Cork’s underage famine threatens the senior side

Rebels perform overhaul to reverse decade of falling behind at youth level

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Diarmuid O’Sullivan celebrate winning the 2005 All-Ireland. Cork haven’t won the senior hurling title since. Photograph: Tom Honan/Inpho Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Diarmuid O’Sullivan celebrate winning the 2005 All-Ireland. Cork haven’t won the senior hurling title since. Photograph: Tom Honan/Inpho

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Diarmuid O’Sullivan celebrate winning the 2005 All-Ireland. Cork haven’t won the senior hurling title since. Photograph: Tom Honan/Inpho Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Diarmuid O’Sullivan celebrate winning the 2005 All-Ireland. Cork haven’t won the senior hurling title since. Photograph: Tom Honan/Inpho


The mushroom theory of hurling development in Cork became a cliche so long ago that its ironic referencing has by this stage become equally cliched. There is a difference however. Cliches attain that status by being true. How true has it ever been that Cork’s success in senior hurling sprang up overnight, unbidden and unnoticed until a fine crop somehow materialised in the morning?

Over the years the county’s senior All-Ireland victories have virtually all come within a few years of – and featured some link with – under-age success. There are only three exceptions (1952 and 1953 – despite a 1945 minor title) and 1931 (just three years after the county won the very first minor All-Ireland).

That’s three MacCarthy Cups out of 20 conforming to the mushroom theory. Only Anthony Nash of the current seniors was a member of the last county panel to win an All-Ireland minor championship, in 2001.

What the theory reflected was the self-confidence of Cork that with their numbers and structures they would always have within the county 15 hurlers capable of challenging for the All-Ireland.

Structures were important because Cork established a conveyor belt as early as the 1930s, a conscious policy of identifying and nurturing talent so that the county’s big population could be systematically exploited to ensure success at senior level. In other words if mushrooms were springing up it was because they were being cultivated.

On RTÉ’s Sunday Game last year after Cork’s heavy defeat by Tipperary, former All-Ireland-winning goalkeeper Dónal Óg Cusack trenchantly criticised the county’s development structures and some days later in the Irish Examiner, he detailed the statistics of failure in terms of the glaring absence of underage silverware and the decline of Cork schools.

These difficulties have been most obvious in the city, traditionally hurling heartland. Decline has been observed and discussed for more than a decade. This has largely coincided with the latest famine period for the county at senior level. Since recording back-to-back All-Irelands in 2005, the only senior success has been two Munster titles, last year and 2006.

In the era of the qualifiers that doesn’t tell the whole story, as Cork were in a replayed All-Ireland final two years ago when but for elastic timekeeping at the end of the first match they would have won.

There is however one metric which is indisputably worse when comparing previous fallow periods for Cork hurling and that relates to the green shoots of recovery. Take the nine-year hiatus up until 1999: during those years the county won two All-Irelands at both under-21 and minor level as well as an All-Ireland schools title and five Harty Cups (Munster schools).

Since 2005 there has been no national success and precious little provincial silverware either: just two minors and one Harty Cup. Given the long fuse stretching between underage and senior levels, the situation looks like an ongoing indication of problems into the medium-term future.

The only signs of life at underage have been in the Fitzgibbon Cup, the elite third-level education championship, in which Cork’s two colleges, UCC and Cork IT have done well with a preponderance of local players. But Fitzgibbon is a finishing school rather than a nursery.

Some years ago the Munster Council embarked on a hurling development initiative, which involved sending personnel to various regions of the province to provide elementary training for those interested in coaching under-12s.

Clubs were allowed to send as many personnel as they wanted and the going rate on take-up was about 100 per region. In Cork city however, just 11 arrived – an arrestingly poor figure for the area that traditionally drove the county’s success.

Population advantage

In the 1950s, the city division – one of eight whose representatives contested the minor championship – had become so dominant that it was allowed straight passage to the county final.

Diarmuid O’Donovan is senior GAA administrator in Cork and has also written a masters thesis on the history of Gaelic games administration in the county.

“Things were so successful that it took a long time for people to realise that the systems still employed were not the most efficient for what we needed to do. It’s like in the Dáil. Any party that’s been in power for 15 years isn’t the same party that took power originally.

“The city clubs have been guilty of taking their own eyes off the ball. My own club Glen Rovers did that after being in a happy position for years with kids going to the Mon [North Monastery] primary school or other places where there would have been a strong ethos of playing games.

“When I went to play for the Glen in the early 1970s I would have been playing six days a week since I was five or six either in the school yard or in a field. So when the Glen came down they had fellas who had been playing for years and all that had to be figured out was what position to play you if that hadn’t been worked out already.

“The way things have changed now, a lot of the clubs have to develop their own coaching structures but these things were slow to emerge. You also have gone from a situation where kids would have had 15 hours hurling or so to now when they mightn’t have a hurl in their hands from one training session to the next.”

Decline in the city is most visible in the fortunes of the schools. North Monastery and St Finbarr’s Farranferrris and St Colman’s Fermoy have 14 All-Irelands between them. Colman’s won back-to-back All-Irelands in 2002 but the other two schools, big, traditional city seminaries, with five All-Irelands each, haven’t won a Croke Cup since 1994 when North Mon were successful. Farranferris closed in 2006.

Only part of the story

“Farranferris went but schools like St Brogan’s in Bandon won the vocational schools All-Ireland and was probably catering for pupils that would traditionally have gone to Farranferris.”

Without the schools supplying a conveyor belt of talent, the clubs have suffered and without the schools being successful, the capacity to impact at minor has also been compromised.

While this was happening, the county’s own development structures were falling behind other counties in terms of full-time coaching and the establishment of development squads.

Joe Carton is the Munster Council games manager for hurling, overseeing the game’s development in the province. He points out that the competitive landscape has changed for the county with the rising standards in rival counties.

“One of the factors in the lack of success for Cork has been the improvement in traditionally weaker counties. Waterford, Clare and Limerick have all raised the bar with serious work at development squad level. For a long time all Cork had to do was beat Tipp.

“At the same time their teams have been unlucky in some of the defeats and the teams that beat them went on to do well. The Waterford team that beat them in 2013 won the [minor] All-Ireland.”

This is undoubtedly true even if historically the county hasn’t had to asterisk statistics for consolation. The trend though is clear. Since 2009, Waterford, Clare and Limerick have won five of six Munster minor titles and Tipperary the other.

Clare have become the dominant force in the country at under-21, with four All-Irelands in six years. Cork haven’t beaten Waterford in the minor hurling championship for seven years. During that time they have twice lost to Waterford and Limerick and also once to Clare at senior level – illustration of the emergence of previously weaker counties and Cork’s decline.

Demographic changes

Kieran Kingston is an All-Ireland medallist, who was coach to Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s team until stepping down last year. He is personally interested in the current development processes, as his son Shane is one of the county’s most talented minors in both football and hurling. He says that the city has had to adapt to a different model of developing the game in schools since the decline of the big colleges.

“There’s no doubt that the demographics of Cork have changed and that has coincided with the evolution of schools in the outer areas of Cork, like Rochestown College, who had a great run in the Harty this year and are only competing in it two years.

“Back when Cork were winning a lot at colleges level, they [outer-area schools] didn’t really exist and anyone with an interest in hurling took the bus or boarded in Faranferris and so you had the best hurlers gravitating towards two or three schools in Cork.

“Likewise, now if you have a guy who’s very good at rugby in Cork – no matter what part of Cork he’s from – he’ll end up going to school in Pres [Presentation Brothers College] or Christians [Christian Brothers College]. Hurling was like that and it’s changed.”

Kingston says that hurling in the city became swept up in a perfect storm, as the traditional school structures changed, clubs failed to react and the county was slow to identify the emerging problems.

“There’s three or four things came over a period of time while in the background there was success and nobody was taking notice of what was happening in the schools and the demographic change with other schools popping up around the place, the structures underage.

“There’s guys playing senior with Cork at the moment who didn’t come through any sort of development squad or who never won a match until they started playing senior with Cork. They had no exposure to each other or to training or gym work – outside of those who did it themselves. Collectively they had no real exposure to preparations for inter-county hurling.

“So you’d changes and also the attitude of, ‘why change it when it’s worked for the last 20 years?’ For whatever reason, we as a county didn’t react quickly enough to that.”

O’Donovan says he wrote a paper on family businesses for a course and it struck him that there was a link between that and his thesis on GAA administrative history in Cork.

Family businesses he analysed tended to begin with hugely committed individuals sleeping on the premises, getting into dust-ups with banks for loans to expand and constantly driving the project forward to success. Succeeding generations though became more accustomed to the prosperity generated and there was a danger that entitlement would replace commitment.

With the old Bórd na nÓg providing such largesse, it got to a stage where no one could see beyond it.

“Over the last 10 years those structures have changed,” he says. “We’ve scrapped the divisional underage Bórd na nÓg that existed and replaced it with a regional structure, which is more efficient and graded. They have their teething problems but they are an improvement and integrated with a better development squad system.

“We have reached the stage this year that our minor team will be the first ever where the lads who are 18 will have come through a four-year filtering system involving around 250 children, refining it down to the best 24 in the county. Even with that, there are two members of the hurling [and football] panel that have not come through the system, as they are late developers.

“It’s the first year after a lot of trial and error that we can say we have a system starting to bear fruit even if looking at the bare record would suggest that nothing has happened in Cork in a long time.”

And the family business model?

“I think when people work very hard at making a project a success, the-re’s a danger that they forget it was the hard work and not just the project itself that created the success.”

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