Dual duels adding to the challenge facing Cork football
Cahalane says football losing out because of earlier specialisation in the modern era
Cork’s Aidan Walsh celebrates a goal against Clare. He has worn the senior county jersey with distinction in both football and hurling. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Twenty years ago, Cork reached the senior All-Ireland final in both football and hurling. Even more remarkably, one player, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, played in both – winning a hurling medal against Kilkenny and losing the football to Meath.
Nine years previously, the county hit another historical landmark by winning the 1990 hurling and football All-Irelands – the first county to do so in 90 years – with Teddy McCarthy playing for both teams.
The modern environment hasn’t been as accommodating. Cork retain dual players but their inter-county careers hop around between the two games with sometimes a dual season here or there rather than consistently attempting to play both at the same time.
This weekend, both teams are in action. The hurlers are on course in their preliminary quarter-final against Westmeath to advance to the later stages of the All-Ireland but the footballers are on the cusp of substantial progress, taking on Laois for a place in the last eight of the championship for the first time since 2014.
The dual issue is still around. Three of the hurling team – Eoin Cadogan, Damien Cahalane and Aidan Walsh – who played against Clare in the final round of the Munster championship have switched from football at various stages of their careers.
Walsh is the most conspicuous absence: a former Young Footballer of the Year, All Star and vice-captain of the Ireland international rules team, he and Cadogan were on the last Cork team to win a senior All-Ireland [in either code], nine years ago.
The history of dual Cork players hasn’t been overly beneficial for the county footballers since Billy Mackessy became the first to win both All-Irelands in 1903 with the hurlers and eight years later with the big ball in hand.
Over the years and predictably, given the relative strengths of the games, top dual players have tended to do more hurling from Jack Lynch to Jimmy-Barry-Murphy, Ray Cummins and on to Teddy McCarthy and Ó hAilpín. All-Ireland winning 1989 captain Dinny Allen is one of the few to have won a hurling medal and subsequently devoted most of his career to football.
One of Allen’s team-mates, Niall Cahalane, who played in the county footballers’ only back-to-back All-Ireland teams in 1989-90, believes the dual issue has become more acute for the county in recent years.
At a time when both hurling and football championship schedules have expanded beyond anything that players up until the turn of the century had to cope with, it’s hardly surprising that players struggle to fit in county commitments in two games.
For Cahalane, though, the problem is now undermining football from an earlier stage because contemporary views of games development hold that earlier specialisation is desirable and although the hurlers are in the midst of their second-longest All-Ireland famine in history, the game is buoyant.
“It’s not that the hurlers has been winning all around them,” says Cahalane, “but they have been making progress at all levels, especially in the schools where there’s a trend towards the guy that’s been playing dual tending towards hurling and I think football has lost out.
“Traditionally there have been more dual players than in any other county. The larger percentage have always gone to hurling but what has happened for a couple of years is that they haven’t encouraged dual players at 17 or minor level and they’re nearly lost to you at that stage – rather than realising in their early 20s that they’re not going to make it in hurling and drifting back to football. By that time they’re gone from you.”
He isn’t simply a disinterested observer in all of this. His son Damien is one of the highest-profile county players to have appeared in both codes this decade and is currently with John Meyler’s hurlers whereas younger son, Jack, is a dual minor this year.
Cahalane says playing dual minor isn’t aggressively discouraged but neither is it encouraged.
“Rather than a gun being put to their head, they’re very much encouraged to make a decision between codes and it’s black and white at that stage. Jack played both minor this year.
“I’m not sure of the exact numbers but he would be one of very few. It’s difficult. There’s no doubt about it and I’m not saying players should be encouraged to play dual but the option should be left open, rather than something you’re steered away from.
“Look at Dublin: the Con O’Callaghans and Ciarán Kilkennys would have been dual minor players and more than them. They went for football but that’s only natural even if the door is left open for you. It also helps with late developers that they don’t have to make a choice too early. They may pick up on it at a later date but it makes it very difficult for them.”
Hopes are high in Cork football for the weekend because of the prospect of breaking into the quarter-final stages. Unlike the old knockout format, the two groups of four offer exposure to facing the best teams in the country, which it is hoped could help to hothouse the county footballers’ development after a hearteningly competitive Munster final against Kerry.
“I’m wary of taking Laois for granted,” says Cahalane, “but if we could get to the Super 8s, Cork football would benefit enormously.”