Thursday 23 November 2017

Patience paying off for Cork and Morgan

THEY do things differently in Cork. They appoint their football managers, let them get on with the job and when it comes to assessing performance they judge it on reality rather than emotion or fan-speak.

All over the sporting world -- and certainly in Irish soccer right now -- job security and team management are as compatible as the foreign policy of the US and Iran but not in Cork. In a remarkable display of confidence and faith, only Billy Morgan and Larry Tompkins have been entrusted with the manager's bib over the past 21 seasons. Morgan is now in the fourth season of his second term, taking his overall stint to 14 years while Tompkins presided over the other seven.

Not even Meath, where Sean Boylan seemed to be in charge since the Battle of the Boyne, can match that as his departure in 2005 was followed by a period of upheaval which saw Eamonn Barry survive for one season before Colm Coyle took over. Kerry have had six managers since 1987; Peter McDonnell has become Armagh's sixth while Paul Caffrey is Dublin's seventh in the same period.

And all the while, Cork relied first on Morgan and then on Tompkins, who handed the job back to his former mentor. Of course there are sceptics in Cork who claim that a general sense of apathy towards football makes it easier for managers to survive and that long periods without an All-Ireland success would lead to a faster turnover in hurling.

That's only partially true, for while the public's passions are stirred far more vigorously by the hurlers there are still high expectations for the footballers, based on the regular successes of underage teams.

The truth is that Morgan's big successes in his first coming, followed by Tompkins' close call in the 1999 All-Ireland final kept their stock high enough to prevent a premature buy-out. Tompkins eventually ran out of road after a poor 2003 championship campaign but he could have no complaints as he had been there for seven years.

There was a fair degree of sympathy for Tompkins on the basis that he didn't enjoy much luck and that his squad were lacking two vital constituent parts which had helped establish Morgan's reputation as a manager in the 1987-90 period. Those vital ingredients were Tompkins himself, arguably the best footballer ever to play for Cork, and Shea Fahy.

Remove that displaced Kildare pair from the Cork team of 1987-90 and it's most unlikely that any All-Ireland would be won, let alone a historic double. Include them in the team of 1999-2002 and Cork would almost certainly have cracked the All-Ireland code.

It was ironic that when Tompkins' term ended in 2003, his replacement didn't come from any of his playing contemporaries but from his former manager who had never lost his incredible sense of obsession as he prowled the sidelines with Nemo Rangers.

Morgan's return to the Cork job was a formality, even if his critics doubted that he would come anywhere near replicating the success of his first term. Their misgivings looked well founded when Kerry walloped Cork in the 2004 Munster semi-final and when re-entry to the All-Ireland series through the qualifiers yielded no more than a win over Clare before Fermanagh applied the eviction notice. Doubts about the wisdom of re-winding the clock to Morgan time surfaced very quickly.

Indeed, as he left Croke Park on that warm July afternoon, even his notoriously well-filled confidence tanks must have been punctured. Still, he saw it as part of a process rather than a defining day in his second coming. The extent to which that defeat burned into his consciousness is underlined by the fact that of tomorrow's starting XV only Derek Kavanagh, Graham Canty, Nicholas Murphy and Conor McCarthy were first choices for the Fermanagh game in 2004.

Even then Kavanagh was at full-back with Canty at midfield while Murphy was at right half-forward, an alignment that would never be repeated as all three were out of position. None of Cork's major rivals have undergone such a dramatic overhaul in three years but then it was clear at the end of 2004 that radical surgery was required. Indeed the same applied a year later when, after reviving their All-Ireland ambitions through the qualifiers, Cork were wiped out by Kerry in the semi-final where they lost by 13 points.

Of tomorrow's team, only Canty, Kavanagh, Murphy, McCarthy, Noel O'Leary, James Masters and Kevin McMahon were on the starting line-up for what was a shocking defeat. Indeed, it would have spelt the end for most managers as it suggested that Kerry were still occupying a vastly superior planet and that, after two seasons under Morgan, Cork were coming no closer to the Kingdom's orbit.

However, Morgan's legacy from his first stint, during which he delivered two All-Ireland and seven Munster titles, combined with Cork's reputation for patience, meant that he came under no pressure to quit. Instead, he was allowed to continue with the team-building process, which finally yielded a decent prize last year in the form of a Munster title. What's more they beat Kerry in a replayed final.

Graham Canty's knee injury all but scuppered Cork's All-Ireland prospects so, while they lost to Kerry by six points in the semi-final, the bigger picture was taking shape nicely. The two-point defeat by Kerry in this year's Munster final didn't dislodge any of the jigsaw pieces either as in reality there was very little between the sides. In fact, if the referee had awarded a penalty after Kavanagh had his jersey tugged as he let fly for goal in the last minute, Cork might well be going into tomorrow's final as Munster champions. Instead, he played the advantage rule and the ball flew wide.

It has taken Morgan a whole lot longer to assemble All-Ireland contenders than it did in the 1980s when they reached the final in his first season but that's irrelevant now. All that matters is that Cork have finally nudged their way to the top of the queue behind Kerry and now believe that they are perfectly equipped to move into the No. 1 slot.

It really would be a remarkable achievement for Morgan if he masterminded a seventh All-Ireland title for Cork, having managed them to their previous two and captained them to the one prior to that. It would, in fact, give him a unique place in GAA history.

His patience, no more than that of the Cork County Board would be seen to have paid the most handsome dividend of all. And if, as he acknowledged, Kevin Heffernan regarded an All-Ireland final win over Kerry as a double All-Ireland when he was in charge of Dublin, Morgan would see it in even more dramatic terms.

In fact, beating Kerry in the first ever All-Ireland final between the pair would be of incalculable value, not just for Morgan but for Cork too. Patience really would be seen for the virtue it is.

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