Tuesday 23 January 2018

Cork: the sporting capital of the world

As several sports compete for players in the county, Liam Kelly reflects on those who have stayed with the GAA and a few who got away

Short-lived: Roy Keane's hurling career
Short-lived: Roy Keane's hurling career

DARREN Sweetnam's decision to opt for a career in professional rugby was a blow to Cork hurling, but the switch epitomised the rich sporting heritage of the Rebel county.

Sweetnam was only 19 and part of Jimmy Barry-Murphy's panel for 2012 when he decided to focus his considerable sporting talent solely on the rugby arena.

Who could blame him? Ask any top-level amateur player in any code if they'd like a career as a full-time professional, and the answer, in most cases, would be an emphatic 'yes'.

Cork has had many sporting heroes whose ability could easily translate from GAA to soccer, but the arrival on the scene of Munster rugby in the professional era offered new possibilities for talented performers.

Tomas O'Leary was the first notable hurler to go into the pro ranks of rugby when he signed up for Munster in 2001.

Sweetnam is the most recent GAA-to- rugby convert, but the Munster brand is so well established, and the developmental system of the oval ball game so deeply rooted, that the GAA could lose.

On the broader front, Sweetnam's situation serves to remind the rest of the country that Cork retains its reputation as a passionate sporting county.

Gaelic games and soccer were the big two for decades, until the advent of Munster rugby, but it's remarkable how many Cork sport stars could translate their skills so easily from one arena to another.

Where do we start? Go back 40 years, and there is Dinny Allen winning an FAI Cup medal with Cork Hibernians in a replay against Shelbourne at Flower Lodge.

At heart though, the wonderfully talented Dinny was a Gaelic footballer and hurler and though he had to wait until he was 37, he finally got that coveted All-Ireland football medal with Cork in 1988.

That same year, 19-year-old Jimmy Barry-Murphy paraded his prowess on the national stage with the Cork team which captured the Sam Maguire in 1973.

But for their Cork GAA roots, and the odd twist of fate, Dinny Allen, Jimmy Barry- Murphy and the 1973 All-Ireland winning goalkeeper Billy Morgan could have been professional soccer players at that stage.

Morgan had an extended trial with Jock Stein's Lisbon Lions at Glasgow Celtic in 1969, but he quit the trial period early because he was offered a teaching job back home.

Allen attracted the interest of cross-channel clubs, including Preston North End, Chelsea and Manchester United, while Barry-Murphy was also under scrutiny.

However, the GAA held on to all three of them, and they made mighty contributions to Cork over the years, with JBM back in harness and guiding the Rebel hurlers to this year's All-Ireland final and replay.

There were some who did get away. Denis Irwin was an accomplished footballer and hurler as a youngster but the lure of professional soccer brought him to England – and boy, did that turn out very well for Irwin, Man United, and the Republic of Ireland.

Roy Keane? One of Cork's most famous sons was soccer from the start, but he did try his luck – briefly – at hurling.

It ended in tears when a splinter from a full-blooded clash of the ash opened a wound in Keane's leg that took months to fully heal.

Another internationally renowned Cork man, Ronan O'Gara, was probably never going to deviate from rugby, but he too played Gaelic games in his youth.

For all the controversies that have afflicted the Rebel county's footballers and hurlers in their history, and the pre-eminence of GAA in the county, the fact is that Cork has a broad sporting tradition and varied interests.

The great Christy Ring would be thought of as a GAA diehard, but former Shelbourne star of the 60s Eric Barber recalled a revealing insight into Ring's broad-mindedness.

Barber and Shels arrived in a hotel in Tipperary after a match where they found the Cork hurlers, including Ring, in situ.

Once Christy realised Shels were there, he asked was Ben Hannigan with them.

On being told he was, Ring sought out sought out Hannigan to meet him because he admired the Shels player.

Dave Barry, one of the foremost multi-sport performers produced by the county was unsurprised by that story.

"We're very passionate down here about all our sports," he said.

"I know people and they'd be in Turner's Cross on Friday night and they'd be going up to watch the football and the hurling on a Sunday. That's the way it is in Cork.

"When you meet rugby players, they know exactly what's going on in the GAA circles.

"When I was managing Cork City, lads like Donal Lenihan and Olin Kelleher, who was on the panel for Munster when the All Blacks were here in the 70s, they'd know exactly who was in the squad and what was happening with the team.

"I think that's refreshing. That's the way I went about my career, being involved in a lot of sports but also taking an interest in everybody else's sport as well," said Barry.

Unlike Morgan, Allen, and Barry-Murphy, Barry enjoyed an enduring stint as a professional soccer player, as well as making a big impact on the Cork Gaelic football scene.

He played in two FAI Cup finals for Cork City, losing in 1989 and 1992, but in 1998 he managed City to their first cup victory since 1973.

Barry also performed on the European stage with Cork City, and memorably scored a super goal against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup in 1991.

On the GAA front, while he fell foul of the county board who demanded a 'GAA only' policy for the Cork footballers in the mid-80s, Barry came back to win two All-Irelands and a National League medal with the Rebels.

Barry's story of growing up in Cork illustrates the manner in which a broad sporting passion is instilled in so many youngsters from the time they can walk.

"When I started off, when we ran on to the road to play ball, it was a natural thing to play everything. We used to play tennis on the road, and on holidays I played a lot of tennis. I also played table tennis with Cork and Munster to the age of 14."

He added: "This all came through my father and my mother. My mother was a Munster table tennis player as well, and a tennis player.

"On that side of things sport was a massive part of our lives growing up. We were always involved in sport. Down in Cork, it's not that you're brought up with a hurley in your hand and you don't play anything else. There's a variety of sports that you're involved in.

"Whatever school you go to has a bearing on it as well. If it's a rugby school you get drawn into that. I know Ronan O'Gara played GAA but he went to Pres (Presentation Brothers Cork), and that's a big rugby school.

"I went to Colaiste Criost Ri. Dinny Allen, Billy Morgan and Jimmy Kerrigan went there as well. That was a massive (Gaelic) footballing school.

"Funny enough, I never came up against an anti-soccer bias at school. Obviously there were some of the Christian Brothers who were mad into Gaelic football but I didn't find them anti-soccer," Barry said.

Dave's family background was steeped in GAA and soccer, so it was no wonder he became an accomplished performer across the hurling/ Gaelic football/ soccer spectrum.

His uncle, Mick Barry was vice-chairman of the Cork county board, and also chairman of Delaney's GAA club. Mick brought Dave and many of his friends to play hurling for Delaney's.

Dave Creedon, who played in goals for Cork All-Ireland winning teams during the Christy Ring era, was a brother of Dave Barry's grandmother.

"With Mick Barry and Dave Creedon, that was a massive GAA hold on me on that side of my family.

"On my mother's side, her father (Bobby Buckle) won an FAI Cup medal and his father (Harry Buckle) also won an FAI Cup medal in soccer.

"My great grandfather (Harry Buckle) played for Sunderland on the soccer side of things, so when I was growing up, I was surrounded by all of this. I was soccer and GAA all through my growing up," said Barry.

He played hurling up to U-21 level, but as he broke into the Cork senior football side at 18 years old, and later joined Cork City, the big ball game dominated Barry's career.

There was a price to be paid for being a dual performer, particularly when it came to combining Cork City and Cork football.

"Most of my difficulties came when I was at senior level. People just wouldn't accept I was playing soccer one Sunday and Gaelic football the next.

"The county board gave an ultimatum at the start of the 1986-87 season that no Cork players could play any other sport, and I missed out on the All-Ireland over that.

"I was disappointed because there were other players who were playing other sports, like Danny Cullotty who was playing basketball, and Shea Fahey who was playing rugby.

"Really I suppose the ultimatum was brought in to stop the soccer. That's what I went through. Thanks be to God we're getting away from all that," said Barry.

Despite the big profile of rugby, Barry has no doubt which sport still commands the biggest focus in Cork.

"Hurling is huge here. To get the blood boiling, there's nothing like a controversy down here in Cork over the hurling. It just takes over. On the positive side, at the moment what Jimmy Barry-Murphy is doing is great," he said.

"Cork went through a lot with the troubles and the strikes. All that stuff left a terrible bad taste in a lot of people's mouths over the whole situation on both sides.

"It wasn't nice, but this year Jimmy, and Ger Cunningham and all the lads are bringing a smile to people's faces".

He continued: "All the talk now is about the hurling, about who did well, or who missed a goal. That's as it should be.

"The drawn match was a cracking game. I don't think Cork performed in the first half but the character they showed in coming back was great.

"Cork are probably a year ahead of where they expected to be, but if they get a bit of luck, they could win it," said Barry.

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