Thursday 19 April 2018

Tomás Ó Sé: This Cork side are the biggest underachievers in football

This Cork side are under-achieving to a greater extent than any other team in the country right now - someone needs to shake them out of it, like Billy Morgan would have done in the past

Cork players stand for the National Anthem prior to their Munster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final match against Tipperary. Photo: Sportsfile
Cork players stand for the National Anthem prior to their Munster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final match against Tipperary. Photo: Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

Maybe the worst label a GAA man can see stitched next to his name is "watery". It implies something that is bred into you to despise.

In Cork, it should carry particularly offensive ramifications given their recent history of going to war with an obstinate county board. Remember, these guys, hurlers and footballers, went on strike over that board's pettiness and penny-pinching.

It was a historic war that a lot of other, smaller counties would, in time, have reason to be grateful for.

Cork were GAA ground-breakers. They went somewhere no other county had gone before and, in many instances, risked personal advancement for the greater good. But to what end long-term?

'Watery' is the word that follows Cork's hurlers and footballers around the place today.

I'm not qualified to talk about the hurlers, but I've a belly-full of experience playing against their footballers and let's just say 'watery' isn't the word that ever came to mind when Graham Canty was knocking me on my arse in Pairc Ui Chaoimh or Nicholas Murphy was drawing a kick across the back of my legs.

Noel O'Leary. Photo: Sportsfile
Noel O'Leary. Photo: Sportsfile


And 'watery' wasn't exactly a word you'd have associated with Noel O'Leary in any of those famous rutting matches he used have with Paul Galvin.

Cork had some of the hardest footballers I came up against, but one of the things that always bugged me about them was they might do it against Kerry in July, then go out the next day and play like lambs.

I was hard on them last year with the way their year petered out so limply and, contrary to what many might believe, I took no pleasure in that.

I live in Cork, I play in Cork, I know great Cork football people. But, as a county, they're being sold short here. Hopelessly short.

I'm more than 15 years living in the county and it genuinely saddens me when I see the kicking their footballers are getting now.

But something intrigues me too. Since I started playing with Nemo Rangers, it's been impossible to reconcile the confidence I encounter within the club with the communal self-doubt so often apparent in the county team.

Sometimes Nemo play opponents that, on paper at least, are plainly better, but there never seems an inkling of dressing-room doubt about their ability to win.

Why can't the Nemo attitude be replicated by Cork?

Now attitude alone guarantees nothing, I accept that. Nemo lose plenty of games they firmly believe they should be winning. But the point I'm making is you can help yourself with the attitude you radiate.

And too often of late, Cork's footballers radiate nothing.

Their underage record tells us they've players coming through as good as anything in the country, but it's as if they're not aware of it.

Cork have become a kind of ghost of themselves.

When I look at them, I struggle to see leadership either on the field or off. I'm talking about men with the ability to inspire.

Two factors should have been in their favour last Sunday.

Firstly, that conveyor belt of proper underage talent coming through - they've completely dominated at U-21 level in Munster recently.

Secondly, the crushing drain of players that Tipperary have suffered in the last calendar year.

Now questioning Cork's stomach here shouldn't be taken as an insult to Tipp.

What they have achieved under Liam Kearns is phenomenal in the circumstances, and that side of it doesn't surprise me. Liam was manager of a Limerick team that should have beaten Kerry in '04. Liam knew us inside out, being a Kerryman himself and, as we say in the county, the man is cute out.

I note the way he's left the door open for those missing players to come back into a group now preparing for the Munster final. He's put real teeth in that Tipp panel and I would be surprised if a few of those they lost over winter aren't thinking to themselves 'You know, I wouldn't mind being a part of that'.

But Cork? I don't really know what (if anything) upsets them. I'm not sure who their big men in the dressing-room are.

I don't know much about their management team either apart from Eamonn Ryan but, last I heard, one of the GAA's most successful managers was reduced to retrieving balls from behind the goal in training. If this is true, it's shameful.

To be fair, I was impressed by the way Peadar Healy conducted himself in Thurles, and I really don't know enough about the man to pass any valid judgement on him as manager.

But football these days is top-heavy with experts in nutrition, logistics, sports science and all the rest. You have attack coaches and defence coaches. You have more guys with clip-boards than you have footballs. Every support structure imaginable is being put in place for players, but I go back to that single word 'inspire'.

I look at so many modern managers and what I see is a conveyor belt of outstanding organisers. But I struggle to see men who'd get you to play, as an old American footballer once put it, "as if somebody just hit your mother".

Listen, Cork aren't alone in this struggle to build a team with recognisable personality and I'm obviously not privy to what goes on behind their dressing-room door.

But I do think they're under-achieving to a greater extent than maybe any other team in the country right now. And if that doesn't horrify those involved, it certainly should. They need to start getting the right people into the right jobs at every level.

To me, one of their bigger successes in the National League was Peter Kelleher at full-forward. Where did he start last Sunday? On the bench. He made a big difference when he came in, but why on earth didn't they show the confidence to back him? If the young talent is there, give them their head. Let them roll.

That said, I'll say straight out I believe they'd have had a better chance of beating Tipperary if Ken O'Halloran had been in goal and Michael Shields in defence. My understanding is that they were banished from the panel for slipping offside at a training camp. If this is true, I'm inclined to despair.


I know that management must manage, but does every ounce of individuality have to be completely sucked out of the playing experience?

You can discipline players in-house (I should know). Rap them over the knuckles. Ball them out of it in front of team-mates even. But you don't cut them loose unless you have absolutely no option.

The idea that players today simply cannot be cut any slack at all depresses me.

Look, Cork need to be inspired. They should have won the Munster title last year but seem to have slipped under some kind of spell of self-pity since.

Someone needs to shake them out of that the way Billy Morgan would have done in the past. Playing against Cork in the old days, you'd look at Billy on the line and be thinking 'Lord God that man's pure insane!' But, put it this way, he had your attention.

There's something inexcusable about how today's Cork players just don't ever seem prepared for the pitfalls looming. I mean look at the abject limpness of the Kildare defeat last year. Or the shellacking they took against Roscommon in this year's League.

Did they really have to fall nine points behind Tipp last Sunday to realise they were in a dangerous game? In Kerry, we were endlessly on a war footing against the Tipps of this world. We'd talk ourselves into a near frenzy about what it would be like to lose against them.

Often if we sensed standards slipping we'd tell management to leave the room and just tear strips off one another. You see, there's nothing worse than bullshit in a dressing-room, than people just talking the talk and not backing it up. Sometimes you need to bring that up for discussion, whether fellas are ready for that or not.

The reason we feared Billy Morgan in Kerry was we knew he understood that. We knew that edge never left his personality and that when you came up against him, you came up against an utterly ruthless man.

With Nemo now, I can see someone cut from the same cloth in Stevie O'Brien. When that man speaks in a dressing-room, you can feel the hairs tingle on the back of your neck.

Jim McGuinness told me that of all the teams in Ireland apart from his own, Cork was the one he'd most like to have managed. He could see the talent there, but knew they lacked direction.

It's easier in Kerry, I accept that. We're a football county, end of story. Our kids don't grow up being drawn to role models in hurling or soccer or rugby (though Ultan Dillane is making a fair fist of it now with Connacht and Ireland).

And I'm sure Cork people reckon they've taken quite enough lectures this week from old Kerry footballers.

People might be rolling their eyes too at me championing the likes of Billy and Mick O'Dwyer and my own uncle Páidí again.

I know management has changed across the years, but you still need somebody who can communicate the right message. Put all the other supports in place by all means, but at the tip of it, put somebody who can lead.

Trust me, these men did a hell of a lot more than just roaring and banging tables. They got inside players' minds.

To me, that was Micko's greatest achievement. How, year after year, he kept lads hungry. No quacks, no shrinks, none of this psychology guff that sounds like it's been learnt from a library book.

I remember Jack O'Connor bringing in a sports psychologist once and it did absolutely nothing for me. All I could think was, 'After years of playing for Kerry, what can this fella tell me that I don't know?' Maybe more to the point, 'How?' I mean I hear all these stock phrases like "control the controllables" but, if this person hasn't been out there in the white heat themselves, I'm sorry, how can they understand what it asks of me?

Trust me, the Brian Codys, Mickey Hartes, Mickos, Páidís and Billy Morgans would leave all these sports psychologists for dead.

I was down in Waterville last weekend for a celebration of Micko's 80th birthday. There was mighty craic and I brought the young lad, Micheál, with me. When we were leaving, Micko comes across and playfully tackles him about playing under-age with Nemo.

"Lord don't let me see you playing for Cork now in years to come," he says. "Kerry's your team, always remember that." And I drove away laughing.

Black to the end.

Irish Independent

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