Vincent Hogan: McCarthy forever hooked on firm hurling beliefs
It doesn't require a wild leap of the imagination to see Limerick getting nuked tomorrow. The game in Pairc Ui Chaoimh looms less as a contest than a gesture. Cork will win as they choose and those concerned can be trusted to put up a firewall of banalities against the sadness. Justin McCarthy -- dapper and gracefully aged -- may even be home in Rochestown before the bells of the Angelus.
If so, he'll sit to his tea with an easy conscience. He has never held himself up as anything but a hurling missionary, "spreading the gospel" as he observed in his autobiography 'Hooked'. In that sense, he probably even sees himself as philosophically removed from the essential Limerick story now.
Justin coaches hurling. In the cramped space of his obsession, there is no room for contrary energy.
Hence the almost regal carriage sustained through a poisonous winter. The impression of virtual denial. More than two dozen of Limerick's best hurlers essentially refused to work with him, yet not a flicker of doubt came sliding past those Cork eyes.
To all intents and purposes, he disengaged. Coaching is his science. Man-management is another field.
Towards the end of his time with Waterford, the dressing-room view was that conversations with him had all the warmth of communication by fax. Likewise, with the Limerick strikers now.
The catalyst for rebellion wasn't his ruthless cull of a squad humiliated by Tipperary last August. It was a subsequent interview given in which he implied a deficit of discipline in those discarded. "Justin could have stopped the rot there and then," reflected one of the strikers this week.
"But he didn't. He went to ground and allowed it fester. It suited his purposes. The image of Limerick hurlers being hard to manage fed an old cliché and took the heat off him."
That may be so, but you have to remind yourself that this is a row that first pealed with thunder last October. If the manager's survival instinct took him one way, it's hard to understand how the county board could fall into line so passively behind him.
Players have their theories, of course, referring to what they call "the elephant in the room". No matter, tomorrow Limerick will field a development team against a Cork side that obliterated Tipperary. The dye is cast.
And, for McCarthy, the impression hardens of a once great old hurling man now hopelessly diminished by ego and hubris. The Waterford players rebelled against him because they considered his training drills out-dated and lacking in intensity.
In Limerick, the absence of an identifiable game-plan prior to last year's All-Ireland qualifier defeat of Wexford moved the squad to devise one of their own. The players' representatives, Niall Moran and Stephen Lucey, found McCarthy routinely unreceptive to expressions of dressing-room concern.
Both were among the dozen subsequently culled. "They say don't shoot the messenger," said one player this week. "But Justin shot ours."
McCarthy's first high-profile missionary work took him to Clare once Cork had jettisoned him as coach following a Championship defeat to Galway in 1975. He would take much of the credit for Clare's consecutive National League titles in '77 and '78.
Father Harry Bohan was manager of those teams and still speaks with fondness of the almost evangelical energy McCarthy brought to Banner county training at the time. He recalls his "absolute, complete and utter passion for the game", an energy "that never waned".
Yet Fr Bohan feels a profound sense of melancholy now as Justin's reputation continues to unravel.
"It's desperately sad to think that it has come to this for somebody who gave so much to the game," he said when contacted yesterday.
"But I've said this over and over. Anyone who would walk into a dressing-room and find a bunch of fellas who say they don't want you, wouldn't you be inclined to turn your back and say 'Good luck'? But I suppose the one thing about Justin is he would be almost blind in his determination. The fact that he's coaching a Limerick second team wouldn't over-bother him.
"Still, there's a huge sadness about the whole thing, especially coming at this stage of his life. Because people forget very quickly."
There is some pathos too in the setting for tomorrow's charade. McCarthy is now in his mid-60s and has had three different stints working with his native county. He lasted just four months as coach in '75, despite claiming the Munster title with a team that had not won a Championship match in three years.
Seven years later, he returned as a Cork selector, only to be removed again after defeat by Kilkenny in the 1982 All-Ireland final. One year later, he was back as Cork coach, guiding his native county to the Centenary All-Ireland title at Semple Stadium.
Yet he was gone a year later, his fate almost certainly sealed by an incendiary newspaper interview, given after Cork's Munster final defeat of Tipperary.
In it, McCarthy expressed the view that 70pc of Tipp's victories in the '60s had been, essentially, triumphs of physicality. "The aim was getting the man out of the game, hitting him, putting him off, jolting him," said Justin of one of the most revered county teams known to hurling.
The comments sparked uproar in Tipperary and, indeed, deep discomfort in Cork itself. By the end of that year's Championship, Justin was gone. "I knew I'd never coach Cork again," he would write of '85. "I was only 40 then."
That Justin would see this, fundamentally, as Cork's loss is beyond argument. 'Hooked' is littered with potted testimonials to his greatness as a player and that same inner confidence has long defined his coaching personality. The book actually amounts to an extraordinary exercise in self-promotion, albeit Justin would undoubtedly protest that every line is resolutely factual.
A random sample of lines taken from the breathless narrative would be:
"one of the finest individual exhibitions he had ever seen."
"for some reason, I could do no wrong ... "
"Wexford even moved Mick Jacob onto me, yet he was powerless."
"Mitchel Cogley went so far as to deem me the Sportsperson of the Year in his column, relegating the Arkle team of Pat Taaffe and Tom Dreaper to 2nd ... "
"totally out-playing Cregan..."
"Every time I played, the papers seemed to give me rave reviews."
"Even my greatest critic sensed I was on the verge of realising his vision of another Meagher ... "
Routinely, he refers to himself in the third person. He misses the irony of applauding Ger Cunningham's "great humility" for working incessantly on his touch in the Rochestown ball-alley with the attendant observation: "It was only in 1997 that he first beat me in a game. Ger was still playing for Cork then; I was 52."
Elsewhere, he recounts his time coaching Cashel and a trip they took to Clare that involved a two-hour session of ball-alley games in St Flannans. McCarthy recalls reaching the final of the individual tournament, in which his opponent was the team's free-taker, Tommy Grogan.
And he writes in some detail of edging that final 23-21 against "a fierce competitor with a hard and accurate shot" who "also had the crowd with him".
It is, in some ways, a wonderfully refreshing book, given the subject's utterly uninhibited self-regard. There is no false modesty, no cloying "yerrah the ball just fell my way" conceit.
Justin McCarthy was a beautiful hurler in his day and, if you never saw him, he can but sympathise with your loss.
As a coach, he believes that some powerfully influential people in his native county never quite forgave him for "defecting" to Clare in the 1970s. Previously, he had worked with Antrim, yet Antrim existed in a different jurisdiction. They posed no threat.
The Clare of Loughnane, Stack and Callinan was a different story and it does seem extraordinary, given his coaching profile, that a quarter of a century has passed without Justin McCarthy working again in a Cork bib.
Apart from his subsequent inter-county work with Waterford and Limerick, McCarthy guided Cashel to a Munster club title and, by his own estimation, has worked with "16 different club or divisional teams in Cork".
In the rancour of his departure from Waterford, it is perhaps easily overlooked that he guided the county to three Munster titles, including their first in 39 years.
Conal Bonnar was part of the Cashel team invigorated by McCarthy in the early 1990s and offers a glimpse of the psychological revolution the Corkman brought to that dressing-room. Cashel's ambition at the time wouldn't have extended beyond winning a divisional title in West Tipperary. Yet, at his first meeting with them, McCarthy announced that the divisional bauble didn't interest him.
"Unless your ambition is a county title, I'm out of here," he said.
One year later, they lost the county final to Holycross, only to claim the Dan Breen cup in '91, then beat a strong Midleton in the Munster final and get squeezed out of an All-Ireland final by Kiltormer after two replays.
McCarthy's personality hit them like a force of nature yet, with the passing of time, that power began to diminish.
Bonnar recalls: "Maybe what we needed to do within a year or two was to win the All-Ireland. But Justin was kind of like Enda Kenny. You know people started thinking that maybe he could only bring them so far.
"Personally, I wouldn't have a bad word to say about him. He's genuine and passionate and probably the best hurling man I know. But the reality is he should just be a hurling ambassador.
"You won't match his hurling and his passion and, because of that, eventually he'll bore you. Maybe he wears people out with that passion. I mean, if you look at older managers lately, they have all been removed by players.
"Gerald McCarthy didn't get on with them in Cork; Babs didn't get on with the younger generation in Tipp; Mike Mac likewise in Clare and John Meyler in Wexford. Now Justin.
"So I don't think this is just Justin. In inter-county hurling now, you're dealing largely with young guys, just out of college. They want to hurl, but they want to do a lot of other things too. Their heads are all over the place. And there's a certain arrogance in the hurling age-group of people like Gerald and Babs.
"They talk in terms of the jersey being enough. They believe fellas should just get on with it. There's this respect they feel you should automatically have for someone with five or six All-Irelands. But these lads don't even remember Justin McCarthy hurling. They don't remember Babs or Gerald.
"And, what's more, they don't really want to hear about it. So I think Justin is fighting against that too. A 20-year-old today is very different even to when I was 20. I've nothing against the older managers. They were the guys who coached me and I thought they were fantastic.
"But you'd have to look at the evidence and say well the younger generation don't think they are fantastic."
Whether or not tomorrow is McCarthy's swan-song, no-one can be sure. There has long been rumour in Limerick that he could be granted a two-year extension, regardless of Championship embarrassments. For a county already on the wrong end of a 31-point whipping by Dublin en route to relegation in the League, it would seem an extraordinary possibility.
He has long lamented "over-emphasis on physical fitness" in the modern game, reflecting that today's body-Nazis would never find room for a Seanie O'Leary in their team. Yet, the game has quickened and intensified to such a degree that it's not difficult to see that view as a mite obstinate and naïve. Defiantly old-school.
No matter, he will stand in green tomorrow and take whatever comes without a glimpse of emotion. As the closing lines of 'Hooked' declare: "They can fire me, they can suspend me, but they can never take the game from me.
"They can even jail me and I'll make an alley out of that cell, boy. Because I'll be forever hurling. I'll be forever hooked."
Even if that noise in the sky is the drone of an approaching bomber.