Kieran Kingston’s steady hand guiding Rebel resurgence
Manager insists Cork still a ‘work in progress’ as they prepare to face Waterford
Kieran Kingston celebrates with his son Shane following the Munster quarter-final win over Tipperary at Thurles. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Two hours after Cork’s thrill-a-minute sacking of Tipperary in the Munster hurling championship, Kieran Kingston and his squad began to put their win in context.
“We parked it,” he says now.
It wasn’t that they weren’t overjoyed; the scenes on the field afterwards told that story plainly enough. But precisely because it felt like such a special day for Cork hurling, it was important that what is an exceptionally young squad didn’t lose sight of its co-ordinates.
Kingston went so far as to remark in the days afterwards that the win left his team as “sitting ducks”. That a Cork hurling team had become a source of joy to the county was something that mattered to them all. But before they parted ways, they began to go through that process of separating themselves from the general buoyancy.
“We set out our stall early in the year to keep the outside out,” he explains.
“We haven’t earned the right, in my view, to take anything for granted. We know we are on a learning curve. We are trying to develop our team step by step. We have had some setbacks along the way and we know we haven’t earned the right to get carried away.
“And I can understand the euphoria around the county from supporters and that because Cork hadn’t beaten Tipperary in Thurles in championship in 11 or 12 years. And our supporters would have gone up more in hope than confidence, to be fair. And they came up in their thousands and they were fantastic, they really got into it. And then the way that the game was won: it was such a good game of hurling which you appreciated when you sat down to watch it.
“So all of that is understandable. From our perspective, though, we had fellas back with their clubs two weeks after that game. That brings fellas back to earth.”
For Cork’s hurling cognoscenti, the last few years have left them more than acquainted with feeling earthbound. They wanted to float for a while and Kingston gets that. Like everything about managing an elite hurling team, it’s about balance. Don’t misunderstand him: he wants the Cork hurling fraternity to arrive in Thurles on Sunday noontime in full heart once again.
If Kilkenny’s summer presence has been defined by a dark grandeur then Cork at their best represent a kind of irrepressible lightness and momentum. Tapping into Cork’s distinguishing characteristics has been central to Kingston’s task.
It has been seldom remarked upon but when he accepted the Cork position in 2015, Kingston was stepping into one of the most challenging assignments in Gaelic sport. For a start, he was succeeding Jimmy Barry-Murphy, his friend and the enduring figurehead of a sunlit epoch for Cork sport, when the hurlers were capable of seemingly effortless rushes to brilliance.
In recent years, the national emphasis has moved from Cork to the fierce, claustrophobic rivalry between Kilkenny and Tipp whereas new potential challengers were emerging from Clare, from Waterford, from Galway. Cork had become a bit part in the national summer conversation. So taking on the role was something Kingston had to think about deeply.
“On one side, it is a massive honour. An opportunity like that probably only comes around once in your lifetime. You also have to weigh up the expectation. Have you something to add? Because it is about Cork hurling, not me. And it is quite challenging.
“Cork people love their hurling. And a lot of people can’t accept or understand why we are without an All-Ireland senior for 12 years or an under-21 for 19 years or a minor for 15 years. And a lot of people find that unacceptable.
“My task is to try to be the best we can be at the moment but to also prepare the team to be the best it can be in the future. It is not about me or the players now; it is about Cork hurling. You are doing this in your spare time on a voluntary basis and you still have to try and keep some balance in family and work life. That balance is probably where the great challenge comes. You know there will be pressure and good and bad days – maybe more bad than good – and you are always as good as your next game. But it is getting that balance.”
Kingston’s public image suggests a kind of steadiness but it would be wrong to portray him as conservative in his thinking or methodology. He took the radical step of securing the services of Gary Keegan, the former director of boxing, as a member of his backroom staff. And he caused minor shock waves by promoting 12 Cork U-21 players to the senior grade for this year.
Cork’s overwhelming youth was one of the reasons the county was tipped by many to slide into Division 1B again; instead, they beat Clare, Waterford and Tipperary and went to the league quarter-finals. The championship win over Tipperary could be interpreted as a vindication in his faith in the younger players. But vindication has nothing to do with it.
In any observation he makes, Kingston is at pains to emphasise that Cork are still very much a work in progress. And he brought in the younger players because he was convinced it was the right thing to do, regardless of results.
“I did feel there was an element of risk in it. I’ll be honest. And the easy option was not to do it. That was the safe option. But I felt, being straight up about it, that whatever the season would bring would not be the right thing for Cork hurling. The safe thing was not to do it but the right thing was to do it. It is an evolving process.
“It was difficult because we didn’t have 15 or 20 players like Kilkenny or Tipp or Waterford that you can name out. We were trying to get more competition into the panel. And how do you do that? You do it by bringing players in for the Munster league and national league. And therein lies the risk because it is so competitive.”
There is a temptation to translate that magical afternoon against Tipperary as proof that Cork are “back”. Kingston is dismissive of that equation. There have been setbacks all along the way. Their opening night win over Clare was followed by a chastening defeat against Dublin on their next outing.
“There were periods in the Kilkenny game when we lost our shape and composure and all of a sudden we go six points down. The Limerick game was a setback. And when you are trying to blood players while retaining your status and also develop a team for the championship, it is a real balancing act.”
Appraising the overall state of Cork hurling is often down to perspective. The county hasn’t won an under-21 All-Ireland since 1998 or a minor title in 15 years. The thumping heartbeat which the big city clubs provided to the Cork game isn’t as easy to detect any more and there is an argument to be made that something of the Cork identity was lost when Blackrock, St Finbarr’s and Glen Rovers were no longer setting the agenda at county level.
“You can say that their decline has coincided with the decline of Cork hurling. And maybe there is a correlation there. But you can also say that the demographics are changing and even if the traditional clubs aren’t as good as they were, other clubs have stepped into the space. And Glen Rovers are going for three Cork championships in a row.”
He would contend that, regardless of underage titles, Cork continues to bring good young hurlers through and that the county is very strong from age 15-20 right now. But those are more general issues. The senior team sucks up all his mental energy.
Like most hurling people, he has watched from afar as Derek McGrath transformed the internal energy and fortunes of Waterford hurling to radical effect. He makes the argument that Waterford are probably three years ahead of Cork in their progression and that they are one of the favourites to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup. And this isn’t the usual shadow-boxing. It’s the simple truth.
“And that is why we need to be real about where we are in our evolution. We know we could come crashing down really quickly if we are not fully focused on Sunday. Waterford are more seasoned and are further along that curve.”
So another gigantic win in Thurles won’t complete Cork nor will a defeat end their summer. All they have earned is the right to compete for a Munster final place. That will do fine for now.