Crisis deepens for Cork hurling and football
Scale of defeats is the most worrying aspect of malaise, writes Colm Keys
Published 28/07/2015 | 02:30
On the wall just outside the doors to the GAA museum beneath the Cusack Stand in Croke Park, the name and crest of every affiliated club is there for all to see.
According to the GAA's latest audit, compiled for the most recent annual report, there are just over 2000 clubs.
Overseas account for over one-fifth with 408, a figure that continues to rise.
Naturally, the biggest county on the island of Ireland takes up by far the biggest section, Cork's 155 listed clubs eclipsing Dublin's 92 and Galway's 81, Tipperary's 79 and Limerick's 69.
No-one else comes close.
Take Galway out of Connacht and the combined number of clubs in the province's other four counties - Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo still falls short of Cork's tally by more than 20. That's the scale of their network.
In GAA terms Cork is the GAA's other big beast. Dublin has the population and 'super clubs' to serve growing areas, but traditionally Gaelic games have always left a deeper footprint across an essentially rural landscape.
But the collapse of Cork's flagship teams over the weekend has placed the spotlight back on their waning fortunes.
Donal Og Cusack's hard-hitting comments on The Sunday Game aimed at Cork County Board's administration - which echo the comments he made in the same forum 11 months earlier after the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Tipperary - have placed an even greater focus on the county's woes.
It leaves Cork without a visit to Croke Park for a Championship match in football or hurling for the first time since 1998.
Of course Cork quickly bounced back from that relative nadir the following year to reach both All-Ireland senior finals, narrowly missing out on a second 'double' when losing the football decider to Meath.
It could be argued that 2001 was worse given their Munster hurling quarter-final exit to Limerick in May and football qualifier defeat in Croke Park to Galway, the eventual All-Ireland champions, in July.
But it's the scale of the weekend defeats which is perhaps most disconcerting from a Cork point of view.
The hurlers' 12-point loss to Galway was in the same territory as that semi-final loss to Tipp last year. It also keeps company with the 10-point League final reversal to Waterford. Only the four-point Munster semi-final defeat to the Deise five weeks later can be deemed even half respectable.
The Cork hurlers have exited their last four competitions by a cumulative total of 36 points.
When they go down these days, they go down in flames.
Yet can anyone really argue that Jimmy Barry-Murphy hasn't maximised the resources available to him in the four years?
In his first three years back at the helm, the Rebels progressed to at least an All-Ireland semi-final; even reaching the quarter-final this year gave them a record of consistency in reaching the 'last six' that only Kilkenny can better.
Given the dearth of underage, colleges and club titles at provincial level in recent years, JBM can be credited for turning vast quantities of water into wine.
No appearance in a Munster hurling final since 2008, when they were last champions; no Munster U-21 title since 2007; no Cork club in a Munster final in the five championships since Newtownshandrum were champions in 2009; no college winning any of the last nine Harty Cups since Midleton CBS's success in 2006, though Rochestown's three-point defeat to Thurles CBS this year can be cited as significant progress.
Earlier this summer, the 1990 All-Ireland winning captain Tomas Mulcahy painted a stark picture of the strength of hurling in Cork city, revealing how Blackrock, one of the trio of traditionally strong clubs there, had no player on the squad despite wining four of the last six county minor titles and two of the last three U-21 titles.
The Duhallow district, unheralded in a hurling context, has been supplying as many players to the Cork team this year as the combined forced of Glen Rovers, St Finbarr's and Blackrock, the market leaders in terms of county titles with 82 between them.
Cork's defensive cover became so stretched this year that they had to call on 29-year-old Aidan Ryan at full-back for his first start in five years for the League final, while Brian Murphy was coaxed out of an 18-month retirement just two weeks before the Munster semi-final.
Murphy's recall was a success but what did it say about the pool of talent available to the management when these calls had to be made?
The demise of the footballers has perhaps been diluted somewhat by events the following day, but the Cork public had already voted with their feet with their paltry contribution to a paltry 3,815.
Admittedly Thurles is much further away from the football strongholds of west Cork than Killarney but the erosion of faith after that scoreless last 28 minutes or so a week earlier was palpable. And the team, already burdened by the quick turnaround and their failure to respond in any meaningful way to Paul Geaney's goal, surely sensed that.
Little wonder that Brian Cuthbert declined afterwards to explain away another poor performance that compounds the nature of their Croke Park League defeats to Dublin in successive years and the 2014 Munster final reverse to Kerry.
Unfortunately for Cork these type of defeats have not been in isolation. They can point to a harsh refereeing decision on the first day in Killarney, but the nature of the Kildare defeat calls into question more than ever the mental resolve of the group.
Cuthbert had sensed it in the aftermath of the Kerry loss. "It's the ultimate test of the group now, isn't it?" he asked. "A result like this will take a lot out of them. It's as much a mental challenge now."
Not one, you sensed, he was bristling with confidence of passing.
It's ironic that as a dearth of underage hurling success is turning ripples of concern into seismic waves, the county's U-21 footballers have never had it better against Kerry, the main barometer for any Cork team. They have reeled off five successive Munster Championship wins over their great rivals, but the translation to senior level has been minimal.
Cusack's comments will be taken by some in the context of his and his former colleagues' various battles with Cork County Board administrators.
Ironically since the last of those battles over the winter of 2008 into 2009 Cork County Board has become one of the slickest operations in terms of PR. The spend on inter-county teams is only ever surpassed by Dublin year-on-year.
Whatever about his views on the profile of Cork delegates, his points are well made, backed up by some glaring statistics.
Cork is the biggest GAA county and such long spells without provincial minor, colleges, U-21 and even club success now looks like it is seeping at all levels. The cracks can't be painted over forever.
The perception of inertia and inactivity on the development front is challenged by senior administrator Diarmuid O'Donovan, who accepted that the county may have taken their eye off the ball some years back but were working hard to address that now.
"A lot of other counties will tell you that the development squad system and competition structures we have are excellent," he said. "We do not put an emphasis on winning at U-14, 15 or 16 level."
Cork should be a county too big to fail on such a regular basis. But right now their results make grim reading.