Sunday 25 February 2018

I was in two minds whether or not to stay on after Tipp defeat - Jimmy Barry-Murphy

'We let ourselves down. I don't really blame the players at all. It was up to us to get them right and we didn't do that'

‘We’re trying to get a level of consistency in performance to really make us a threat to the big teams,’ says Jimmy Barry-Murphy
‘We’re trying to get a level of consistency in performance to really make us a threat to the big teams,’ says Jimmy Barry-Murphy
Jimmy Barry Murphy and Brian Cody in their playing days

Christy O'Connor

Jimmy Barry-Murphy strolls down the square in Blarney, his eternally boyish appearance still so evident he could almost pass for a retro clip of his old self. Flecks of grey peer out through his mop of brown hair, sporadic lines run across his brow, contours meander their way around his cheeks. But Barry-Murphy's lighthouse smile is still so timeless, it almost has the capacity to conceal the undeniable truth of age.

Barry-Murphy is still such an icon in Cork that many will always want to remember him in the same image of the terrace hero they adored. He can't help it if people still see, or want to see him, as the wraith of his youth but, while he is 60 now, Barry-Murphy is still tall and slender. His navy slim-fit v-neck jumper sits perfectly onto his frame. His gait and demeanour is as lively as ever.

As a player, Barry-Murphy was famous for raising his two arms in the air after a big score, a trend which he first displayed in the 1972 All-Ireland minor football final. Age and management eroded that impulse which was such an effervescent part of his playing personality. On the line, he has always been stoic and measured but the pictures of Barry-Murphy after the league semi-final win against Dublin two weeks ago reflected him in a way that he would never be portrayed as a manager.

Barry-Murphy's celebration was the antithesis of his cool self-possession. He jumped around like a child. It was an expression of elation from deep within his gut but its origins are easy to trace.

"I couldn't believe that we had come back," he says. "The way we recycled the ball for the winning score was brilliant. Having lost the All-Ireland final (2013) to Clare in a similar manner, having been so shocking against Tipp last year, it released, I won't say pressure, but I just got a great kick out of the fact that we could still show that kind of skill and spirit.


"I was thrilled to get to a league final but I was just as delighted that we showed the character that we didn't show in Croke Park last year. That Tipp game is still in my head. It had a big impact on me. It made me realise we weren't where we thought we were. Maybe the way we won against Dublin just gave me a lift again, that you need along the way."

Talk of a rebel revolution, that the empire was striking back, came to a deadening halt last August. Almost 70,000 travelled to Croke Park but only one team turned up. Tipp took a flame-thrower to Cork's ambitions. The players and their manager left Dublin charred and blistered from the scorching.

"As Cork manager, it was embarrassing," says Barry-Murphy. "We brought 35-40,000 people to Dublin and we let everyone down. We let ourselves down. I don't really blame the players at all. It was up to us (management) to get them right and we didn't do that.

"Looking back, the five-week break was a major factor. If we were ever in that position again, I would use the time far differently. We had too much time together. The players would have been far better off going back to their clubs for two weeks.

"A lot of people asked me afterwards, 'Did ye set out to contain Tipp? Why did ye let them get so much possession on their puck-out?' We didn't. It had nothing to do with tactics.

"Whether it was a combination of factors from the build-up, to maybe we didn't get it across enough to the players that we wanted to take the game to Tipp, we were just flat."

It was one of those perplexing days but Barry-Murphy didn't take any solace in potential excuses. He has always had an unwavering confidence in himself but the nature of the defeat had a destabilising effect on everything. Doubts ransacked his mind. He looked so hard for answers that he took some time out to reconsider his position.

"I was in two minds on whether or not to stay on," he says. "All sorts of stuff was going through my head. How long do I stay in charge? How long does my way be the way? Is a change needed? In the end, I committed for two years but I do feel my age at times.

"There is a danger when you get to a stage as manager that you think nobody can do it like you. That is a problem. You've got to realise that maybe a different way is needed. Is it time for somebody else to come in and give them a chance? Why should I hog it for however long I want it?"

After all these years, Barry-Murphy's status and personal charisma is still defining Cork hurling. He has taken a team with no history of underage success, a group that had no modern culture of winning, and turned them into a real force. Nobody can quantify the effect he has had on this team but modern society and thinking questions everything. Forensic analysis holds a mirror up to anything that moves, including icons. In big games over the last three seasons, Cork have been tactically dictated to so often that question marks stalk Barry-Murphy and his players.

Barry-Murphy has never claimed to be an original or tactical thinker on the game. He has created a side in his own image, a team which reflects his outlook. He wants his teams to be positive, to always play positive, attacking hurling.

"I like us to play the Cork style of hurling," he says. "I love, attacking, skilful hurling, and for us to try and impose that game on the opposition. I'm not convinced we're a team that can play a system with extra bodies back and then get massive scores to win the game. Of course you're not going to be a fool about the opposition, and how they set up, but I think you can overanalyse that and I don't get too bogged down on that.

"I have come around more to it. I'm much more prepared now for the opposition and the game they play, and how we play, but tactics can be overdone. That's just my opinion. I think if we play to the best of our ability, we can be a match for anyone on our day. While I'm there, that will be the way it will be."

Barry-Murphy has embraced modern practices but there are limits to what he is prepared to do. Cork went on a training camp to Fota Island, just ten miles from Cork city, before the 2012 league final and they haven't gone on one since. Cork don't have a sports psychologist. They don't have a backroom team that resembles a small army.

Barry-Murphy's son Brian is first-team coach at Rochdale now in League Two in England. When he finishes his pro-European licence in the summer, he will have all his coaching badges. They share coaching ideas but Barry-Murphy still knows what he wants.

"I'm not as backward as people think," he laughs. "It is a different world now and I have tried to adapt as best I can. It's not a cliché but I would say some people involved still think I'm old-fashioned in my views and my behaviour and how we prepare. I'm not going to apologise for it.

"It's not that I frown on it, I just have my own ideas. If I feel down the line that foreign holidays and training camps are worthwhile, I will look at it. Whenever I'm gone out of this job, the next man will probably want to come in and do all that stuff. Maybe that will be the way forward and I'll be proved wrong."

Like Brian Cody, Barry-Murphy never looks back. His philosophy is always rooted in the present. His Cork hurling lineage and bloodlines run as deep and rich as anyone else in Cork but past glories are of no interest to him. He just did what he loved as a player, and is doing the same now as manager, just living in the moment.

He will let other people judge his playing career, just as they are still judging his managerial career. Despite his status, somebody always has an opinion. After Cork surrendered a 12-point lead in 18 minutes in their last regular league game against Tipp, when there was nothing at stake, one supporter verbally abused Barry-Murphy from behind the dugout.

"It wasn't very nice. I didn't respond to him. I'm not going to at this stage of my life either but it reminded me that in this game, there are people out there who don't think I'm as good as I think I am. I honestly mean that. I'm sure there are people who think we're picking the wrong team at times.


"When I hear this thing about Mr Popular, I'd say there are plenty people in Cork who would say I might not have been that fair to them. I can't do anything about that. All I can be is myself. I find it a tough job at times. I find dropping players very hard. We've had some tough defeats but you have to keep persisting with your beliefs that you're doing the right thing, the right way.

"When we lost to Clare in 2013, we were unlucky, we had two magnificent performances, but you just take it on the chin. I couldn't have been prouder. We were beaten by a brilliant team, so what. You've got to get on with it, be man enough to try and win one the next time. Cork hurling is my passion but I've got to the stage in my life now where I can admire these unbelievable players from other counties and take my beating if it comes that way."

The search continues, the quest is just shaped in a different form. Along with John Doyle, Barry-Murphy is the only hurler to have won ten Munster hurling medals. Iconic moments and images are interwoven throughout his career but in his second coming as manager, last year's Munster success has been the stand-out day so far, the most precious.

Seeing how much it meant to the players and the Cork public was even more special when placed against the backdrop of his own past experiences. Barry-Murphy won Munster titles as captain and couldn't even recall where the cup was afterwards. It wasn't disrespect. Success was just so frequent it was expected. Those days are long gone now. Time and perspective changes everything but that searing ambition, that relentless desire to be the best, hasn't changed. It is still deeply embedded within Barry-Murphy's DNA.

"Unless you win an All-Ireland in Cork, you're never going to be patting yourself on the back," he says. "That is what we will be judged on, and I know I will be as well. To get to that level, you've got to put the building blocks in place. I think we're doing that but looking at Tipp and Kilkenny in particular, I think we've got a bit to go.

"We're trying to get a level of consistency in performance to really make us a threat to the big teams. But one of my main ambitions now is that when I leave that there is a foundation in place to build on. There are some brilliant young players coming through. I might not be there to be the beneficiary of it as manager but that doesn't worry me. I'd be very excited about the future of Cork hurling."

Great days are gone, good days are back, better days are coming. JBM, though, will always be eternal.

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