Tuesday 16 July 2019

Hold the Back Page: Just admit you got it wrong

‘Damien Cahalane was a much bigger loss to the footballers than he was a gain to the hurlers’
‘Damien Cahalane was a much bigger loss to the footballers than he was a gain to the hurlers’
Former BBC horse racing commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan died on Wednesday at the age of 97
Pádraig O'Neill, Kildare, is congratulated by supporters following their victory over Cork last week
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

We need to talk about Cork. The first thing to note about the Cork Problem is that there are two Cork Problems, tempting though it is to lump both hurling and football together as the victims of some general malaise.

The travails of the football team are explained by the fact that the County Board made the wrong choice of manager two years ago. This is not hindsight talking. In this column at the time I predicted that if Cork didn't go with the obvious candidate, John Cleary, the Rebels would sink to the level of Meath and Kildare. Some people thought this was far fetched, "Kildare? Are you joking me." In the words of Bob Monkhouse, they're not laughing now.

Cleary remains the obvious candidate. So much so that a refusal to select him would only mean that the Board are adopting an ABC (Anyone But Cleary) attitude out of reluctance to admit that they made the wrong call two years ago. Even then the choice of Cuthbert seemed so odd that a delegate at the meeting when it was announced allegedly asked if he could hear the criteria involved, only to be told it was none of his, or anyone else's, business.

Like Jim Gavin with Dublin, Cleary has worked with the Cork players at under 21 level, where he bagged four Munster titles and one All-Ireland in five years. In the same period the Rebels won just one provincial minor championship, which showed the difference the manager made to players as they moved up a grade. Funnily enough, I've seen it suggested that 'with the talent available to him,' Cork should have won more than one All-Ireland title. But that is merely turning Cleary's success against him: those teams looked talented because he'd got the best out of them. A three-point loss in the 2013 All-Ireland final to a Galway team containing Shane Walsh, Fiontán Ó Curraoin, Thomas Flynn and Damien Comer by a Cork side, only one of whose players started for the seniors against Kildare, doesn't look so much like underachievement at this remove.

Talk of an outside manager seems misguided when you consider that in the last 50 years only two such bosses, John O'Mahony with Galway and Eugene McGee with Offaly, have guided a team to an All-Ireland title.

I've said that there are two distinct problems in Cork but there is a sense that the football team's difficulty arose out of the hurling side's opportunity. Two years ago Cork came within inches of winning the hurling final. It was totally unexpected and owed a great deal to the sendings off suffered by Kilkenny in the quarter and Dublin in the semi-final.

But it may have led to the conviction that one more push the following year could take the Rebel hurlers over the line and that this push would be provided by the addition of Aidan Walsh, Damien Cahalane and Eoin Cadogan, then playing with the footballers, and Alan Cadogan, who was probably on the verge of making the football panel. Brian Cuthbert told the Board what they wanted to hear, which was that players could combine both football and hurling, something which hadn't been done in years.

This makes Cuthbert something of a tragic figure. His 'flexibility' in this matter helped him get the job but it was also a huge blow to his credibility. Few people believed the dual player strategy would work in the modern game. And the doubters were proved correct when Walsh and Cahalane eventually quit the football panel to focus exclusively on hurling. Given that both are better footballers than hurlers, and proved much bigger losses to the football side than they were additions to the hurling side, it was hard to escape the feeling that Cork had pulled off the difficult trick of robbing Peter and Paul simultaneously.

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Cork did come close to shocking Kerry in Killarney this year, but Cuthbert's reign was an unhappy one. The team suffered a heaviest defeat by Kerry in a Munster final since 1977 last year, this year came the second biggest defeat for any team in a National League final in the last 50 years and the county's biggest ever defeat in the qualifiers. Under Cuthbert, Cork put up more ugly landmarks than Dublin Corporation. The bitter irony was that for years Cork footballers have been the butt of more unfair scorn than any other team in the country. But it was only in the last two years that they started to resemble the quitters their critics had said they were. Too often they played like a team without faith or direction.

Yet if the situation is serious for the footballers, it's desperate for the hurlers. The problem for the footballers was managerial but the problem for the hurlers is structural and it's hard to see that being remedied any time soon. Cork's last Munster minor title came in 2008 and they haven't made a decider since. They haven't won a Munster under 21 title since 2007 nor an All-Ireland under-age crown since 2001.

Diarmuid O'Donovan of the County Board during the week put this famine down to "bad luck," which seems somewhat complacent. Meanwhile Waterford, Clare and Limerick are enjoying golden spells at under-age level, and Tipp are chugging along pretty well too. Eleven All-Ireland titles at minor and under 21 have come to Munster since Cork last won one. Looking at Clare in 2013 and Waterford this year, it strikes you that the key players on both teams will be around for some time to come. And looking at Waterford's cakewalk against Cork in this year's Munster under 21 championship, it was hard to pick out a single Rebel player with a big future at senior level.

You have to go back to the 1950s for the last time Cork went seven years without a provincial minor hurling title. They have never previously gone eight years without a Munster under 21 title. It's statistics like this which explain Donal Óg Cusack's spectacular display of wrath on The Sunday Game last weekend. Something has obviously gone very badly wrong at under-age level for Cork hurling.

I don't hold with the notion that everything which has gone wrong in Cork can be blamed on one all-powerful figure pulling the strings behind the scenes. The officers of the County Board as a whole share the responsibility. They can start putting things on the right track by giving John Cleary the job as football manager and by enlisting some of the former hurlers who feel they've been frozen out since the players' strike to try and start putting things right at under-age level.

This may involve admitting that the Board members were wrong about things in the past but that is often the price of progress. If they're unable to do that they lay themselves open to allegations that their first loyalty is to the Board as an institution rather than to the county itself.

Last weekend was probably the worst in the history of Cork GAA. It comes just 25 years after the All-Ireland double which showed Cork is a big enough county to prosper in both football and hurling if people get their act together. There is no need to run down one code in a misguided attempt to strengthen the other.

But unless the proper action is promptly taken, there will be similar weekends to come. And the Cork supporters trooping disconsolately away into the night won't care who was right or wrong about some ancient appointment or dispute.

None of that matters now.

A voice that turned races into legend

Sounds of a '70s sporting childhood. Transistor radios at the beach emitting tantalisingly indistinct hints about the day's championship matches. The patter of hawkers walking among the crowd at big games and the shouts of those who wished they'd get out of the way. Michael O'Hehir telling us through his nose that Johnny has kicked it right and Johnny has kicked it . . . wide.

Bill McLaren revealing that there'd be celebrations tonight in the streets of Tobernavuloch. Club players looking for a cigarette at half-time. Mick McManus shouting, "not the ears, not the ears." Dan Maskell purring, "Oh what a loveleh volleh." The grunting of Superstars competitors as they poured it on in the squat thrusts. A crackle from the line which ran across the television every time a car drove past the house. The nerve-jangling rattle of a pole clipped by Boomerang or Kerrygold which jumped but stayed up. He's on the 21, he's on the 14, he's bzzzzz, whoooosh, bzzzzzowwwwowow.

Dickie Davis sounding like a spiv from an Ealing Comedy who had something interesting but dubious to sell you. The engine-like declarations of Murray Walker that made him sound as if he was gradually being transformed into a car himself by prolonged exposure to Formula One.

And Peter O'Sullevan, who died on Wednesday at the age of 97, reminding you why they called horse racing the Sport of Kings. A port and stilton voice with the authority of an admiral commanding an orderly debarkation from a wounded battleship. A voice which initially would be not much more than a murmur but that, as the race progressed, would almost imperceptibly increase in volume, intensity and speed until in the final furlongs it began to verge on abstraction while perfectly communicating the helter skelter excitement of the close finish.

It was a voice that seemed to be transforming the races into legend even as it commentated on them, a voice which stuck with you to the extent that whenever I see a race now and can't hear the commentary, it's Peter O'Sullevan I imagine calling it. That tone of gentlemanly assurance and understatement went out of fashion a long time ago and we're the poorer for its passing.

Sooner or later someone told you that he was an Irishman. He was also a knight, an Old Carthusian and the son of a British Army colonel who won the DSO. And though born in Kerry, he was brought up in Surrey by his grandparents, Sir John and Lady Henry. But that's it, isn't it? When they're successful commentators, they're Irish, when they're not, they're British.

The first bet O'Sullevan ever had was sixpence each way on Tipperary Tim at 100/1 in the 1928 Grand National. The horse duly won and the ten-year-old took the hint as to his future career. We're lucky he did.

He also once resigned from his job at the Daily Mail because the sports editor changed his copy and deleted two paragraphs. Just saying.

Delights of annual Big Stupid Idea

As Cork footballers endured humiliation by Kildare last week I donned my Profound and Serious Thinker's Hat and asked myself, "What good is this game doing  Cork?" "How will Kildare benefit by winning so easily?" and "Are the spectators well served by such a one-sided game?" And it came to me that what we really need is a two-tier championship so counties like Cork can be spared hidings like this in the future.

Apologies. I couldn't resist it. Because every time a side has suffered a heavy defeat this summer, the cry has gone up that we really need a two-tier football championship. You'll hear it again today after Dublin thrash the living daylights out of Fermanagh.

The two-tier championship is this year's Big Stupid GAA Idea. We have one every year. In 2013 it was that football was heading inexorably towards a zero point of defensiveness. Last year it was that Dublin were going to win five All-Irelands in a row and the county should be dismembered to prevent this inevitability. Oh, and also that hurling was becoming tactical and defensive, 'just like football,' though this disappeared after Kilkenny and Tipperary played of the highest-scoring All-Ireland final in history.

What the confederacy of dunces propounding the two-tier idea haven't explained is which counties are going to be in the top tier. Kildare are presumably disqualified for suffering a 23-point defeat by Dublin. Yet the Lilywhites beat Cork by eight. Such critical favourites as Meath (beaten by Westmeath), Down (stuffed by Wexford), Armagh (hammered by Donegal) and Laois (upset by an Antrim team which lost by 13 points to Fermanagh) would also presumably be out of the reckoning.

When it comes down to it, then, the only sides with a clear right to be in the top tier are Dublin, Mayo, Monaghan, Kerry, Tyrone and whoever won the Galway-Donegal match last night. You'd certainly have to stretch a bit to get more than eight teams who are clearly better than the rest. The ludicrous nature of the two-tier idea will be laid bare if Fermanagh get hockeyed today and we're told that a team which makes the last eight of the championship should be consigned to a lower grade.

I can't wait to see what they come up with next year.

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