Monday 18 December 2017

'It's gas, the Cork public are very fickle' - Vincent Hogan meets Rebels star Alan Cadogan

Three years ago, Alan Cadogan arrived like a whirlwind on the hurling landscape - and he has since learnt the importance of patience

Bord Gais Energy #HurlingToTheCoreAmbassador Alan Cadogan
- pictured at a media day at the Rock of Cashel - has played an
important part in Cork’s run to the All-Ireland SHC semi-final. Photo: Diarmuid Greene /Sportsfile
Bord Gais Energy #HurlingToTheCoreAmbassador Alan Cadogan - pictured at a media day at the Rock of Cashel - has played an important part in Cork’s run to the All-Ireland SHC semi-final. Photo: Diarmuid Greene /Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Some nights in this place, he feels older than Moses now. Venerable at 24. Alan Cadogan looks around the Cork dressing-room, recognising so much of his younger self in how first-year county men carry none of the complications into battle that in time will inevitably find them.

A few weeks back, he was walking in to training alongside Douglas clubmate Shane Kingston. As they dipped down under the soaring new Pairc Ui Chaoimh stand, he mused aloud "This is just like where the buses arrive in Croke Park, isn't it?"

And Kingston's deadpan response was "Is it?"

That jolted Cadogan, reminding him that Croke Park is new ground to these kids. That this magic carpet ride transporting young men like Kingston and Darragh Fitzgibbon and Luke Meade into the national consciousness might yet pitch them into the teeth of wicked turbulence.

Everything about them radiates a simple, addictive lust for battle right now.

"These fellas go out and they don't care who they're marking," says Cadogan. "I can relate to that from when I broke through in 2014. Nobody knew me, nobody expected anything from me and I ended the year nominated for an All-Star.

Alan Cadogan celebrating scoring against Clare at Semple Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Alan Cadogan celebrating scoring against Clare at Semple Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

"That's how these lads feel now. They just play with freedom and abandon. They just want to go out and play."

Tomorrow, though, he knows, will ask new questions.

CORK ARE BACK then, back practising that pure worship of a game that just a year back had no shortage of local windbags holding them up as the rotting product of decades of complacency and drift.

That day they were well beaten by Wexford in the qualifiers, the acoustic was uniformly ugly.

Cadogan remembers finding a seat to himself on the bus home, closing his eyes and wishing that somehow he could be transported instantly forward into a new pre-season. That all the anger and frustration now bubbling up inside of him could have been put to aggressive use there and then before it tapered.

He describes himself as "a very driven person" and it isn't difficult to track down the genesis of that drive.

As a young teenager, he used tag along with older brother Eoin to regular Sunday morning ball-alley sessions with some of Cork's hurling gentry in the grounds of Rochestown College. It's where he himself was educated and where, this September, he will begin his new life as a fully-fledged secondary school teacher of geography and business.

That ball alley informed him of the standards that men like Donal Óg Cusack, Seán Óg O hAilpín, John Gardiner, Tom Kenny and others routinely demanded of themselves to hurl for Cork.

He remembers his first time with them, probably no older than 15, wondering what their reaction might be at Eoin bringing along his younger brother.

"I remember thinking 'God am I able for this? Will I be slowing them down?'," he says now.

Skill sessions would be followed by the equivalent of doubles squash matches with hurleys, and whoever got Eoin Cadogan's kid brother as a partner wasn't ever going to settle for a morning babysitting.

"It would be just full-on" Alan remembers. "Donal Óg usually ran the sessions. Lads would be all friends going in but quite often come away really p*ssed off. Because it was so competitive.

"And the best thing was they didn't take it easy on me. Even when we were just doing skills drills, they'd never be pucking the ball to me nice and easy. Their attitude was 'If you're in here with us, you're doing the same as we do…' I'll always be grateful for that.

"Donal Og was the genius in there, he knew the alley to a tee. As Seán Óg described him, he was 'The Conductor of the Opera'. He had this one trick shot where he'd hit it off the back wall and it would land in the far right-hand corner. You had a choice. If you pulled on the ball, you risked the possibility of breaking your hurley.

"Those sessions made me, really. They opened my eyes."

Growing up in Douglas, Eoin was his first true role model. But, of that Cork team that won All-Irelands in '04 and '05, the player he always aspired to follow was Ben O'Connor, a man who "could make the ball talk".

There was always football too and Alan, the holder of three Munster U-21 medals in the code, was parachuted into the Cork senior squad by Peadar Healy last year after the hurlers' demise, even getting some late game-time in the round four qualifier defeat to Donegal at the end of July.

He still plays football for the club too, lining out in a championship game just three weeks ago with the simple direction from Kieran Kingston not to "come back to me injured!"

To begin with, Cadogan aspired to follow both codes at senior level with the county, but soon came to the realisation that it simply wasn't feasible.

"The dual thing down here is a touchy subject," he confesses. "And I accept now that it's probably impossible if you want to get the most out of yourself in both. It's a shame. But you saw with Podge Collins in Clare how difficult it can be. My brother Eoin says it himself.

"You have so little recovery time that, if you pick up any little niggle, it's very hard to get over it. The dual thing is probably gone at county level because everything is so professional."

Cadogan is as perplexed as anybody by the startling gulf in support between the county's hurlers and footballers.

Three weeks ago, he was in the Gaelic Grounds supporting Eoin in the footballers' enthralling extra-time qualifier defeat to Mayo. The experience served only to amplify how hopelessly contradictory a county Cork can seem.

From an attendance of roughly 13,000, Cadogan speculates the Cork contingent stretched to "no more than 500, if even that!"

Comparing such paltry numbers with the vast red army now so in thrall to the hurlers makes for an uneasy compute.

"It's so disheartening for the players," he says. "Looking around, you could barely see any Cork support.

"And yet Mayo, when you think of all the heartache they've been through… their supporters just keep coming back, year in, year out. Even when they went down a point or two, they just rallied behind the team.

"In Cork, when the footballers have a bad game, they come in for a lot more criticism than the hurlers would after a defeat. It's wrong. And I can only imagine what that's like for the players."

He is, mind, innately wary of the hurling euphoria now billowing through the county.

After that Wexford defeat last summer, Kingston and his management team came in for withering local commentary. Some wanted them removed, others claimed removing them would be immaterial as the current team represented one of the worst Cork crops to represent the county in half a century.

From there to here takes quite an amount of explaining. What changed?

"There was a lot of doom and gloom about last year, a lot of people fairly negative about us," says Cadogan. "It's gas, the Cork public are very fickle. You know, one minute they're your best friend, the next minute they're slating you. And it's the same with media too. Everything's black or white.

"So as a player, you have to be careful. Kieran and the management came in for a lot of punishment last year, abuse from pundits and so forth. But he's after revitalising Cork hurling because the players play for him.

"And whatever happens from here on, we'd all be hoping he'll stay another term now. Even at the start of this year, nobody was giving us a chance. I remember seeing something on The Sunday Game where they were talking about a Tipperary-Waterford Munster semi-final.

"Deep down, we believed that we could beat Tipp, but nobody else outside the group seemed to be able to see it.

"I felt Cork people were going up to Thurles, thinking if we got beaten by seven or eight points it would be respectable. And I got the impression after we won that game that people were dismissing it as a fluke.

"Even after we beat Waterford the next day, some sections of the Cork public still didn't seem to believe in us, which was disappointing. But we'd taken a serious look at ourselves this year, players and management. We knew what we'd done right and wrong in 2016. So we ignored all that outside talk and just focused on ourselves."

THE REVOLUTION came quietly at first, identifiable only in gentle increments. Trouble was, for every positive step taken in the National League, Cork seemed instinctively to at least entertain the thought of a counter negative.

With Stephen McDonnell injured, Cadogan filled in as captain for their opening game against Clare and got man of the match after an impressive seven-point win at Pairc Ui Rinn.

One week later, they were drilled by Dublin on the same field, a Dublin team that had been 16 points adrift of Tipp in their opener.

A collective loss of concentration then blew their chances against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park, before impressive victories against Waterford and Tipp simply pre-empted a flat quarter-final exit at the hands of Limerick.

For Cadogan, impatience was beginning to take hold.

Three years ago, he'd arrived into his first senior Championship like a whirlwind, named man of the match on his debut against Waterford and part of a team that then anointed the old Pairc Ui Chaoimh on its last big day before the bulldozers struck with Cork's first Munster title in eight seasons.

They then took a heavy bludgeoning against Tipp in their subsequent All-Ireland semi-final, but Cadogan, naturally, believed there'd be more good days than bad ahead. He'd been part of the extended training panel in 2013 when Cork came so close to winning the Liam MacCarthy, even warming up with the team before their replay against Clare.

He laughs now at his own naivety in the midst of it.

Because nothing comes lightly at this level and he is forever mindful of a text Shane O'Neill sent him that first night at training he was told he'd be starting a senior Championship game for Cork.

"Congrats, now the hard work starts!" it read.

Three summers on, he still uses that message as his creed.

So Cadogan will have taken himself away to Fountainstown some time yesterday for his customary dip in the Atlantic ocean and, over the coming hours, he'll almost unwittingly start pulling the strings of Cork's new young heroes, steeling them for what's coming down the tracks now.

Cork have already beaten Waterford twice this season, but Cadogan describes Derek McGrath's team as "probably ahead of us in terms of their physical development."

He adds: "We know we're going to have our hands full. This is their third semi-final in a row and they should probably have beaten Kilkenny last year.

"We know they'll be out for blood now!"

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