John Meyler and Cork aiming to manage rising expectations
Rebel supporters hoping to see their team build on the ample promise of last season
John Meyler: “It’s a process of being competitive, getting in new players, trying to fill a few gaps wherever you saw weaknesses last year.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
John Meyler was at the last loose end he is likely to see in a while. A Sunday afternoon in early February, nowhere to be, nothing to see – or at least nothing to see to.
If his Cork team get into a decent seam of form in the league from this point onwards, he could conceivably be standing on sidelines for the next six weekends in a row. You’d have thought, therefore, that any sensible person would have caught up on something soul-soothing, maybe gone for a nice drive out west, that kind of thing.
“I actually ended up going to Cork-Louth in the football at Páirc Uí Rinn,” Meyler laughs. “The weather was very bad – sun shining at times and then a big snow shower just after half-time. So I could imagine what the hurling would have been like if we had had a game. But overall, I kind of missed having a match, you know? When you get used to playing matches every weekend, you get into a groove with it.”
No choice in the matter now, for him or for anyone. The rest of the league is a downhill run to the finish, beginning this weekend. Cork have Clare tomorrow, Waterford next week, Tipp to finish. Three games in 14 days, only the middle one at home. A league quarter-final or a relegation play-off the following week. Bang, bang, bang and bang – and they’ll still be only in the first week of March. The one saving grace is that everyone’s schedule is the same so they’re all trying to work out the best way as they go.
“It makes you take more from what they do in professional sports like soccer and rugby. It takes from the amount of work you can do in midweek, it limits the amount of training you can do from Sunday to Sunday. You can’t be making players do all the hard work in between games. So what we’ve done is work backwards and we did all our really hard work in pre-season. Those eight weeks or so were critical, rather than trying to fit it all in now between matches.
“Once you have your six or eight weeks pre-season training done and banked, that means you can spend your time in the season itself going through shape, going through structure, going through tactics. The fitness levels are banked up and all you have to do on that side of things is top up as you go. So in general, you have more time for analysis and more tactical considerations.
“That’s what you’re trying to do anyway. But you’ve got to get results as well. You play two matches in the league, you want to be competitive, you want to win. But as well as that, you want to try and find another two, three, four players as you go. There are a lot of strings to your bow. It’s important to introduce more players to go with what you had the previous year. So there are three or four different considerations running all at the same time.”
It was the league game against Clare last year when Kieran Kingston lifted the cloche on his new young Cork team for the delectation of all around. Five debutants, laid out on the plate like new-season veg – Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Shane Kingston, Luke Meade and David Griffin. Come the summer, all but Griffin were mainstays as Cork skipped to a thrilling Munster title. Even after handing Clare a nice beating that night in Páirc Uí Rinn, nobody was dreaming that kind of wild.
Twelve months on and Meyler has found himself in the unusual position of trying to keep the tide rising. It’s not always the case that a new manager has to drag morale up from the floor and give previous seasons a quiet burial but it happens more than it doesn’t. Kingston left Meyler a panel full of promise and the tools with which to fulfil it. For everyone involved, it takes a bit of getting used to.
“This time last year, there was very little expectation from 2016. Whereas this year, there’s far more. But as well as that, there’s an expectation that you put on yourself privately and that goes on top of what’s there on the team already. They have to respond to that themselves. And then you have the public expectation as the third layer. So it’s a matter of improving in some small way each small area so as to meet those expectations.
“Everybody is different. Everybody has different ideas on the way the game is played. The input of players on every management team is different. So it’s a process of being competitive, getting in new players, trying to fill a few gaps wherever you saw weaknesses last year. You’re trying to identify strengths as well, you can’t just be focusing on weaknesses either.”
Even with all the new jiggery-pokery around the league schedules, January and February are still January and February. Cork had 17 players involved in the Fitzgibbon Cup, another three driving Kanturk’s All-Ireland intermediate success. Between one thing and another, this week is the first time he’ll have a full panel at his disposal since they were doing pre-season back before Christmas.
“The challenge is overload, really. What you’re trying to do is limit the amount of workload on the players. Mark Coleman, Shane Kingston, Darragh Fitzgibbon, these guys. The lads up in Mary I as well, the Kanturk fellas. That’s really what you’re trying to do. You want to manage the workload and sometimes that means telling them, ‘Look, don’t bother coming to training, focus on the Fitzgibbon and we’ll see you when it’s done.’
“So you’re starting to deal now with a full deck. We should have everyone back and ready to go by next week. The niggles and bumps will be all sorted out by then. That has always been the case. It’s nothing new. The newness will be playing a game every Sunday. Instead of last year’s championship, where you had four weeks between Tipperary and Waterford, now you have four games in five weeks. You have only one week to get ready. So that’s the new x-factor that we all have to work out.”
In the meantime, the league is the league. Cork have a win and a defeat from their first two matches and even in a year when timing your run for the summer is going to be crucial, Meyler knows there’s only so much leeway to go around when it comes to these matches.
“We played Wexford a couple of weeks ago and it was championship stuff in the first week of February. The crowd was into it, the intensity of it was huge. Nobody was looking to coast through it or not trying to win it. That’s just the situation.
“If you start losing matches, people start giving out and grumbling. Supporters want to see you win, they want to see your best team. They pay their 15 quid at the gate and they want to see your county being competitive.”