Cork football isn’t dead - Eoin Cadogan is ready to bring the glory back

Rebels are looking for positives, firstly they need to believe in themselves again

Cork’s Eoin Cadogan wants his team to earn back some respect. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Cork’s Eoin Cadogan wants his team to earn back some respect. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

“This isn’t a very positive interview now, is it?” says Eoin Cadogan, tightening his folded arms, flexing his not-soft biceps, grinning like a kid coming in after bedtime.

True, my questioning isn’t exactly positive. What’s happened to Cork football? Where did it go wrong in the Munster final replay with Kerry? Shouldn’t you have beaten them the first day? Explain that collapse against Kildare in the qualifiers.

And now down to Division Two? Don’t you realise Cork aren’t even being mentioned this year, for either Munster, or the All-Ireland? Do you feel relevant? Forgotten? On the verge of anonymity?

Time to lighten the mood so. How does it feel to be voted Sexiest GAA Player in Ireland? (Actually, Pat Rafter was once asked a similar question, after being voted Sexiest Man in the World, not long before defending one of his US Open titles. “Now that’s pressure!” John McEnroe famously interjected.)

If Cadogan is feeling pressure because of any of those questions then he’s clearly not showing it. Especially not that last one.

“Yeah, I’m sure lots of people have different labels for me,” he says, widening that grin to cartoon dimensions. “Whatever you’re into. It’s all about perception, isn’t it?”

Halfway stop

He’ll be 30 later this year, and for much of the last decade juggled both football and hurling, often thwarted by the modern limitations of that dual mandate. His one and still only All-Ireland came in 2010, playing full back with a team of Cork footballers that looked set to dominate, didn’t they?

“Absolutely,” he agrees. “And being purely selfish, of course I think, ‘Am I going to finish up my career with one All-Ireland?’ And that’s not what I want. Every year without success you start to look back with regrets. But I tend not to look back too much. The reality is we’ve lost an awful lot of players since 2010, players that set the trend.”

Allow me: Graham Canty, Pearse O’Neill, Noel O’Leary, Paudie Kissane, Alan Quirke, Nicholas Murphy, John Miskella, Ray Carey.

“We’ve brought in some players who haven’t had that level of success, and it will take time. I don’t like the word ‘transition’. That tends to be used as an excuse. We’ll still have 15 players, same as everyone else. We train extremely hard, same as everyone else. Sometimes the performances don’t reflect that. When you’re winning that’s different. But when you’re losing, it raises all sorts of question marks. Until you get that big win.

“But it was certainly a good time, getting to All-Ireland finals, semi-finals. It moulded me, being around players with an incredible work ethic, extremely high standards. Being involved with the hurling too, alongside Seán Óg [Ó hAilpín], Donal Óg [CUSACK], John Gardiner. Extremely serious about how they went about their business, and that stood to me.”

These days he’s a footballer only, already thinking about the afterlife. He’ll complete his degree with Setanta College next year and has every intention of committing his career to sport after that, which in many ways he already has. If there’s any GAA player who wants to eat, sleep and train like a professional, then Cadogan could show them the way. For years now he’s meticulously catalogued every single training session, a sort of secret diary of a GAA footballer which, if Croke Park ever got hold of it, it might want to burn after reading.

Second Captains

“I remember last summer, three weeks out from first championship, I wrote in my 100th session, putting an asterisk next to that. And that was May. But I think a lot of players are like that.

“But I don’t buy this ‘poor GAA player’ card. Or ‘pity us’. I’ve been very, very lucky with the teams I’ve been involved with. Do you question it? Even after losing? Phew, no. I don’t get tired of it. I’ve been sitting in the stands, injured, or suspended, cracking up, wanting to get out there. As long as I can still play I wouldn’t turn it down for the world.

‘Other sports’

“Because I’m always looking at other sports, trying to learn something new. And there are plenty of other athletes and sports working far harder than us, get no exposure, no recognition. We actually get much better treatment than most. And we do it because we love it. The door is never locked. You can always walk out the door if you want. But I don’t like losing, and if you’ve had any sort if success, you want that back.

“I must sound quite boring, actually. That everything is done so meticulously. But I’m far from that, really. I just like to know what works and what doesn’t, and why that is. Even looking at last year, what happened going into the Kildare game? You don’t want that happening again.”

What happened again was Cork performed a near-perfect ambush on Kerry in the Munster final in Killarney, only for Fionn Fitzgerald to rescue the then All-Ireland champions at the death. Unable to reignite that in the replay, Cork then faced Kildare seven days later, their season ending with a beating out the gates of Semple Stadium.

“People saying we put up a great show in Killarney the first day? That’s bullshit. I hate that mentality. Winning is the only justification. Had we beaten Kerry things might have been different, but it’s easy to say that. We were close, but that’s not good enough. You don’t nearly lose. Same as you don’t nearly win. That’s means jack shit. It’s the result that matters.

“Was there a hangover against Kildare? Maybe. But they were definitely fresher on the night. We can’t use that as an excuse. Lots of teams have come through the backdoor, won All-Irelands. Teams have a massive aerobic base now, yet can’t perform six days later. That has to be a mindset more than anything else. If that’s not right nothing else will carry you.”

What is driving Cadogan soon becomes obvious, because under the soft charm there is a deeply competitive streak. He can trace it back to the beginning, growing up on the family farm a few miles outside Douglas, then venturing into the city for his first taste of the bigger, bolder world.

“There’s a picture in the club in Douglas, of hurling under-14 A, under-14 B, then under-14 C. And I’m there in the middle of under-14 C. My parents just told me to stick at it. Neither of them came from a sporting background, but at 16, or 17, it just clicked for me. But being shite, when I was younger, appalling at football, that’s really what drove me.”

Football only

“One of the biggest attractions was to play with my younger brother Alan, and winning a Munster hurling title that summer, in 2014, was special. I love hurling, love football, and I’ve no regrets playing both. It made for an interesting couple of years, not always getting game time as well. Looking back now it was a bit manic. It was about finding the balance, and finding downtime, just time to relax. But when you’re trying to play both, you block all that out. You can’t even think about it.”

Balancing act

“If that Cork team which won the All-Ireland in 2010 played the same way this year, in 2016, we’d be wiped off the field. Back then it was more man-on-man, zero systems, bar maybe one guy going back the field. Donegal didn’t come in with the blanket defence until 2011. We had bigger players. Not necessarily more cumbersome, but the players coming through now don’t have to be massive, as long as they’ve a good engine.

“Now, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that over the last year or so, players have a good engine. He’s able to get up and down the field. So the game has certainly evolved. Tactically, every team is doing something different, looking down the tracks, what way teams are setting up. Not to say we didn’t do that in 2010, but not as much of it, no.

“And there’s no point me being 15 stone if I can’t run. I’d actually be the exact same weight as 2010, only much leaner, carrying less fat, which is the important thing. So it’s less volume, in terms of weights, and more running, being able to maintain speed, endurance for longer. But you can’t have a closed mind in this. No one has the right answers, all the time.”

Also part of this open-minded routine are twice-weekly visits to the SBG gym in Dublin, having been first introduced to MMA coach John Kavanagh by Kieran McGeeney, while preparing for the International Rules in 2011: so far Cadogan is focusing on jiu- jitsu only, enough for now it seems.

“It’s a different outlet, to express myself. I get my ass handed to me, but the whole ethos of the people, I do respect. I know, again, there is the perception it’s aggressive. And Conor McGregor is not everyone’s cup of tea. But you really do have to park the ego at the door. People have egos, naturally, but you can’t go in there with any ego. It’s about learning where you’re going wrong, improving yourself, and again I like that ethos of it.”

His commitment is clearly absolute, yet in no way restrictive. Yes, the Cork footballers at times apply drinking bans like everyone else, and if some players feel they need the break (as reported during their training week in Portugal) it’s not because everyone else does.

“There are lots of ways to switch off without going to the bar. It is said, in a big block of training, we need to be sensible in our approach here. And the top level players know that. I enjoy the off-season myself, but in different ways, different outlets. I actually feel like shit in the off season, a few nights out, the diet not as good. But where are we now, May? And I’ve been out once since the start of January. And I feel fit, in great shape, and that’s a nice feeling.”

Level of commitment

“I certainly don’t think the Kildare defeat last summer was a reflection of where we were, how we trained, the structure Brian Cuthbert had put in place. If we’d got that win, maybe the pressure would have eased, but Brian is not the one out on the field. He took a huge amount of flak. People talk about the commitment of players, but it’s nothing compared to the manager. It’s incredible. Brian gave up a huge amount of time to improve us, as players. And some of the stuff aimed at him was appalling. So much so that he had to change his house number. For an amateur sport to go to that level is wrong.

“Peadar Healy is in now, is very straight, good people around him, and ruthless too. That’s what you want. It’s ultimately about success, and that’s what we all want.”

It’s not long at all since Cork had the measure of Dublin, beating them in the 2011 league final, could well have beaten them in the 2013 semi-final too. Now, Cork aren’t looking beyond their first game in the Munster championship, against the winners of Tipperary and Waterford, although Cadogan doesn’t buy this unassailable gap on Dublin.

“Have Cork fallen behind? Possibly. Dublin have a huge amount of money, a huge population. But I certainly think Cork have the players. We have a massive amount of clubs in Cork to pick from. But maybe I would question are we doing enough to maximise that. We have to earn that respect again. I think success is within our grasp, but it’s not about proving people wrong. It’s about proving yourself right.”

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