Friday 15 December 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Failure becoming the norm in Cork

Tipperary manager Liam Kearns reacts after the final whistle when his team put Cork to the sword last season. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Tipperary manager Liam Kearns reacts after the final whistle when his team put Cork to the sword last season. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

At the end of the First World War, Winston Churchill lamented that, "As the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world." The Ulster Championship can have that effect on a man.

It was hard to avoid that Churchillian feeling last week as the GAA season began with one more row about the state of Cork. A player attacking the county board, the board defending itself, journalists backing one side or the other depending on their own personal predilections, arguments on social media . . . it all felt like the re-enactment of some time-honoured ritual whose participants are doomed to strike the same poses for all eternity. The Cork controversy reminds me of Karl Marx's comment, "history repeats itself - first as tragedy, second as farce."

And also of Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray eventually learned that the same things would keep happening over and over again until he changed his character. The reason Paddy Kelly's attack on the status quo last week seemed so familiar is that not much appears to have changed in Cork.

Kelly commands a lot of respect in Cork football. Not blessed with extravagant natural talent, he was the epitome of someone who got the most out of himself. Honesty was his defining quality during a very decent inter-county career and it was in evidence as he spoke out in an excellent interview with Kieran Shannon of the Irish Examiner.

The Ballincollig player detailed his frustration at a forum he'd attended in September which, billed as a chance for clubs to have a say in the running of Cork GAA, turned out to be "a complete damp squib, a waste of time, a non-event". He noted how none of the proposals made at that forum had even been referred to, let alone acted on, at county board level. And how the set of bold and detailed proposals for removing Cork from the morass of underachievement made by county coaching officer Kevin O'Donovan last year have apparently been already consigned to the dustbin of history.

I saw Kelly playing some wonderful football at club level during the summer. He didn't look like a player who had nothing left to offer Cork but he has just announced his inter-county retirement. It's hard to think this hasn't been influenced by the goings-on in the winter when Cork decided to train on a pitch in Fermoy, only to find out there was no gym nearby, so that they were forced to improvise a makeshift facility by putting some equipment into an empty warehouse. You can't really imagine the likes of that happening in any other major county.

Cork players, from left, Ray Carey, Paudie Kissane, Paddy Kelly, Nicholas Murphy, Pearse O'Neill, Aidan Walsh and goalkeeper Alan Quirke with county secretary Frank Murphy, celebrate after the game in 2010
Cork players, from left, Ray Carey, Paudie Kissane, Paddy Kelly, Nicholas Murphy, Pearse O'Neill, Aidan Walsh and goalkeeper Alan Quirke with county secretary Frank Murphy, celebrate after the game in 2010

In a supreme example of missing the point, county board chairman Ger Lane appeared to think he was providing a devastating rebuttal of the story by declaring that the players didn't have to paint the warehouse themselves. He also said they hadn't complained to the board about the facility in Fermoy (which, by the way, is a ludicrous location - at the northern extreme of a very large county, it's nearly as convenient for Dublin as it is for the outer reaches of West Cork). It doesn't seem to have occurred to Ger that at this stage players have probably decided there's no point in complaining. The ultimate way to complain, after all, is to retire.

Perhaps the most telling comment of all from Kelly was that, at the putative club forum, "What everyone had in common was that we were angry. Everyone was pissed off at what Cork GAA had become." Now, I'm not in a position to comment on the state of the makeshift gym facilities in Fermoy but I do know something about the state of mind among Cork GAA people. I live here, most of the conversations I have are about sport and a lot of those are about Cork GAA.

These are not by and large cheerful conversations. The saddest thing of all is that at one time people were seething with anger about the decline of the county's teams. Now the mood is more one of bemusement and resignation. After the disaster of 2015 which saw, for the first time in living memory, both senior county teams eliminated from the Championship before the end of July, the general mood was not, "Let's see how we bounce back from this", but, "Jesus, how much worse can this get?"

Much, much worse as it turned out. The footballers lost to Tipperary for the first time in 72 years, the hurlers played nine competitive games and lost seven of them and, by 6.0 on the evening of July 30, all was done and dusted for the Rebels. This year, for the first time I can remember, Cork will go into a season with absolutely no hope of making an All-Ireland final. These days the prevailing mood when discussing the teams is not hope or anger or any kind of passionate emotion. It's black humour. I recognise that kind of humour. I remember it from growing up in Sligo.

Where once all the talk was about ousting Kerry, this year it will be counted as success if Cork footballers regain their number two slot in Munster from Tipperary. They're as likely to lose their number three slot to Clare as they are to knock the Kingdom off their perch. The hurlers are rated seventh in the betting for the All-Ireland, which may be slightly generous given that Wexford, who knocked them out of last year's Championship and have, in Davy Fitzgerald, made the kind of imaginative and optimistic management choice which seems beyond Cork, are ninth.

It was poignant to read Paddy Kelly recalling the moment in 2010 when the future of football looked to be Cork-shaped. They had just won the All-Ireland senior title and, just as significantly, the 2007 and 2009 under 21 crowns, while establishing almost total supremacy at that level over Kerry. There was a load of top-class underage talent coming through. But whereas Dublin turned under 21 titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 into senior titles, Cork went into a precipitous decline. Every year the expectations were lowered. The worst part about last season was not the defeat by Tipperary, it was the football management treating a win in the qualifiers over Longford as a major achievement. This has been some comedown. Add in the decline of the hurlers and it may be the most precipitous by any county in GAA history.

How anyone can deny Paddy Kelly's right to express his genuine indignation escapes me. Cork's problem isn't that there are too many critics, it's that no-one passes any heed on the valid points they make. When Donal Óg spoke out, the delegates said nothing because it was Donal Óg. When Sean Óg spoke out, the delegates said nothing because it was Sean Óg. But if they don't say anything when Paddy Kelly speaks out, soon there will be no-one left to speak out. No-one will be bothered anymore.

Unfortunately the county board top brass will probably react like Fr Ted's Fr Noel Furlong in the Ailwee Caves, saying, "You're for it now, Paddy Kelly", and put him down on their "enemies list". Their preference for the adversarial relationship is well documented. Only last year they were locked in battle with Cumann na mBunscoil, the organisation which promotes Gaelic games in the county's National Schools and does it very well, over the question of venues for schools finals. Throughout you had the impression of people for whom the most important thing is always to get their own way and to be seen to be in the right. Hence the importance attached by Ger Lane to the question of who painted the warehouse in Fermoy.

But there are more important things than being in the right. And reasonable people should ask themselves why Paddy Kelly, an uncontroversial figure during his inter-county career, has become just the latest person to call out the Cork County Board on the way they do business. Can all these people, people who have given a great deal to Cork GAA in some cases, be acting in bad faith or out of malice? Do you think Paddy Kelly is lying when he talks about people being pissed off with what Cork GAA has become? Why on earth would he, and everyone else, lie?

Walking away: 2010 All Ireland winner with Cork, Patrick Kelly
Walking away: 2010 All Ireland winner with Cork, Patrick Kelly

It's alright to say that players should concentrate on what happens on the pitch but things aren't that simple. Poor appointments and a general air of drift have crippled Cork since Paddy Kelly won his All-Ireland medal in 2010.

When I look at the county's reaction to disaster in 2015 and 2016 it reminds me of the end of that great novel The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson. The protagonist, Don Birnam, is an alcoholic writer who endures a truly harrowing time, ending up in hospital, being caught stealing, trying to hock his typewriter, thoroughly degrading himself. Yet in the end as he drifts off to sleep Don thinks, "This one was over and nothing had happened at all. Why did they make such a fuss?" Don will keep doing the same thing until it's too late to change.

So it goes with the Cork County Board. At the end of the season the memory of inter-county pain and humiliation fades quickly and they tell themselves it's not such a big deal. People should stop nagging them. They'll sort it out in their own time. God love them.

NB: If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this column, contact the Cork County Board.

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