'He's a god in Cork . . . They would do anything not to leave him down'
Getting this Cork team so far so soon is a coup for Jimmy Barry-Murphy, writes Damian Lawlor
LAST April, two days after they were relegated from Division 1A, Jimmy Barry-Murphy gathered his players in a huddle at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
From the outside, it looked like Cork hurling had slipped another rung deeper into recession. Dropping down a tier had been on no-one's agenda, especially as they had actually targeted a place in the semi-finals heading into the last weekend of league games.
Such was the unpredictable nature of those last-round results, however, that they missed out and ended up falling down a level. Traditionally, Cork never got too worked up over league performances, but this time, with three quality ex-players jettisoned, the flak was flying.
"I couldn't get over how much people read into that league campaign," said captain Pa Cronin afterwards. "We were a puck of a ball away from being in the semi-finals, and all of a sudden people were saying we were finished."
When Barry-Murphy brought the team together at training two nights later, he told them to pull the shutters on the outside world. He said panic was not an option. He told of how he'd been with teams that had been relegated before but went on to win championships. "We got great confidence from hearing that," said Cronin. "We always believed that we were as good as anybody."
The players soaked up their manager's words. Privately, though, Barry-Murphy must surely have questioned if this team was capable of winning an All-Ireland, like his class of 1999.
Maybe, too, he wondered if it had been wise to return to inter-county management having already cemented his status in the county's folklore. The likes of Billy Morgan, Babs Keating, Johnny Clifford, Brian McEniff, Éamonn Coleman and Michael Bond had all returned to manage their team for a second time with none of them finding a happy ending.
Allied to that, the scrutiny of the team was a lot more intense than it had been 14 years before. Ahead of their 2012 qualifier with Waterford, for instance, Ger Loughnane had slated Barry-Murphy's management in his newspaper column. Writing after their league final defeat to Kilkenny, Loughnane reckoned the wholesale changes the Cork boss made to his team were a complete over-reaction and "cast serious doubts over the acumen of the manager and his backroom team". He threw a few more grenades – that Cork were "flaky" and their team selections "smacked of panic". They went on to reach the All-Ireland semi-final, but still negativity persisted with some players claiming that the team wasn't fit.
Against that uncertain backdrop, Barry-Murphy went undaunted about building ahead of the 2013 season. The new year brought a fresh slate but no tidings of comfort or joy. Instead, Eoin Cadogan announced on Twitter that he would concentrate on football for the foreseeable future. Damien Cahalane followed Cadogan's lead and stayed with the footballers. Seán Óg Ó hAilpín retired once it was made known he wasn't part of the management's plans anymore. Darren Sweetnam, who had showed tremendous promise in his debut season, went to Munster rugby, while the seasoned Niall McCarthy headed to Australia. John Gardiner, then only 29, was left out of the squad and when he returned to fitness Dónal óg Cusack found there would be no game time for him either. It took their defender-in-chief Brian Murphy some time to return so the pressure was firmly on Barry-Murphy's shoulders.
Hardly surprising, then, that little was expected this season. More realistic was the premise that new talent could be identified and nurtured over the next two years. Without so many big names, there was sulphur in the air and uncertainty in the team. "Jimmy always picks hurlers, he was only giving youth its chance," former player Neil Ronan reasons. "I don't think there was an intention of upsetting anyone who was not on the panel; he was just building for the future."
As a whirlwind blew around him over the controversial departures of Gardiner, Cusack and ó hAilpín, the county's recent underage famine – the last All-Ireland minor title came in 2001 and the last under 21 crown in 1998 – was also used as a stick to beat the team with. Undaunted, though, the manager turned to youth, just like he had done 14 years earlier.
Back then, when he set about the task of overhauling the team, he didn't shirk hard calls either, cutting two-time All Star Barry Egan from the squad. But because of Cork's back-to-back All-Ireland under 21 wins in 1997 and 1998, he had plenty of raw material in the likes of Cusack, Wayne Sherlock, Timmy McCarthy, Mickey O'Connell, Ben O'Connor and Ronan. His youth policy paid off handsomely.
Second time around, though, when he set about rebuilding the team, there was no underage success to call upon. "No, but it's very simple," insists Ronan. "If you are aged between five and 65 and you are from Cork, you treat JBM as a god. That's the status he has down here. He knows how well he's regarded but you'd never tell. And he was so positive from the start about these lads, and would have been such a gent to them on and off the field that they would literally do anything not to leave him down. They'd just want to impress him."
But despite Barry-Murphy's iconic status, his personality and managerial aptitude, Ronan says this year's development is slightly unexpected. "I would have felt that in two to three years' time we'd be challenging for an All-Ireland title, but I honestly didn't see it this year. Then again, Jimmy constantly talked up the progress that could be made, and he was so positive. The young players must have looked up to him because he has achieved everything, in both hurling and football, with Cork and they took it from there."
He surrounded himself with good people too. Ger Cunningham has worked tirelessly, analysing opponents and conducting endless video analysis while Kieran Kingston, Seánie McGrath and Johnny Crowley, with stacks of All-Ireland medals between them, have combined to streamline a general game plan, and a strategy for each match – like, for example, Brian Murphy's nullifying of Clare's Tony Kelly in this year's championship opener.
And so, a callow side with blooming buds like Stephen McDonnell, Conor O'Sullivan, Jamie Nagle, Willie Egan, Lorcan McLoughlin, David Kearney, Luke O'Farrell and Conor Lehane began finding their feet. Egan was first tried at centre-back, McLoughlin was originally left half-back but his influence would grow. Kearney was midfield and Lehane started on the bench. The average age of the side is only 23, but after absorbing the lessons and physicality of the past 18 months they are now delivering the goods.
It's taken time for everyone to get to know each other but that's not a bad thing. Players like O'Farrell and Lehane have learned that if they take a wrong option they won't necessarily be called ashore. Those same players would die for their manager now. They have the same bug that the class of '99 had. As former captain Mark Landers puts it, "If Jimmy asked you to go through the wall, you'd be asking what part of the wall to take out".
Bringing Anthony Nash into the side has proved to be a most astute, soothing and reassuring move for a young side looking for both balance and leadership. While Cusack was seen as their spiritual leader for over a decade, maybe the younger players can now look more steadfastly to the future with Nash between the posts, knowing that the older hands are no longer around to ease the load, or help them out.
Nash has the shirt now and at 27 he deserves it. A long-time bench resident, he is set to win back-to-back All Stars after executing an exemplary shot-stopping, puck-out and free-taking strategy this year. His dislodging of a legend and championship introduction six years after his debut – and duly shipping five goals – has paved the way for others to be blooded. Seamus Harnedy, for instance, became the first man from a junior club, St Ita's near Youghal, to play senior championship for Cork, having never played minor or under 21 for the county.
"They put their necks on the line for me," Harnedy says of the Cork management, outlining the huge battle for places and admitting that he felt players like Jamie Coughlan and Cathal Naughton had been ahead of him in the pecking order.
The next generation have come to the table with more pace. With the possible exception of today's opponents, Clare, they have more gas than anyone else around. Dave Matthews, their trainer, can take some credit for that. Early last year, Matthews was taking heat because the team wasn't sufficiently hurling-fit, as some claimed, but he's completely rubbished that theory. And Barry-Murphy has backed him all along, even when the going was tough last season.
The players testify that Matthews brings no secret potions to training, but simply believes that 800m running, his own discipline, is perfect for modern GAA. At a time when Kilkenny, Dublin, and Limerick have moved power and physicality onto a new level, Matthews is happier to find a happy medium between speed and endurance.
This approach gels perfectly with their game plan and mantra that points are more important than goals. They only hit two in last year's championship and thus far have managed only one in the 2013 campaign. Back in 1999, when JBM first took charge, they again only hit one goal en route to winning the title.
"Yeah, it was the same when Jimmy was over us in 1999 but it's also kind of a general Cork thing over the past decade," Neil Ronan points out. "The feeling is that if you score 20 points or more in a game, you should win. You must have faith that your defence will hold up and that 20 points is enough. Jimmy will have told the lads not to force goals."
One Dublin hurler told us that he couldn't believe how disinterested the Cork team were in sniffing out goals in that recent pulsating All-Ireland semi-final.
"I know Pat Horgan got one, but apart from Luke O'Farrell, no one else seemed interested in getting another," the player said. "Any time they came near our goal they tipped it over the bar."
"If a point is on, why go for goal?" Ronan asks. "If the chance is not clear-cut, you could potentially miss and it only raises the morale of your opponents. We have bundles of fast, pacy players and you play to your strengths – that's why we're hitting points quickly and more often than others.
"They've grown as the year went on. Against Limerick in the Munster final, the inside forwards only made 11 tackles on Limerick defenders. That's why we lost the game. Jimmy would have homed in on that and against Limerick and Dublin I think we made 48 tackles on the opposition. Our forwards are fine, fast, pacy hurlers but their work rate set the tone in those last two games. They stuck rigidly to the game plan and they'll have to do the same again today. Ger Cunningham is big into stats, tactics and game management and they'll have a plan worked out for the likes of Tony Kelly, Podge Collins and Pat Donnellan."
When they beat Clare in the Munster championship, Brian Murphy didn't hit one ball with his hurley, but he stuck to his instructions and took Tony Kelly out of the game. Today, he's likely to assume the same role, with Conor O'Sullivan tracking Podge Collins. It's taken time for everything to fall into place. Last year, they were really only finding out more about each other.
Their over-riding aim is to be more direct; get quicker ball into the full-forward line. They have reached the All-Ireland final with a largely non-aggressive mindset, but so too have Clare. Therefore, today's tactics will be fascinating.
Still, what's forgotten sometimes is that of the six starting Cork forwards, four of them are over six foot tall. Barry-Murphy may have built a new team in his own image but they can mix it when they need to. They beat Clare in the puck-out battle last time, winning 31 to Clare's 26. And they have hunted in droves for breaking ball as the season has unfolded. If the slicker, short-passing game goes awry today they have ball winners to call upon in Harnedy, Cronin, Cian McCarthy, Jamie Coughlan and Conor Lehane.
The mix looks right; the balance looks good and Barry-Murphy has pulled off a serious coup by getting Cork back to this stage of the game.
We asked Ronan one final question. 'Could anyone else in the county pull of what JBM has this season?'
"I honestly don't think anyone else could have delivered," he said. "He just brings something special. He just makes you feel like you can do anything. And that's just from talking to him."
A new team. A fresh approach. A new outlook and a steel reinforced from the flak and criticism that comes with the job. Barry-Murphy has been here before, and wouldn't you know it.