Saturday 21 October 2017

Patrolling enemy line still an act of treason to Rebel hard-liners

Cork men who coach rival counties can be treated as pariahs, writes Dermot Crowe

Ger Cunningham as a Cork player
Ger Cunningham as a Cork player
‘Cunningham, like McCarthy back then, is where he is now partly because of frustration at not being given a crack at managing his own county’

Dermot Crowe

The chapter title in Justin McCarthy’s autobiography dealing with his move to coach Clare in the 1970s prepares the reader for an adversarial narrative. ‘Crossing the Line’  suggests a new and not necessarily popular departure. For some in his county it was a line a Cork man shouldn’t cross. The line is now more blurred and the environment less intolerant and unforgiving.

McCarthy wasn’t the first but he was the ice-breaker. The legendary Jim ‘Tough’ Barry, who trained a dozen Cork teams to win All-Irelands, also helped Limerick reach the summit in 1934. Barry’s last successful Cork expedition in 1966 featured McCarthy as a brilliant young midfielder. In 10 years he would be feeling an outcast, discarded as Cork coach after his playing career had been stalled by injury. In Clare he was taking on Cork’s main rival in Munster, going on to directly challenge them in successive provincial finals.

Opportunity knocked when Cork declined to reappoint him coach after leading the county to a Munster title in 1975. Fr Harry Bohan spotted an opportunity, contacting him in October 1976 to offer him the Clare coaching role.

“I could hear what people would have to say about that though. . . ‘Justin’s gone to Clare? Sure, he’s only doing that to get his own back on Cork,’” McCarthy recounted in Hooked. While his work coaching Antrim in the early part of the decade had been met with “great approval” that county did not represent a threat to Cork. Clare did.

Today Ger Cunningham takes Dublin into a League semi-final against Cork. The situation can’t contain the same visceral feeling as McCarthy’s adventure but some elements are familiar. Cunningham recently served under Jimmy Barry Murphy as coach and handled many of the players he will be plotting against this afternoon. He won All-Irelands with Barry Murphy as a player. In 1998 his playing career ended while Barry Murphy was in his first spell as Cork manager. They are also from the same club, St Finbarr’s, which delivered other crusaders in Donal O’Grady, Gerald McCarthy and John Allen.

To Justin McCarthy in the 1970s it was a matter of wanting to coach and finding that the options at home weren’t open to him. He was 31 when Bohan called, and two weeks later he had decided he would make the five-hour round trip, knowing that being on the opposite side to Cork in the Munster Championship was a distinct possibility.

“I’d love to still have been coaching Cork but the county board didn’t want me and I had long since accepted their will,” he wrote. He cited a strained relationship with the influential Cork secretary Frank Murphy and other county board executives. Once he made the move, the road ahead had moments of surrealism. In the 1977 Munster Championship, having won the National League for the first time since 1946, Clare met Limerick in the semi-final. Murphy was referee.

Jimmy Barry Murphy was on the Cork team that defeated Clare in successive Munster finals with McCarthy as coach. In McCarthy’s book, Barry Murphy is quoted on the issue. “The fact that Justin McCarthy managed Clare was a big factor in Cork. We all had tremendous respect for him but when a fellow county man is training another county, it’s bound to galvanise the team. It added a cutting edge to the whole thing.”

McCarthy was firmly in the Clare corner but travelling to the Munster final in 1977 among a convoy of red and white followers felt unnatural. When he encountered the Cork squad in the Anner Hotel in Thurles before the match he said they passed by each other as if strangers. “I later found out that more than one selector made the point that there was no way another Cork man was going to stand between them and another Munster title,” he claimed.

The game has changed enormously since that time and attitudes have softened too. But Cunningham, like McCarthy back then, is where he is now partly because of frustration at not being given a crack at managing his own county. When John Allen left after the 2006 All-Ireland defeat, Cunningham looked perfectly positioned to take over, having coached Cork under Allen and O’Grady. But his face did not fit. His relationship with Donal Óg Cusack, his successor as Cork goalkeeper and a prominent figure during the first Cork players’ strike, was seen to have damaged his prospects in a highly politicised climate.

Justin McCarthy did coach Cork again to win the 1984 All-Ireland, along with Canon O’Brien, but he needed a change in the appointment system to defeat political opposition within the county board executive. In his book there is an account of an exchange between McCarthy and Cunningham some time after they lost to Galway in the 1985 All-Ireland semi-final when doubts existed about him being retained as coach. He tells Cunningham he has had enough. “Ger, I know where I’m wanted and where I’m not. There are other places where I can enjoy the game.”

With other counties showing interest, Cunningham resigned as a Cork selector and coach under Barry Murphy and last year took over Dublin. By then the pattern was well established. Gerald McCarthy managed Waterford against Cork in the 1999 Munster semi-final. Later Justin McCarthy was in charge of the same county when they defeated Cork in the 2002 Munster semi-final and he faced Cork again in the Munster finals of '03 and ’04 and in an All-Ireland semi-final in '06. O’Grady and Allen have had spells with Limerick. In 2013 Allen helped defeat Cork in the Munster final.

“It would have added an edge,” says Ted Owens, who was part of the Cork management set-up when Cork defeated Waterford, managed by Gerald McCarthy, in ’99. “But it was not overplayed. I would have worked with Billy Morgan as well as Jimmy Barry and they are two fellas who could not countenance managing a county other than Cork. That is not to condemn anyone who does. They would certainly have been old stock in that regard.

“Justin was the first. It wouldn’t exactly have got a seal of approval in Cork. It is less of an issue now but people who do would not have everyone’s best wishes. I can’t really comment about other counties but you get the impression that it could be more acceptable in other counties than Cork. Every aspiring coach likes an opportunity to do themselves justice and if they feel they are not getting that opportunity in Cork I can understand why they go away and work elsewhere.”

Had Cork lost to Waterford in ’99 it would probably have marked the end of Barry Murphy’s management reign. That was sufficient motivation in itself and the reaction of the Cork manager to the victory, when he raced on to the field, arms aloft, at the final whistle, demonstrated the significance of the result. Today’s match in Nowlan Park doesn’t carry the same lead. Cunningham is still finding his way in his first senior inter-county job and the counties have already met, Dublin shipping a heavy beating in Croke Park.

Justin McCarthy was left in no doubt that coaching Clare made him something of a pariah in Cork. Efforts by members of the Cork county board executive to have Johnny Clifford made Cork coach in 1984 ahead of McCarthy is cited as evidence that it had become personal. “Only then did I truly realise that they would never forgive me for coaching Clare,” he maintained. “In ways, I was naive to think otherwise.” He recounted that during the 1977 Munster final he ran on the field to give water to a Clare player and refused a request from Cork’s Dermot McCurtain for a swig off the same bottle, explaining that “as soon as he said it I was gone”. The Cork goalkeeper Martin Coleman says he also asked for water and was told to “feck off” and in return called McCarthy a “tom cat, all piss and wind”.

Coleman said the incident only served to motivate him. “I got an extra 10 yards on my puck-out because of it. In the course of the game, if you saw him on the pitch or on the sideline, it might spur you on. Like on Sunday you will have Cork players who played with Cunningham and it would spur them on at stages, it would be a motivating factor. But for us it wasn’t really a big issue. We went out to enjoy it and win as much as we could. It was drilled into us. It was our duty to beat those teams. It was our tradition.”

John Fenton won an All-Ireland under Justin McCarthy in 1984 as captain. “Everyone has their own opinion. I could not see any of the Cork managers at the time using it as a motivating factor, the fact that there was another Cork man managing against them. I was involved with Cork in ’78 when Justin was with Clare. John Horgan was from the same club, Passage, and there would be no animosity there whatsoever. Cork will go out to win the game. They are in the game to win it, irrespective of who is in it.

“Ger Cunningham’s motivation is that Cork hammered Dublin the last day and he wants to make sure that does not happen again. Jimmy Barry will know the result the last day was not a true reflection. They will be going out to do justice to themselves. That’ll be it.”

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