Jimmy Barry-Murphy sticking to old values in new drive for glory
Critics queued up to condemn dual legend as yesterday's man but his old-fashioned approach has restored harmony in Cork hurling and turned Rebels into regular All-Ireland contenders again
Published 16/08/2014 | 02:30
Where are the naysayers now, the self-absorbed hurling intellectuals who concluded that Jimmy Barry-Murphy was living in a time warp, watching old western movies on black and white television while the smart boys were studying space age technology?
JBM offended the intelligentsia with the apparent simplicity of his approach, which involved assembling the best players he could find, training and coaching them off basic principles and sending them out to hurl.
Kilkenny, under Brian Cody, hadn't done too badly off a similar template but things were different in Cork. The All-Ireland wins of 2004 and '05 had been preceded and succeeded by outbreaks of conflict between players and officialdom, which polluted the atmosphere for a long time.
Unquestionably, the players had grounds for their grievances, although how they prosecuted some of them - notably the treatment of Gerald McCarthy - was quite scandalous. The Cork administration wasn't exactly a paragon of good judgment either, regularly giving the impression that the system came before those it was meant to serve.
And while they locked themselves into entrenched positions in the disputes with the players, the county's underage teams struggled to keep pace with their rivals. That's still the case, leaving Cork without an All-Ireland U-21 title since 1998 or a minor title since 2001.
JBM believes that winning underage titles is not an imperative for senior success, pointing out that a certain number of top-class young players will come through every year, even if there may not be enough of them to land minor or U-21 silverware.
Underage issues certainly weren't on the agenda of those who were less than enthusiastic about JBM's return as team manager for the 2012 season. He would never have been regarded as an unquestioning county board loyalist but neither was he an unchallenging apologist for players during the various disputes.
The perception of him as an honest broker was central to his appointment, together with John Fenton and Denis Coughlan, on a special committee charged with finding a replacement for McCarthy when he resigned in the spring 2009. And when it came to replacing Denis Walsh, who succeeded McCarthy, JBM was an obvious choice, provided he was prepared to take on the job.
His second managerial stint (his first ran from 1996-2000) was always going to form an extremely interesting segment in Cork hurling history. Most of the public were behind him, but he took over at a time when a strong-willed squad, which had enjoyed considerable success, was breaking up.
It was never going to be an easy transition. For while nobody can ever question the achievements - on and off the field - of the 1999-2009 squad, some of them gave the clear impression that they regarded themselves as masters of their own destiny. They demanded a big input into who managed them; they would decide when their time was up; they would do everything on their terms.
Managing in that environment was always going to be difficult for JBM. Even when Cork reached the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final, losing to Galway, who had earlier beaten Kilkenny in the Leinster final, the background niggling continued.
And when Eoin Cadogan opted to concentrate on football only at the start of last year, it was portrayed in some quarters as a clear signal that the hurlers were going nowhere.
Dual players rarely opt for football ahead of hurling as their first choice, so a deep significance was attributed to Cadogan's decision. It was interpreted as proof that the footballers had a better set-up than the hurlers and were also more likely to be successful.
Strength and conditioning was a big part of the footballers' regime, less so with the hurlers. Naturally, a supposed lack of physicality was blamed for Cork's defeats by Kilkenny in the 2012 League final and by Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final. Heaven forbid that those defeats would be explained on the basis that Kilkenny and Galway had better players.
Sean Og O hAilpin's statement in a newspaper interview on the morning of Cork's Munster semi-final clash with Clare last year that there were "guys there (on the panel) being called in from places I never heard of" would have become valuable currency for JBM's critics if the result had gone against him.
Instead, Cork hurled Clare into oblivion in the second half, making O hAilpin's comments look utterly ridiculous. O hAilpin had also bemoaned the absence from the panel of his clubmate John Gardiner. In fairness to O hAilpin, he was brave enough to articulate in public what some others were saying privately. It all fed into the view that Cork would make no real progress under JBM.
And while the Munster championship victory over Clare suggested otherwise, failing to win the All-Ireland final against the same opposition refuelled the critics. There were claims that Davy Fitzgerald had out-foxed JBM tactically, a bizarre assessment, since the tie was only settled in the closing minutes of a replay.
The reality is that those who didn't want a return to JBM's managerial style won't give him any credit unless the Liam MacCarthy Cup returns to Cork. He knows that, but at this stage of his remarkable career he is not concerned by what anyone thinks of him.
Essentially, JBM's approach is governed by the essence of the Cork hurling personality which is backboned by an unwavering self-confidence. The mushroom comparison regarding Cork's capacity to grow overnight may be exaggerated but there's no doubt that they are extremely good at getting the maximum from the available talent.
That included persuading JBM to return as manager at a time when serious decisions had to be made about the squad. With so much pseudo-science being peddled about modern-day hurling, JBM's practical approach was always going to draw criticism from those who believe that the game can be tactically structured to replicate slower, more formation-based field sports. It can't.
Instinct is still a key part of hurling, for players and managers, and Cork are lucky to well be well endowed on both fronts. In the end, of course, JBM's second coming will be judged on whether he presides over an All-Ireland victory.
The graph has moved consistently in the right direction over three seasons, helped by the arrival of new talent, not least this year when Aidan Walsh, Mark Ellis and Alan Cadogan have been valuable additions. It reinforces JBM's view that senior panels should not be reliant on successful underage teams, but rather on individuals coming through on a season-by-season basis.
However, that does not explain why Cork have done so poorly in the underage grades. They are in their longest ever run without All-Ireland minor and U-21 successes, which suggests a serious fault line at the core of their operations.
Cork would always feel they could trade their way out of difficulty, but why is it taking so long? An All-Ireland senior win would be a massive boost but clearly there are other issues requiring attention.
In the meantime, the seniors have taken Cork back into familiar territory, contending for the All-Ireland title under a manager whose faith in the county's ability to deliver at the highest level is unyielding.
The dark days of strife and strikes are in the distant past and will be completely banished to a footnote in history if Cork win the All-Ireland title this year. As for those who questioned whether JBM was the right man to lead Cork in the modern era, they have got their answer in most emphatic terms.
During that period Cork have beaten Clare, Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny, Wexford, Offaly and Dublin in the Championship, leaving only Galway and Tipperary as their two black spots.
Tipperary are now very much in Cork's sights in a Croke Park showdown that will captivate the hurling world. It's altogether appropriate that JBM is at the heart of it, bringing his special brand of genius to bear on a squad which believes implicitly in him.
He was in his fourth season as manager when guiding Cork to All-Ireland glory in 1999 at a time when the county was deep in frustration, having gone nine years without a title. They are in that territory again, having won their last title in 2005.
Cork were convinced back then that they had finally shaken off Kilkenny and would win several more titles before the end of the decade. They led Kilkenny by two on the All-Ireland honours table at that stage, but are now four behind their great Leinster rivals, who have won six of the last eight titles.
It's uncomfortable territory for Cork and with Kilkenny already through to this year's final, there's a distinct possibility they will pull even further ahead. Alternatively, Cork could enjoy one of the sweetest All-Ireland wins in their history by beating Tipp and the Cats, taking the title for the 31st time.
The extent of the overhaul JBM has undertaken over a two-year period is underlined by the fact that only five of the team (Anthony Nash, Shane O'Neill, Lorcan McLoughlin, Pa Cronin and Patrick Horgan) that played against Tipp in the 2012 Munster semi-final will start tomorrow. It has been a quiet, but very effective revolution, undertaken by a man who always kept the faith, even when his critics were sniping away in the background.
Whether it leads Cork to the presentation podium in Croke Park next month remains to be seen. An increasing number of people believe it will.