Momentum never more important for Rebels' rookies
Jimmy Barry-Murphy's young side need a good result against Tipperary, writes Damian Lawlor
WHEN he spoke to a group of journalists recently, Cork hurling manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy made reference to "the elephant in the room" and addressed suggestions that morale was low in the camp.
There had been a drip-feed of indicators that all was not well. Apart from some tensions in the management set-up, it's understood that neither John Gardiner nor Seán óg ó hAilpín was over the moon at not being involved in 2013.
Whatever stresses were in the camp had been firmly addressed after Christmas, however, until Dónal óg Cusack wasn't included in the squad for their Allianz League campaign which starts this Saturday night with a floodlit clash against Tipperary at Páirc Uí Rinn.
Cusack's exit had been well signposted but it brought a couple of issues back into the open again, including differences of opinion within management over the goalkeeper's exclusion, and also the team's approach to physical training.
After putting himself through a punishing recovery, Cusack was reportedly told he would get a chance between the posts again. But he didn't. Management was split on the issue and they probably still are. When JBM met the decorated 'keeper and informed him of the decision, the Cloyne man did not take it well. The goodbyes may have been short but they weren't sweet.
Cusack's exit was the culmination of a rough winter which saw two key defenders, Eoin Cadogan and Damien Cahalane, opt for football. It didn't help matters that Niall McCarthy's decision to travel has robbed the team of a loyal lieutenant.
The past few months may have seen the sheen well and truly taken off Cork hurling but what remains is a mobile, young team. And there is a way to quickly soothe any lingering frictions.
As unlikely as it seems, given their past differences, the county should look at using Cusack as an underage coach sooner rather than later. What an asset this driven, insightful and experienced hurler would be to any side.
And with effectively a new team on their books the board should also offer Barry-Murphy another three-year term as senior manager so he can definitively build for the future, and do so in an unimpeded fashion.
To his credit, JBM has already blooded plenty of young talent and a new term would only provide further stability, even if he has seen at first hand that there is no easy way to say goodbye to seasoned and decorated veterans and might not actually want an extension.
The bottom line, though, is that there are few others in Cork, save maybe for Cusack himself or selector Ger Cunningham, capable of quickly restoring the glory days.
Just look at the calibre of players they have lost. The future, for instance, should have revolved around Darren Sweetnam who has moved to Munster rugby. He's a player Cork could have built a team around.
Defender Shane O'Neill stated as much when he spoke to reporters at Croke Park recently. "He was a huge player for us. I think we all realised when he was training with us this time last year that this guy definitely had it. But look at the offer he was made in terms of playing with a professional outfit; it's very hard to blame him. It's everyone's dream growing up to be a professional sportsperson and he's been given the opportunity to go down that path. But he is going to be a massive loss."
Despite those upsets they move on. "There's certainly no unrest in the camp where the playing personnel are concerned," said Barry-Murphy recently. "The whole atmosphere around our team and our back-room and training and the way it's going is excellent and morale is first-class.
"I think people in Cork are entitled to be demanding of the team and they're entitled to ask questions about why players are opting for one game over the other," the manager added, referring to recent defections to the football team.
The manager finished that press conference by warning the county's followers that with underage success at a veritable standstill – they haven't won an All-Ireland under 21 title since 1998 or a minor crown since 2001 – his job was a difficult one.
And it doesn't help that the county's football team currently holds more value for dual players. Conor Counihan's side is, despite a poor start to the season, just 7/2 to win the 2013 championship while the hurlers are 14/1. Those odds have lengthened since last season when Barry-Murphy probably over-achieved with the side.
A county like Cork, with 14 league titles, has never looked to the competition for an oxygen supply but they could do with a win over Tipp on Saturday night and from there a steady spring would suffice. If they manage that, the entire outlook of their season could change.
A stable league campaign would prepare them for a championship opener against the winners of Clare and Waterford. Win that semi-final and they're straight into a Munster final and only 70 minutes away from a first provincial title since 2006. They would have no fear of Limerick and if it's Tipperary in Thurles, well, that's what young Cork hurlers grow up dreaming of.
If they manage to stay afloat until the emerging youngsters find their feet there is much promise. Chris Joyce looks a definite summer starter while Stephen White won't be far away either. Killian Murphy is another solid prospect, and Conor Lehane, William Egan and Conor O'Sullivan will now look to take their careers further down the line. Seamus Harnedy is another bright young hope – he played on the UCC Fitzgibbon Cup-winning team last year.
Brian Murphy will now have to assume an even greater leadership role. The Bride Rovers clubman recently became a father for the first time and took some time away from the squad. A 2004 and 2005 All-Ireland medal winner, he is back now and his acumen and experience are badly needed.
The same traits are required from Shane O'Neill. It's a sign of the times that, at just 26, the Bishopstown defender finds himself leading the way.
"When I was brought back into the panel in 2005, it was a bit daunting, going into a dressing-room with so many big names and guys who were heroes of mine growing up," O'Neill stated. "I don't think it's a similar situation for the younger lads today coming onto the panel because we haven't been as successful as that team from the early 2000s. But there's a good dynamic there. I realised last year that I'm not getting any younger and there's a lot of younger heads around the panel."
With Cadogan and Cahalane – the spine of the team – moved on and with Gardiner unlikely to be recalled, Stephen McDonnell must also be given game time on the edge of the square to find his feet.
Anthony Nash is the undisputed number one and with the highly-rated Darren McCarthy on his heels there are no doubts about the goalkeeping situation. To ensure that stays the case a new full-back needs to be bedded in quickly.
There had been differences within management over player selection and the dynamic of their physical training programme, but these strains exist in many inter-county set-ups with inevitable clashes of opinion. It's time for the slate to be wiped clean, though. They had all winter to get things right. Now it's time to perform on the field.
Under an iconic figure like Barry-Murphy, this young side will get every opportunity to gel. They've done well in recent matches, including a challenge against All-Ireland club contenders St Thomas where they scored freely and conceded just 1-7. They followed that up with a win over UCC.
"A lot of faces have gone," O'Neill adds. "At the same time we've new faces in. It's very much up to ourselves to make it as competitive as last year. Hopefully that will improve every player, whether he's old, young or new. It's up to us now to pick up the ball."