Gaelic GamesTipping Point

Denis Walsh: Cork hurlers’ strong stand 20 years ago ushered in a new era for players

Two decades on, it is bracing still to remember how basic their demands were

In a room at the Vienna Woods Hotel the Cork hurlers recorded their grievances on a flipchart, listed on demand from the floor of the meeting.

The first players’ strike in the history of the GAA was still two months away, and if that doomsday outcome had entered anybody’s mind, nobody had declared it yet. Instead it was growing quietly in the belly of the group, like an ulcer.

Twenty years later, it is bracing still to remember how basic their demands were: a doctor at every Cork match and medical expenses to be settled efficiently; gym membership; better post-match meals; training gear; a greater allocation of complimentary match tickets, and the facility to buy extra tickets; a team holiday; hurleys. What it amounted to, though, was something greater than the sum of their grievances; it was a plea for respect.

For generations, intercounty players had been taken for granted in ways that nobody had questioned. Wearing the jersey was a self-fulfilling honour. What you had done to get the jersey, what you were prepared to do to keep the jersey, was a matter of personal responsibility and resourcefulness. Was that not enough?

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The first Cork strike started in late November 2002 and finished in early December: it was short in comparison to the two poisonous Cork strikes that followed before the end of the decade, but it was explosive too, and raw and new. Absolutely new.

The players understood that they were jumping from a height, and even though they would have convinced themselves that it was a bungee jump, they were trusting a harness that had never been tried before.

Everything about it must have been daunting and in some ways frightening. In the other corner was the Cork County Board, one of the most powerful institutions in the GAA, led by Frank Murphy, one of the most skilful, enduring and politically-savvy administrators that the organisation had ever known. Their authority had never been challenged; the prospect was outlandish.

The players didn’t know how the Cork public would react or if their clubs would support them. But they also knew that they couldn’t afford to be deflected by public sentiment if it blew up in their faces. The only way to pursue this course of action was for the invading party to burn the boats once they reached the shore. No turning back.

It is easy to forget how grave the whole thing was at the time, and how consumed the leaders of the strike were. They prepared for their encounters with the board by meticulously wargaming hostile scenarios in the office of Diarmuid Falvey, a Cork city solicitor who was sympathetic to their cause, and a vital ally in all the stand-offs that followed.

For the first, big, set-piece of the negotiations 12 players had been nominated to meet 12 members of the board – back in the day when man-marking in the GAA was non-negotiable.

The players teased out every aspect of the meeting in advance, right down to what they would wear. By a show of hands, they elected to wear suits. This was business; they meant business. At that first meeting, 11 of the board members were dressed casually; for the next meeting they all wore suits too. The terms of engagement, in every detail, were being written from scratch on a blank page.

The three Cork strikes escalated in toxicity, from first to last. Allegiances soon became entrenched, and tribal. Dónal Óg Cusack and Murphy were characterised as the white knight and the dark knight, depending on your bias.

Scores of others played a part in those conflicts, but the issues on which the strikes were fought, and the feelings they inflamed, were channelled through the most powerful player in the Cork dressing room and the authoritarian figure on the county board.

A lot of people were hurt, on both sides, and those admissions were made along the way. Were there reconciliations? Not that anybody said. Feelings simmered down, but nobody resigned from their original position. Elements of quiet polarisation continued. At a table of Cork GAA followers it is still not a subject you would raise after a few pints, unless you were so drunk that you wanted to play Russian roulette with the conversation.

Did some good come from it? Without question. Cork players want for nothing now. Every reasonable aid to preparation is provided as standard, without a row or special pleading.

What it also did was usher in an era of soft power for elite GAA players. The second and third Cork strikes revolved around the appointment of management teams in which the players had no confidence. County boards, or even clubs, very rarely take that chance now. That represented a massive cultural shift.

If a manager has “lost the dressing room,” county boards or club executives won’t close their eyes and ears and hope it goes away; a change will be made. If they have a new manager in mind, senior players will be discreetly consulted. That is accepted as best practice now.

For a while, it wasn’t unusual for establishment figures in the GAA, and devotees of the old hierarchies, and opponents of the Gaelic Players Association [GPA] to denounce various uprisings around the country as the scourge of “player power”. You don’t hear those cries anymore because player power has been normalised. County boards and clubs want happy camps and harmony. Dictating to players, bluntly, is no longer an option.

After a long thaw, players from the strike-era Cork teams have been appointed to management roles with Cork in recent years. Diarmuid O’Sullivan has served two terms as a senior selector; Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Kieran “Fraggy” Murphy are involved with the Cork minors for the coming season and Tom Kenny has been involved at that level too; Ben O’Connor is the new manager of the Cork U-20s; Dónal Óg Cusack was manager of the minors for a Covid-condensed season – though nothing since.

Twenty years ago, they had the courage of their convictions. It is a common phrase but, in day-to-day life, it is not common practice. That should be saluted. They made a difference.