Walsh proving an inspired choice to restore Rebel glory days
Published 20/03/2010 | 05:00
A year ago tomorrow, Cork hurlers headed for Ennis with a caretaker manager, a backlog of frustration and a palpable sense of uncertainty.
John Considine was filling in as manager following the departure of Gerald McCarthy in controversial circumstances while in the background, Jimmy Barry-Murphy, John Fenton and Denis Coughlan were searching for somebody who would bring some stability to a troubled empire.
The league season had already been written off except in terms of remaining in Division 1, a task which was helped enormously by a great comeback that won both points against Clare.
"Today was about finding out where Cork hurling is at," remarked Considine afterwards. The signs were encouraging, but then they had played a Clare team whose season was lurching unsteadily towards nowhere in particular.
A few weeks later, Cork played Kilkenny at Nowlan Park and were walloped by an embarrassing 27 points. Denis Walsh had taken over as manager, but all he could do was stand and watch as his side were ruthlessly dismantled in front of almost 15,000 people.
"What has gone on over the last few months has taken its toll. It was hard for the lads to respond to what Kilkenny put up to them today," said Walsh.
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody was sympathetic to Cork's plight, saying: "In fairness, they had a new set-up with Denis Walsh in his first game as manager. He had very little time to get to know the players, let alone work with them."
Really, that was the story of Cork last year. The players' strike and the bitter recriminations which accompanied it left Cork heading into April way behind their main rivals on all fronts. Less training, less conditioning and fewer games meant that Cork could never hope to catch up, however hard they tried.
Walsh had little option but to run with most of the 2008 panel and replicate the game plan which Cork had made so efficient under Donal O'Grady and John Allen. Walsh would have to wait until this year to impose his own style and personality on the team.
Barry-Murphy, Fenton and Coughlan knew exactly what they were doing when they recommended that Walsh be the man to take over at such a critical juncture in Cork hurling.
It was a job for a man with plenty of ideas, no baggage and a real pedigree. Critically, it was also a job for somebody who would assert himself on a scene where there was a perception that the players had become too powerful.
It wasn't just their tendency to strike in order to get their own way that created that image, it was also the manner in which they gave the impression that, over the years, they had a far greater input than their counterparts in other counties when it came to game plans and tactics.
However, after all the strife Cork had endured in recent years, there was a feeling that a strong hand was needed at managerial level.
Less than a year into the job, Walsh has laid platforms which are beginning to look sufficiently sturdy to take whatever loads are hoisted onto them.
Wins over Offaly, Limerick and Kilkenny leave them heading for Walsh Park to take on Waterford tomorrow as Division 1 leaders, a position they haven't been in for quite some time.
Walsh talked last week of how he would know more about exactly where Cork stood after the Kilkenny game but, in truth, he might not have expected to learn as much as he did.
It's rare for Kilkenny to lose out in close calls and while they were a man down for the entire second half, they returned home knowing that Cork were back among the genuine threats to their five-in-a-row ambitions.
Realistically, Tipperary, Waterford and Galway are the only others with a chance of unseating Kilkenny this summer. Cork weren't serious All-Ireland contenders last year, but are very much back in the hunt this season.
Similar to everybody else, they have put in a solid pre-season and are driven by a mighty determination to prove that circumstances largely beyond their control were behind their apparent decline from the heights they attained in the 2003-2006 period.
There are some seriously good hurlers aboard the Cork wagon and while many of them have been around for a long time, they're still a long from being beaten dockets.
Donal Og Cusack is still one of the best goalkeepers in the game; Shane O'Neill, John Gardiner, Ronan Curran, Sean Og O hAilpin, Tom Kenny, the O'Connor brothers and Niall McCarthy provide an experienced spine which shows no sign of weakening, while there's plenty of younger talent around too who are good enough to push on towards greatness.
Question is, can Walsh harness it all into a unit that's capable of restoring Cork to a level they regard as their natural right? The early indications are positive.
It's evident from the way Cork are going about their business so far this season there's a real sense of unity and purpose in the camp. The players believe they weren't competing on even terms with their opponents for the past few seasons, leaving them unable to quicken to the searing pace that now applies in summer time.
They also know that, with a new manager leading a harmonious camp, there can be no excuses this year. They will be judged on how they perform and, this time, there will no asterisk alongside the Cork name with an explanation about how off-field struggles damaged their prospects.
That gives Walsh a powerful sense of authority to proceed exactly as he sees fit, knowing that the players dare not question what he's doing. Given that many of them have played to a certain style -- and with considerable success too -- through most of their senior careers, he won't dismantle everything, but he will tweak certain things in an attempt to give Cork a broader dimension.
It will be especially interesting to see how he deploys Aisake O hAilpin and Michael Cussen, the twins peaks, who bring something different to the full-forward line. Both are good ball winners, so clearly route one is back as a major option on Walsh's planning board.
O hAilpin needs to be slicker once he wins the ball, but that will come with experience and coaching, while Cussen's decision to concentrate on hurling rather than football suggests that Walsh has convinced him that he can have a major role to play.
Walsh was never going to return fully to the short-game approach which yielded successive All-Ireland titles in 2004 and 2005 for the simple reason that Kilkenny exposed it so clinically in the 2006 final.
Cork will still be good on ball-carrying, but there will be a more direct approach in the mix too, especially if O hAilpin and/or Cussen develop as consistent ball winners.
Cork hurling endured some of its most traumatic experiences in recent years but it's all in the past and now they are looking forward with real optimism to what the rest of this year brings. They have been backed down to 6/1 joint-third favourites with Galway (behind Kilkenny and Tipperary) for the All-Ireland title and are second favourites (3/1) behind Tipperary to win the league for the first time since 1998.
All very different to a year ago when they had a temporary manager and were locked into a season that was never going to yield much. It did, however, make one important contribution in that it gave Denis Walsh the chance to find his managerial bearings.
Having done that, he has produced a re-structured model which has road-tested exceptionally well so far this year. After all, it's a long time since Cork were ahead of Kilkenny in the league betting heading towards the end of March. But then it's a long time since they produced such an encouraging performance against Kilkenny as they did last Sunday.
Barry-Murphy, Fenton and Coughlan gave Cork outstanding service as players over many years, but the collective wisdom which saw them turn to Walsh showed that they were still very much in touch with what was required in the county's hour of need. It may yet turn out to be the wisest decisions taken in Cork for quite some time.