Tuesday 16 October 2018

Cork's quiet man

vincent hogan

They remember him as a kind of counter-terrorist.

From high in the stands, he was never especially visible. If anything, he slipped through games like a rumour through a parish. Stealthy and whispering almost, occasionally catching your attention like a light tap on the shoulder. Never a raised voice.

But Conor Counihan had a nose for danger and, invariably, it tugged him to the eye of any quarrel.

Larry Tompkins probably marked Counihan more often than any other man and is adamant that he never faced tougher. Cork training sessions were salted routinely by battles on the '40' that countenanced neither gentility nor equivocation between the two. Yet, long before they wore the same, blood-red tunic, Tompkins and Counihan were acquainted.

Larry remembers, especially, a National League game in Newbridge when he was still playing for Kildare. He recalls ending up "heading for the line" after being met by what he describes as "one of those hard, crunching tackles" from the Cork centre-back.

"I remember it well," chuckles their former team-mate and current RTE 'Sunday Game' analyst, Tony Davis. "A cold day above in Newbridge and Larry ran amok for the first 20 minutes. I didn't know Larry, had never heard of him. But I remember somebody saying beforehand: 'There's this fella Tompkins playing centre-forward and he's a dinger'.

"He would have been over and back to America at the time. Anyway, I remember watching Counihan and he was lining him up. Next thing, bang; Larry's collarbone gone.

"Conor had a knack of doing collarbones, actually. He did several of them, including his own. I remember a week before a Munster final against Kerry, we were below in the Pairc training and Tom Mannix had his collarbone done by him.


"It's just he had an almost triangular-shaped body in so far as his shoulders were probably the widest part. And he had this timing. If he hit you, you stayed hit. But a very honest fella."

Counihan's balance of calm and controlled fury is still revered today in a county that, because of Kerry's proximity, clings to its memories with white-knuckled fists. He had the gift of engaging in war without embracing any of the hatreds that war might foster.

After Meath beat Cork in the mean-spirited '88 All-Ireland final replay, most of the Cork players were so consumed with anger and spite, they resembled tragic figures in a grand opera. On the Monday, they chose to stay away from the official lunch, preferring the comforts of their own company in the pubs scattered around Heuston Station.

Counihan, though, was one of the few who made a point of going to the Burlington Hotel. It just wasn't his style to pull the blinds.

He was a footballer who relished certainty. Tompkins recalls: "We would have had hard tussles on the field. I would have respected that and he would have respected it. When I came to Cork first, I often slagged him about that tackle in Newbridge.

"But it was always the same story with Conor on the training field. There was no nonsense. He was coming in to get the best possible out of himself. He didn't want to leave there having gone through the motions. There was always a few guys set the standard at training and he was one of them

"People often ask who was the hardest person I marked and I would have no hesitation in saying Conor. He was a real no-nonsense guy, very difficult to play against and a real leader on the field. If you were going to war, he'd be the guy you'd want with you in the front line."

Counihan's lineage wasn't dusted with the privilege of a big city club or the defiance nurtured in the great churches of the west. He hailed from East Cork, from a club -- Aghada -- little known and little celebrated outside an intimate circle.

Yet, Aghada would win county junior and intermediate medals with Counihan in the vanguard and -- tomorrow in Croke Park -- will have three of their number, Pearse O'Neill, Kieran O'Connor and Brendan Crowley, wearing the red of Cork. Counihan has been at the core of Aghada's growth, endlessly taking kids, building teams, always sewing a fresh crop.

Davis recalls winning an All-Ireland junior medal with Counihan way back in '84. The sequence at the time was that you won the title at home, then effectively played an exhibition final abroad. "A bit of a PR stunt," as Davis remembers.


In '84, Cork's final opponents were Warwickshire in Coventry. Cork won the game by 22 points and, on the flight home, Davis sat next to Counihan, the two of them trying to weigh up their likely career paths. At the time, they occupied different worlds.

Davis already had All-Ireland minor and U-21 medals to his name. He was being fast-tracked to a senior inter-county career. His club, O'Donovan Rossa in Skibbereen, was energetic and pro-active, destined to win an All-Ireland title within nine years.

"Conor would have been a bit unsure back then as to where he fitted into the picture," recalls Davis.

Yet, within a year, Counihan was captain as divisional side, Imokilly, won a county senior title. Two years later, they were champions again, Counihan -- by now -- a fixture with Cork seniors.

He would win successive All Star awards for his contribution to the All-Ireland victories of '89 and '90, a bulwark presence at centre-back as Billy Morgan's team stitched four Munster titles together, having seen Kerry win 11 of the previous 12.

Famously, a controversial challenge on Jack O'Shea in the '88 Munster final triggered a free-for-all and decanted the observation from late Galway star -- Enda Colleran -- on 'The Sunday Game' that it was something "which should only happen over candlelit dinner and by agreement."

Yet, both Morgan and Tompkins saw clear leadership material in the quiet ferocity Counihan brought to his football. Morgan immediately recruited him to his management team as a backs specialist after Counihan's retirement in '93 and, later that decade, Tompkins took him on board for a three-year stint as a selector.

Larry reflects: "If you just met Conor and knew nothing about football, he'd still be a guy you'd enjoy having a drink with. He's just a fella that's very solid. If he'd won 20 All-Irelands, you wouldn't know he'd won one. Or even been involved in any.

"Put it this way: if you heard someone didn't like Conor Counihan, it would be the other fella you'd question, not Conor."

Davis concurs, with one gentle proviso. "Beneath that calm exterior, there's a serious ruthless streak, I can guarantee you," he says. "Conor has always been a man that will win. That's what people talk about in relation to Ulster football. This serious hunger to win. Well, I think Conor mirrors that, without being up front about it. There's no show or high fives in him.

"He's a bit like a Kerry man in a way. There's no oul' bullshit. No exterior show of anything. But there's a serious, cold, ruthless streak involved with him. The hardness is there and always has been."

Counihan has looked a natural fit as Cork manager, even if the county seemed slow to recognise it. Having been beaten for the position when Morgan returned to replace Tompkins, he then saw Teddy Holland step into the role, albeit for a troubled, fractious period.

With the county seemingly accident prone in industrial relations, Counihan thus inherited a position that demanded the diplomatic skills of a hostage negotiator.

He pointedly avoided taking sides when his players supported the hurlers' strike, observing simply that he had "sympathy for everyone involved".

Dr Con Murphy has been a constant presence in Cork dressing-rooms since long before Counihan first wore the county shirt and sees a deep core of manliness and wisdom in the current manager.

"He has brought the same qualities he had as a player," suggests Murphy. "To me, what's very important in a manager is the absence of ego.

"I wouldn't say Conor goes about his business unnoticed, but he's not one of these fellas ranting and raving or running up and down the line all the time.

"He manages like he played. He's dead straightforward."


Davis agrees, suggesting that Counihan's natural authority has Cork looking dangerous now.

The marriage of old soldiers like Anthony Lynch and Nicholas Murphy to a batch of gifted U-21 stars emits a healthy glow.

"I think there's more of a streak in Cork this year that we can actually finish a team off," says Davis, while sounding a cautionary note about tomorrow's opponents.

"It may sound a bit arrogant in a way, but we know that we can beat Kerry. Nobody really knows if we can beat Tyrone though. Because they're a team that just hates losing. If it's level with 10 minutes to go, the chips almost always come down on Tyrone's side. You know what they're going to be like. They're a real, dogged, hard team to beat.

"We've never met anything like that. So it's a new experience for the lads. Tyrone's tackling is ferocious. They've been through so much, they're a really tight unit. And until Cork beat somebody like that, you can't talk about them as being contenders.

"Because Tyrone are the team."

Tompkins' view on tomorrow is simple: Cork's players need to radiate their manager's qualities, not lean on them. "At the end of the day, All-Irelands are won by players, not by people standing on the line," he says.

"Ninety per cent of managers have their teams well prepared. It's the fellas out on the field that matter most then. Look at Tyrone. We've seen it time and time again with people like Sean Cavanagh and Brian Dooher, they take the game by the scruff of the neck when it's needed.

"Cork have lots of potential and, no question, Conor's given everybody a fair crack of the whip. But we'll see this Sunday if Cork have those type of players."

No one will await that answer more intently than the silver-haired figure standing, quiet and watchful, on the line.

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport