Sunday 19 November 2017

Cuthbert question will be answered today

Seldom at this stage of the season has one man had so much riding on one game, says Eamonn Sweeney

Brian Cuthbert
Brian Cuthbert
Cork should surely be fired up to prove their critics wrong, that’s of course unless the team shares those doubts too

Eamonn Sweeney

James Masters didn't beat about the bush when he criticised Brian Cuthbert on Twitter recently. There was no hedging or hinting from the former Cork forward, just the blunt statement, "I really don't think Cuthbert is up to it", and a suggestion that the manager, "hasn't the trust of a lot of his players."

This followed Tomás Ó Sé's lambasting of Cork as "rudderless enough . . . if you get on top of them very, very early, they've no plan B and they'll just lie down," before he delivered the damning coup de grace: "If Eamonn Fitzmaurice was in charge of Cork, I think you'd have a very different Cork team."

These are not uncommon sentiments among football people in Cork; the question of Cuthbert's suitability for the job comes up in practically every conversation you have about the merits of the team. Which means that, to an almost unparalleled extent, today's Munster final in Killarney will be seen by Cork fans as a kind of de facto referendum on the Cuthbert question.

Cuthbert seemed an odd choice for the job after Conor Counihan retired two years ago. John Cleary, who had managed the Cork under 21s to an All-Ireland and four Munster titles, was the obvious candidate to graduate to the senior job, as Jim Gavin had in Dublin. To choose Cuthbert, whose stint as county minor manager ended after humiliating defeats by Tipperary and Dublin, seemed an almost perverse decision by a county board which is, shall we say, rarely bound by the dictates of public opinion.

It was suggested at the time that Cuthbert had prevailed because of his belief that players could play for both the football and hurling teams. Cleary, and almost everyone else, thought this was unrealistic and so it proved as the experiment was shelved at the end of last season. But not before Damien Cahalane and Aidan Walsh had quit the football panel and given their allegiance to hurling instead. Then again, football followers in Cork often feel the county board seems to adopt a Hurling First attitude.

An admiring article which praised Cuthbert for the superb PowerPoint presentation he gave at his interview and bigged up the wonderful integrated training plan he had instituted at Bishopstown (a club which has never won a county senior title) didn't do the new boss much favours. It merely made him sound like the latest manifestation of that common modern phenomenon, the Bullshit Manager, a guy who talks the talk and believes success can be achieved through a combination of machismo, creative visualisation and clichés culled from the biographies of famous businessmen.

Yet at first Brian Cuthbert actually confounded his critics as Cork played immensely attractive football in last year's National League. Everything, in fact, went swimmingly till the whistle blew for the start of the second half of the semi-final against Dublin with Cork leading by eight points. Thirty-five minutes later they'd lost by seven and have never looked the same team since.

That 15-point turnaround was bad enough but it was merely the appetiser for the long dark afternoon of the soul which was last year's Munster final against Kerry. It's not exaggeration to say the Rebels have rarely looked as bad as they did that day in Páirc Uí Chaoimh; you had to go back to 1977 to find a heavier Munster final defeat at the hands of their old enemy.

Cork did regroup to a certain extent in this year's league but all the talk of how Cuthbert had taken the team down a new and more defensively obdurate road was revealed to be just nonsense when Dublin scored 1-21, the third highest tally in league final history. The 11-point margin between the teams suggested that Cork, despite bullish noises from Cuthbert, had spent 12 months going nowhere.

It means that nothing less than victory will do for Cork today if their embattled manager is to retain any credibility. This may sound harsh given that the visitors have not won in Killarney since 1995 but they did manage to draw there in 2002, '06, '09 and 2010 and the unprecedented nature of last year's final defeat means Cork owe their fans something unprecedented in return. Should Cuthbert try to pass off a narrow defeat as a kind of success, like he did after last year's All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Mayo, he will merely confirm the suspicion that he is in the business of lowering expectations rather than fulfilling them.

The particular decision which provoked James Masters' ire was the dropping of Fintan Goold, who had played at midfield during Cork's National League campaign, for the Munster semi-final against Clare. And it's the midfield situation which encapsulates the apparent confusion of the Cuthbert era. The number of pairings tried out since the new manager took over reaches well into double figures and against Clare the berths were filled by Kevin O'Driscoll, who'd been at wing-forward during the league, and Alan O'Connor, summoned out of retirement. True to form, today Goold and O'Connor are paired together at midfield for the first time.

There is also the continuing exclusion of Paddy Kelly. Not only is Kelly a proven performer at the highest level, he looked the best club player in Cork when inspiring Ballincollig to their first county senior title last year. That Ballincollig had no players in the starting line-up against Clare while West Cork junior team Caheragh had three is another eye-catching oddity of selection, as was the placing of Barry O'Driscoll, who's played most of his football in the forward-line, at wing-back. The use of James Loughrey, the Antrim import who usually looks happiest when on the ball, as the team's main man-marker also seems a potential hostage to fortune.

Yet it would be foolish to write off Cork today. A full-forward line containing Colm O'Neill and Brian Hurley gives them a puncher's chance. These are players who, properly supplied, can trouble any defence. They give Cork the invaluable ability to score goals, displayed when the Rebels put four past Donegal in the league semi-final.

Brian O'Driscoll at centre half-back is an exceptional prospect, an aggressive athletic player who's just as dangerous going forward as Jack McCaffrey, while Mark Collins has blossomed this year in a roving wing-forward role. Whether you feel that Collins owes this to being deployed there by the manager or would, given his immense playmaking ability, do even better as an orthodox centre half-forward, probably depends on how you feel about Brian Cuthbert.

In fact an awful lot rides on the Cuthbert question today. The Masters and Ó Sé interventions seem like godsends for a manager looking to motivate a team. Cork should surely be fired up to prove their critics wrong. That's of course unless the team shares those doubts, in which case a painful scourging could be on the cards.

All will be much clearer by this evening. Seldom at this stage of the season has one man had so much riding on one game.

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