Saturday 7 December 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Cork suffer delusions of mediocrity

Cork manager Peadar Healy looks on during the closing moments of their Munster SFC defeat to Tipperary. Photo: Sportsfile
Cork manager Peadar Healy looks on during the closing moments of their Munster SFC defeat to Tipperary. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Cork is fast becoming the Lehman Brothers of the GAA. Once it was powerful beyond belief, an exemplar of how to do things the right way. Today the edifice is crumbling, the stock is falling and everyone who knows the game is betting against them. Yet on the top floor they're still telling themselves that things can't be as bad as they look. On Leeside, as in Lehmans, the mantra is, 'We're too big to fail'.

But the sad truth is that in competitive terms Cork are now facing the equivalent of the 2008 financial meltdown. Last year, when the catastrophic football qualifier defeat by Kildare was followed by a similarly supine hurling exit against Galway, Cork fans took some small comfort in the fact that rock bottom had surely been reached. Things could only get better.

Not so. In fact, you'd nearly feel nostalgic now for the great days of 2015 when the footballers did manage to draw with Kerry and the hurlers to score a win over Clare. You see, the idea of 'reaching rock bottom' is a fallacious one. Keep getting it wrong and things can always get worse. So far this year the Cork senior teams have played a total of 15 competitive games. They have won four and lost 11. In hurling, they had the worst defensive record in the whole National League, in football the third worst behind Derry who were one point worse off and Laois who were four.

Their two championship displays have been among the worst in living memory. The hurlers managed to make one of the blue riband days of the year, a Tipperary-Cork Munster Championship clash, into an utter non-event by their inability to be competitive. And the footballers have just lost to Tipp in the Munster Championship for the first time since 1944.

I am frequently wrong about things. My confident hunch that Northern Ireland were going to beat Poland, for example, is not going to be winning an intuition prize any time soon. Yet I think I've been reasonably perspicacious about Cork. Back when Conor Counihan resigned as football manager I predicted that if John Cleary didn't get the job, Cork would fall to the level of a county like Kildare. Quite a few people seemed to think I was exaggerating for effect but lo and behold the Lilywhites cleaned Cork's clock for them last year.

And three weeks ago in this column I did suggest Cork were ripe for upset by Tipperary. I meant it. Last Friday I met a guy who's indirectly connected to the Cork set-up, a nice intelligent man who proceeded to rib me unmercifully about said prediction. "Here's the man who thinks Tipp are going to beat Cork on Sunday. How many points are they going to beat us by then, Eamonn?" All good knockabout stuff and then he got on to discussing how Cork would do against Kerry in the Munster final.

Cork losing to Tipp was literally unthinkable for this man, and a lot of others. Not just on historical grounds but taking current form into account also. Tipperary were racked by injuries going into the game and they'd had an utterly miserable Division 3 campaign, winning two games out of seven and avoiding relegation by one place.

Yet I fancied them against Cork, who had conceded 4-25 while losing by 18 points at home to Roscommon and in conceding almost 19 points a game had taken on the look of a side who'd manage to do enough to lose when the heat really came on. On Sunday, about half of the selections seemed odd to me. I was not surprised in the least to see them conceding 3-15.

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It's odd. When Brian Cuthbert resigned as manager after the Kildare meltdown brought his demoralising reign to a merciful end, there was a huge amount of speculation about his possible successor. And I don't remember the name of Peadar Healy, who got the job, coming up once.

I'm fed up beating the drum for John Cleary, who should have been given the same chance as Jim Gavin was with Dublin to move seamlessly from under 21 success through to working with the same players at senior level. He wasn't going to get the Cork job because that would have been an admission from the Cork County Board that they'd been wrong in picking Cuthbert ahead of him to succeed Counihan. And the Cork County Board do not do admissions of wrongdoing. They'd tell you they fancied Poland all along.

But Peadar Healy was a strange choice. He had little track record as a successful manager and his last two stints at club level with Skibbereen and Dr Crokes had ended in failure. You could see something was up by the way fans immediately started obsessing about who he'd appoint to his backroom team. If the best thing about a manager is his assistants, it doesn't say much for him.

Similarly, I didn't hear any enthusiasm about Kieran Kingston's appointment to succeed Jimmy Barry-Murphy. The job had to go to someone, seemed to be the general attitude and sure wasn't he as good as anyone else. Kingston's major achievement as a manager was getting Tracton to an intermediate hurling final in 2010, which they lost to Ballymartle.

When you're in a trough the way Cork are, you need inspirational managers. Appointing guys on the basis of 'ah sure won't he be grand' is alright when things are ticking over nicely, but not when the whole shebang has just gone over a cliff. What the choices of Healy and Kingston suggested were that as far as the county board were concerned, everything would be grand. We are Cork, we come up like the mushroom, we have the tradition et cetera et cetera.

The only problem is that Cork is not Cork as we once understood it. The worst Munster hurling championship dusting the Rebels took prior to this year's model was in 1996 against Limerick. Three years later they were All-Ireland champions. But back then Cork had just won an All-Ireland minor title with an outstanding side whose victory in the final was the biggest in 19 years and who'd go on to take two All-Ireland under 21 crowns. There's nothing like that coming through at the moment. Cork haven't won a minor hurling title since 2001 or reached a final since 2007. The last All-Ireland minor football title came in 2000.

Cork once boasted the finest club championships in Ireland in hurling and football. But since Newtownshandrum won the 2009 Munster club hurling title, no Cork team has made the provincial final.

It's 2003 since a Cork hurling team won a club All-Ireland. Since 2008 there's been just one Munster club football title, the same number as achieved by Clare, Tipperary and Limerick. No Cork team has even appeared in a Hogan Cup final since St Fachtna's, Skibbereen became the smallest school ever to win it in 1991. The last Croke Cup victory was by St Colman's, Fermoy in 2002.

Some powerful clubs still remain, Nemo Rangers and Castlehaven in football being the prime examples, but neither of them has any involvement in county senior team management at the moment.

The worst thing of all for Cork is that people at board level seem relaxed about this decline. One man who's been doing his best to change this is coaching officer Kevin O'Donovan who, after both of this year's championship defeats, has pleaded with the board to have a debate on the county team's performances. O'Donovan is an impressive character whose intervention after the hurling defeat garnered plenty of attention but fell on deaf ears at the top table.

Last week he tried again. "As usual I'm disappointed that there's not more debate, I'm not going to go into a board meeting after a loss like last Sunday's and stay silent. We need to have a debate. That's why I'm calling for a board meeting specifically to discuss this."

No such meeting was granted and O'Donovan is the latest Cork prophet to find himself crying in the wilderness. "We felt the players showed great commitment to fight back towards the end," said county secretary Frank Murphy at the same meeting. "We have seen teams do well after early provincial exits. Regroup and get back on winning ways in the qualifiers. That's what we're expecting," said chairman Ger Lane.

That's the attitude lads. Onwards and upwards. Like the mushroom.

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