Jackie Tyrrell: Cork hurling needs leaders of old
Senior players need to offer better example against Tipperary than last year’s disaster
Diarmuid O'Sullivan and Donal Og Cusack in 2006. Photograph: Inpho
A lot of the time, people focus on the wrong thing when they’re assessing a team’s chances. Take Cork this Sunday against Tipperary. All the talk around Cork after the league and going into the championship has been about the young guys who are coming on to the scene. Shane Kingston, Mark Coleman, Luke Meade, Dean Brosnan, Colm Spillane, Michael Spillane, Darragh Fitzgibbon. Cork’s future. Now.
Some of these lads will start on Sunday, a few more of them will be very likely to come on. So in all the chat that surrounds the game, that’s what people think will determine the winning and losing of it. Cork are going with youth and everybody is mad keen to see how it goes for them.
The reality is, though, that no matter how good or bad these lads are on Sunday, they’re not the key to the outcome. Their youth will bring energy, freshness, boldness, confidence and exuberance to the Cork set-up and it will help shape the panel’s mentality going into the game. But when the ball is in and the heat is on, Cork will rise or fall on the leadership provided by the core of experienced players already there.
I’m talking about Anthony Nash, Conor Lehane, Mark Ellis, Alan Cadogan, Bill Cooper, Séamus Harnedy, Patrick Horgan. Time and again when you watch Cork, you wonder where the leaders are. Too many of them have a tendency to go missing in games and not touch the ball for ages. That can’t happen now, not when they have a crop of young, quality players to show the ropes to.
If you had to pinpoint one big problem with Cork over the past few years, it’s a lack of leaders. The Cork teams I played against in the 2000s were coming down with them. Donal Óg Cusack would always be there with his “We are Cork, boi” arrogance. Diarmuid O’Sullivan, Ronan Curran and John Gardiner would knock your head off your shoulders without a second thought.
Seán Óg Ó hAilpín had that in him too, when it was needed. Ben and Jerry O’Connor would run the legs off you, Timmy and Niall McCarthy never gave you an easy ball. That’s every patch of the field covered with lads who wouldn’t know how to let a game pass them by.
Now think of the Cork team of the last few years. Think of all the games you’ve seen where Horgan ended up with seven points, all from frees, and you couldn’t think of another thing he did in the game. Or where Cadogan sprinted out to collect the first ball and scored the first point and then wasn’t seen for the next 15 minutes. Or where Lehane looked like he might spark into life at any minute and next thing you knew the game was over.
Or think of the Cork defenders. Over the last five years, they have to be the nicest set of backs I’ve ever seen. Excellent on the ball, all of them. But so nice they would nearly pick your hurl off the ground for you if you dropped it.
The leeway you get for being young should only last a very short time
Very rarely do you see them taking a yellow card when it has to be taken. When’s the last time you heard of one of them being up in front of the Central Competitions Control Committee? I’m not saying they should be going around killing fellas for the sake of it. But part of the game is doing what has to be done, when it has to be done.
So here is Cork’s problem. They have a heap of young guys coming on stream and that creates expectation among the supporters. But you don’t learn intercounty hurling just by pulling on the jersey. You learn by watching what the experienced players are doing, what they are saying, how they carry themselves, where they set the bar.
You are never more impressionable than in your first year or two on an intercounty panel. You don’t know anything, really. So you’re soaking up everything that’s going on around you. You’re bouncing down the street in the team tracksuit, delighted with yourself, knowing that people are talking about you. And when it comes to the hurling side of it, you basically know that whatever you do well is a bonus and if you come up short, it’s not disastrous. You’re young so nobody is going to blame you.
This is where the culture of a dressingroom is so important. The leeway you get for being young should only last a very short time. In a good dressingroom, the leaders give you a bit of wriggle room to make mistakes but they make it clear that there’s a standard that has to be maintained. They don’t mind it if you’re not there yet as long as you’re working your way there.
That was what was said over and over again in my time in Kilkenny dressingrooms. When I got in there in 2003, you had lads such as Peter Barry, DJ Carey, Andy Comerford. And all they would say to you is make sure you work. Work hard, get the jersey, savour it when you have it and pass it on to the next guy in a better state than you got it. That was the over-arching mentality. That was the leadership you learned from.
What are young guys learning when they walk into the Cork dressingroom? What example are they being set? This is a team that utterly failed its acid test last year, by which I mean the qualifier against Wexford. Not scoring for 21 minutes in a championship game is just not acceptable. When Daniel Kearney got the 61st-minute goal to spring them from two down to one up, that should have been a big momentum changer. But it wasn’t. Instead, they went missing. They accepted defeat.
What’s Cork’s identity? It’s hard to pin it down, isn’t it?
So if that’s the culture, then that’s what young guys learn. They settle into a camp where not affecting a game in the last 10 minutes is accepted. They are shown that the biggest names in the team, the lads they looked up to before they ever even met them, can live with not being able to turn a game their way when it’s in the melting pot. Without even knowing it, they’re forming bad habits that they might never get rid of.
Leaders don’t have to make inspiring speeches or be always talking or constantly in the spotlight to show the way. It’s in how they prepare meticulously for big games. How they go quieter as the week develops, how they exude a razor-sharp focus, a killer instinct, an aggressive body language. It’s how they have that look in their eye before you go out that dressingroom door at 3.10pm that makes you think: “Yeah, we’re ready for whatever this team throws at us.”
Most of all, it’s doing what has to be done, going beyond the norm. In 2007, All-Ireland final against Limerick, Mike Fitzgerald got the ball about 10 minutes before half-time and took Noel Hickey on at the Hill 16 end near the Cusack side. I was less than 10 yards away. The ball hopped up between the two of them and as Noel went for it, he tore his hamstring. You could see straight away his day was over.
Mike Fitz had the ball though and as he turned, it looked as if he was in around Noel and had a straight run in along the endline to goal. Not on Noel’s watch. He decided in a split second that he wasn’t getting in on goal, and stretched out and let fly with the hurl and pulled across him. I could hear the crack of the hurl across Mike’s hand and as Noel hobbled off the pitch, Barry Kelly raised a fully-deserved yellow card. But Noel didn’t care – the goal wasn’t breached and he did what had to be done. That’s a killer instinct.
That moment stayed with me for my whole career. I thought about it several times afterwards. You’d have to watch it back a few times to even see it, he did it that quickly and instinctively. But it just stuck with me because it brought home what he was willing to do. He was in agony, his All-Ireland final was over. But without even thinking, he was doing anything he could to stop a goal. Mind the house. Nothing else matters. Ruthless. That was our identity.
What’s Cork’s identity? It’s hard to pin it down, isn’t it? Worst of all, most of what you’d come up with is negative. Inconsistency. Lack of physicality. Major lack of leadership. Gameplans for the sake of it, like William Egan playing sweeper last year against Tipperary without them having drilled it and perfected it during the league.
Some of these Cork players have to step up and show real leadership and make a statement
These are all bad habits and they’ve been there for a while. So what can you expect young guys to learn only those same habits? The result is that the bar starts at a low point the following year and any small bit of improvement is only from that low base. That’s how teams get stuck in a rut. They accept their lot in life. They forget that it doesn’t have to be this way.
That’s what makes this Tipperary game such a massive one for this Cork team. Last year was a disaster. They tried something new that they clearly didn’t even really believe in, they did it badly, they got a hiding. They can’t afford for Sunday to go the same way. If that happens, then that’s another bad habit formed. It’s two years’ worth of Cork players who get it into their heads that Tipperary are a team to have a mental block about.
That can’t happen. I don’t expect Cork to win on Sunday but I want to see a level of anger out of them. What’s important is that if they lose, they lose fighting. That they lose having a real shot at Tipperary. That they put in a performance that is completely different to last year when they didn’t land a glove.
Some of these Cork players have to step up and show real leadership and make a statement that this is a new Cork team, one that has steel, one that does not roll over like against Wexford last year. That they collectively say we’re maybe not at the skill level of Tipp or have the experience they do just yet, but we are going places. We have youth, we have physicality, we have an identity.
That starts with the experienced guys. If they do their bit, they will give the younger lads something to build on. And bit by bit, Cork can start putting something together and get back to where they should be.