Cork footballers look to apply hard lessons learned last year
Dramatic loss to Dublin in Allianz League semi-final put season in tailspin
Last year’s Allianz Football League semi-final, when Cork suffered a 17-point turnaround against Dublin. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Cork football could be forgiven a sigh. A new year starts with the steep road ahead and, as is so often the case, neighbours and age-old rival Kerry sitting on top of the hill.
At first glance Cork is an elite county: good production line with the last four Munster under-21 titles, three of the five most recent Allianz Football League titles, an All-Ireland in the same period and strong Sigerson Cup centres in the city, where UCC are the holders and Cork IT have in recent years become a major player.
Billy Morgan is the most influential football personality in the county’s history. He captained an All-Ireland-winning team and managed the county’s only back-to-back success at that level. He now coaches UCC and is keen to point out that for all the talk of Kerry influence and the UCK quips, the college serves the county well.
“Kerry last year had eight UCC players and seven of them trained with me and I get slagged that I’m training Kerry fellas to beat us and win All-Irelands, but there are Cork players there as well.
“Last year when we won the Sigerson, we had nine Cork players, five Kerry and one Tipperary. There’s always a strong Cork representation.”
He also points out that four years ago Cork had a record win in the Munster under-21 football final against Kerry. Five of the Kerry players started last year’s All-Ireland final and 10 were on the panel.
Yet the mood in the county is downbeat. In the pre-season they lost the McGrath Cup final against Waterford and at the end of last year Aidan Walsh, the most decorated of the new generation of footballers, decided to concentrate on hurling. One of their best talents, Ciarán Sheehan, is in Australia, starting a second year with AFL club Carlton. And then there’s Kerry.
Kerry’s All-Ireland last September was achieved despite no under-21 success in the province since 2008. There’s nothing new in the leading football county racking up another All-Ireland but every time a title detonates in Kerry, the blast is most immediately felt across the border.
Senior county administrator Diarmuid O’Donovan has had a lengthy association with Cork football, including managing the minors. He knows the landscape and the shadows cast from the south-west.
“I think we suffer a bit in the same way RTÉ suffers from being compared with BBC,” he says. “We’re being compared with Kerry alongside of us as well.”
External comparisons are only half the story. Within the county, there is a fatalistic acknowledgement in the football community that they are the poor relations. O’Donovan chooses his words diplomatically.
“People tend to be more tolerant of their [the hurlers’] bad days than they are of the footballers’ and in fairness to the hurlers they’ve shown over time that it’s worth being more tolerant with them.”
Billy Morgan has his own memories of the county’s priorities.
Whereas Brian Cuthbert has been encouraged to facilitate dual players in the sense of footballers wanted by the hurlers, Morgan points out that this isn’t always a two-way process. Ten years ago he was looking to recruit some of the county’s successful hurlers.
“I remember meeting with Tom Kenny [whose first county selection had been with the footballers] in 2004. We were looking for him, John Gardiner, Ronan Curran, Seán Óg and Diarmuid O’Sullivan. I spoke with Tom and he said he’d love to play football but [hurling manager] Dónal O’Grady said that if he played football his hurling career would suffer. I don’t blame Dónal O’Grady for a second – he was dead right for his own purposes.
“I spoke to John Gardiner the following year after Dónal had stepped down. John Allen had taken over but he wasn’t keen either. Look, I’m not in favour of the dual player either but they would have added a lot to us at the time, as they were very strong footballers.”
Tomorrow in Páirc Uí Rinn Cork open their league campaign against Dublin. There couldn’t be a more resonant fixture: the team against whom they acquired their best and worst memories of last year’s competition. Just under a year ago, under Brian Cuthbert’s new management, Cork went to Croke Park and in a lively, entertaining match beat the then All-Ireland champions.
Annihilated They finished the regulation season top of the league and came again to Jones’s Road to take on Dublin in the league semi-finals. For 40 minutes they annihilated the holders, leading by 10 points shortly into the second half.
The impact of what followed – a 17-point turnaround – is generally seen as such a jolt to confidence and morale that the season went into a tailspin, recovering at the very end to give a decent performance when losing narrowly to Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Since winning the 2010 All-Ireland, Cork have suffered a haemorrhage of established players, 15 according to one estimate. They have just two All Stars left, Michael Shields and Colm O’Neill, whose career over those four years has been wrecked by cruciate injuries. The only player with two awards is Aidan Walsh.
“I would think that’s a factor,” says Morgan. “A lot of the major players dropped out: Graham Canty, Nicholas Murphy and Derek Kavanagh, who were strong players within the group, had to be replaced. I do think though that last year I expected Cork to be there or thereabouts. Okay, against Kerry they didn’t perform, but they finished well against Mayo.
“With the experience of last year and in particular the experience picked up by management, I’d expect them to up there again in the top four or five.”
The experience of management is seen as an influence. Bright and committed with excellent football credentials, Cuthbert and his selectors, Ronan McCarthy (who has since stepped aside because of personal commitments), Ciarán O’Sullivan, Owen Sexton and Don Davis hadn’t a lot of miles clocked up – Cuthbert and McCarthy had worked with previous manager Conor Counihan – and there was surprise in some circles that John Cleary, who had been manager and selector with two under-21 All-Ireland winning teams, wasn’t appointed.
“There’s no doubt it did,” says O’Donovan when asked whether that inexperience had told. “Even though, on one level, they’re all relatively young men and they’re not that far gone away from the game; on another level, the management of a senior intercounty team is just on a different par even though you put in all of the resources that you can.
“You just have to learn the hard way. There’s no other way apart from being out on the line and taking the decisions. There’s no course you can take that will make you an intercounty manager or selector overnight.
Very good effort
“Up to the semi-final of the national league it looked as if they were getting everything right and then we hit a bumpy patch and probably learned more then than we did in the [rest of] the league. I think we may have shown in the ordinary league match and the first half of the semi-final that Dublin’s defence was vulnerable. We weren’t ultimately able to exploit that, but others were.”
Tomorrow it all starts again and the experience, painfully acquired, will be put to use in the months to come. Anywhere else, being in top five on the All-Ireland roll of honour would be a matter of pride. But for Cork football, squeezed between their hurlers’ 30 All-Ireland titles and their neighbours’ 37 in football, it’s never enough.
They must go on, though. They will go on.