laughing away. He was the Cork captain that afternoon, full-forward from the start but later moved out to quell the rampages of Meath centre-back Darren Fay. It was the best day of his footballing life – he scored a goal in Croke Park, won an All-Ireland, lifted the cup high up in the Hogan Stand. From looking back at the video afterwards, Micko’s mischief is one of the details to have hung on in the memory.
“And he was right!” Cuthbert says. “For a minor team, we had a full-forward line made up of three lads who were at least 6ft2in and over 14½ stone. At minor level I was much bigger and stronger than most people, so it was easy for me at that point.”
Sport trundles ever on. By the end of the decade, a third of that Meath side had two All-Irelands against their names. Fay, Trevor Giles, Ollie Murphy, Paddy Reynolds, Barry Callaghan, Hank Traynor – all from the one minor team. For Cork, really only Owen Sexton and Martin Cronin went on to have senior careers of any particular significance.
As for Cuthbert, he’s quick to explain that there’s no mystery. He didn’t stop playing, he didn’t emigrate. He went to college in Limerick and came back to a job in the local school in Bishopstown where he eventually became principal. He got married and has two kids. But it wasn’t like work or family or life in general got in a way of an inter-county career.
“Honest to God, I just wasn’t good enough,” he says.
“I wouldn’t have been pacy enough for senior inter-county. I was a decent club player but I was never good enough or quick enough to play inter-county. I gave my life and soul to my club, I gave it everything I had. And I really enjoyed playing at the level I played at. But I knew I wasn’t good enough to go any further.
“I knew the level I could play at, I knew the level I could get to. I strived with everything I had to help Bishopstown in every way I possibly could. But I did it all content in the knowledge that I couldn’t take it to the next level.”
He hurled too. Even hurled senior for Cork a few times. Back in the deep mid-winter of 1994, Cork trawled the county for talent. Cuthbert found out his number had come up when he saw his name in the Examiner one day. The trial went okay and he got in for a few matches. But only a few.
“We played Wexford in the Oireachtas final in 1994. I had played against Galway in the previous game and I had done okay on Michael Coleman. So against Wexford they played me at centre-back with Brian Corcoran on the wing.
“But by half-time, they took me off. Poor Brian Corcoran was covering his own man and he was covering my man at the same time. It was real ‘taxi for Cuthbert’ stuff. Get him out of here. That level was just beyond me.”
No complaints. No regrets. No hard feelings.
Why the hell not?
“Because I’d had a go off it. I got my chance. It meant I was perfectly able to be honest with myself and say, ‘these fellas are a bit better than you, they’re a bit quicker than you, this is something that is just that bit beyond you’. And it didn’t knock me in any way, shape or form. I just knew.
“It wasn’t a question of honesty, it wasn’t a question of effort. I trained just as much as anybody else – if not more. I gave it my all. But at the same time, I was unbelievably content to know the reality.”
Coaching came very soon after and, if it was foisted on him to an extent, he was never less than a willing volunteer. At college in Mary I, one of the unspoken yet unavoidable responsibilities of second year was taking over the Freshers team, so he and a couple of classmates suited up and booted down.?
“Sure we thought we were doing wondrous things. Eamonn Cregan used to be in charge of the hurling team up there and he’d be looking over at us – I’d say he was sniggering to himself and thinking these fellas don’t have a clue.
“I mean, it was barbaric stuff. We’d be playing UL or something – probably UL’s fourth team against our first team – and we’d be breaking hurleys inside in the dressing room and roaring our heads off. We thought we were doing the right thing. I look back now and cringe at it really.”
Time passed and with each year down, he found himself taking over more and more teams and projects. He went back to Bishopstown and took the under-12s, guiding them up to under-16. He took a minor team, an under-21 team, endless school teams.
Beyond GAA, he was ambitious with where he could take his working life as well. To progress beyond the classroom, he needed a masters degree. Sports science was always an area that he liked to read about, something he would have felt he was reasonably well up on. So he signed on to do a three-year night course at UCC.
The first thing he learned was that he knew nothing at all about it, the second that he wanted to know everything he could. He drilled down deep into sports psychology and into what makes groups of people come together.
While he was ostensibly doing it to further his professional career, he couldn’t divorce it from his GAA life. He wouldn’t be a school principal today without it. He wouldn’t be Cork football manager either.
“That changed an awful lot about how I deal with groups. Beforehand, the teacher in me was my point of reference. As a teacher, you are the centre and everything radiates from you – you feed out the information and kids give it back to you verbatim. That was how I approached taking a team – feed out the information and assume that it will have the desired effect. But that might only work with 50 per cent of the group.
“I came to realise that the way to reach far more of them was to empower the group itself, to allow them to take it on themselves. Now that’s the absolute centrepoint of anything I would ever do again with any group, whether it be in school or with a GAA team or whatever.”
He did a couple of stints in charge of the Bishopstown seniors, first when he had just turned 30 and again when he was 35. He got involved with the Cork minors, first as a selector and later as the manager who took them to their first All -Ireland final in a decade in 2010.
It had been 17 years since the last time Cork brought two teams to Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. He’d gone from captain in 1993 to manager in 2010 without ever playing a senior inter-county game, a quiz question quirk in a bainisteoir bib. This time roles were reversed – the minors lost, the seniors won.
But his mark had been made. Conor Counihan brought him in as a selector for his final year and the step-up to the top job came last October. Conscious of the fact that he was hardly a household name, he took on Ronan McCarthy, Don Davis, Conor O’Sullivan and Sexton as his selectors. Countymen all, bona-fides undeniable.
“If you look at Cork managers since the advent of such things as managers, it’s been people like Billy Morgan twice, Larry Tompkins, Conor Counihan. And then me. My name certainly doesn’t resonate like theirs. And I suppose it takes either complete naivety or else the balls of a brass monkey to put my name in there.
“The selectors are very similar in terms of personality and how they represented Cork on the pitch. Very honest, very straight, very hard-working. I would have identified them very early on and said to them, ‘I need ye with me to sell this’. Because look, me on my own, trying to sell a message to a group of really good Cork players, some of them All-Ireland winners – I don’t know how well that would have worked.”
So here they are. A fine league under their belt, regardless almost of what happens against Dublin tomorrow. A new team built on players who were walking around 10 months pregnant, waiting for their chance as an older core gave it one more go. Even the beginnings of some buzz around them from the Cork public, although he won’t get ahead of himself on that score.
“Cork won the All-Ireland in 2010 and about 500 people came to see them in their first home National League game in 2011. I don’t know why, I don’t understand it. We’ve made good progress so far. It’s very early days and it could all go badly south on Sunday but I’d like to think we’ve done okay.
“And there’s a huge part of me that would like to think that the team will represent the best things about Cork. I want us to be resilient, at the same time a bit flamboyant and a bit exciting, confident – you never come across a Cork person who isn’t some way confident – and that they will die with their boots on if they’re going to die.
“If we can endear ourselves to the public, great. But that’s going to be up to the public to decide. So far, it looks like people are getting excited about it and that’s grand. But it’s very early days to be making any big thing of it.”
No danger of that.