Wednesday 25 April 2018

Jamesie O'Connor: Cork have overachieved with the players available, but the Rebels will be back

Hint of renaissance at schools level can spark senior recovery

Galway’s Jonathan Glynn celebrates after scoring an early goal against Cork last Sunday
Galway’s Jonathan Glynn celebrates after scoring an early goal against Cork last Sunday

Jamesie O'Connor

I took no part in the 1999 Cork-Clare Munster final. A broken arm sustained in the semi-final replay win over Tipp saw to that.

While it's over 16 years ago now, one of the memories I still have of that day is Niall Gilligan telling me that night how Cork's young goalkeeper Donal Óg Cusack had been shouting the words "we're Cork, we're Cork" across at the Clare players during the pre-match parade.

Anthony Daly referenced the same incident in his own book, published last year. "We're Cork boy. We've 27 All-Irelands, ye've only two." That was Dalo's recollection of what Cusack said to him as the teams lined up behind the band before the match began. "I was tempted to correct him, as he'd obviously forgotten about the one we won in 1914", were the first thoughts that entered the Clare captain's head. That would have been classic Dalo.

As it was, having captained Clare to three Munster titles and two All-Irelands in the previous four years, he was only laughing at this young fella, whose name he hardly knew. Instead, he settled for "go away young lad, you effin' eejit", or words to that effect. Either way, neither of my Clare colleagues expected to be listening to this from a rookie in his first season on the Cork team.

So why have I brought this up now? Whatever your opinion of Donal Óg - and he remains a polarising figure within the county, given the strikes that took place during his tenure as the Rebels' No 1 - you could never question his commitment to the Cork jersey. He was an outstanding goalie and he clearly cares every bit as much about Cork hurling now as he did back then. We saw evidence last Sunday night of how that passion and devotion hasn't waned, through the forthright views he expressed on The Sunday Game. He didn't spare the Cork County Board.

The second reason follows directly on from that. Cork went on to win that match in 1999 and ultimately the All-Ireland. Now I'm not suggesting for a second that the Clare players were intimidated by what he said, or that Cork won the match simply because they were Cork. But Cusack and his peers did come from a time when that winning tradition genuinely meant something: both to them, and everyone else in Munster.

They grew up watching Cork win All-Irelands, expecting to see Cork win All-Irelands, and not just at senior level either.

Much of it can be traced back to the work done in the secondary schools. Midleton CBS, where Joe Deane and Diarmuid O'Sullivan were contemporaries of Cusack, has been a consistent force in the Dr Harty Cup, the blue riband of Munster colleges hurling. Those guys all won Harty medals in 1995. Brian Corcoran, someone they looked up to, had been a legend in the school in my time, and had his medal from 1988.

North Mon, where Seán Óg Ó h'Ailpín attended, were Harty and All-Ireland Colleges champions in 1994. St Colman's Fermoy, where Timmy McCarthy, who won a Harty in 1996, and Fergal McCormack, victorious in 1992, were past pupils; St Finbarr's Farranferris, which later had John Gardiner and Tom Kenny in their ranks, were also regular contenders. And those are the ones just off the top of my head.

These schools were all powerhouses on the colleges scene, and in my alma mater, St Flannan's, were the sides we knew we had to beat if we wanted to get our hands on that precious Harty medal and the status that went with it.

Furthermore, almost all those Cork players went on to be successful at minor and under-21 level. And by successful, I mean Munster and All-Ireland medals. They wouldn't have expected anything less when they put on that red and white jersey. So Cusack's words were a reminder to both his colleagues and his opponents that it was Cork, and not Clare, that had that winning tradition to draw on. If that fuelled the belief required to win such a big match, while sowing the smallest seed of doubt in the minds of our players, then it's no surprise he was trying it on, and you had to respect him for it.

The problem now, and this is what he was partly getting at last week, is that Cork's winning tradition, and all that goes with it, has been lost. And once it's gone, it could take years to get it back. Do the words "we're Cork" mean anything any more? Certainly not to the current generation of Clare, Waterford, Limerick and Tipperary players, accustomed as they've become to beating the Rebels at every grade for most of the last decade.

The facts that Cusack illustrated last Sunday night don't lie. It's 10 years since Cork's last senior All-Ireland. They haven't been minor champions since 2001. By comparison, Kilkenny have won five minor titles, Galway four and Tipperary three in the intervening years. You have to go all the way back to 1998 for their last under-21 title. The list of captains who have lifted that crown in the interim include Noel Hickey, Cha Fitzpatrick, Jackie Tyrrell, Michael Fennelly, Padraic Maher, Conor McGrath and Tony Kelly. All guys who have used it as a springboard to make the grade and win All-Irelands at senior level. On the colleges front, it's a similar story. No Cork school has won the Harty Cup since Midleton defeated a Flannan's side I was coaching in the 2006 final.

That lack of underage success ultimately manifests itself in the talent Jimmy Barry-Murphy has to work with. Shane O'Neill, Pa Cronin and Patrick Horgan captained Cork to successive Munster minor titles in 2004, '05 and '06. But since then, the supply lines have dried up. Cork haven't been back in the minor provincial final since 2008. It's not like they haven't found any new players in that time. They have, but not to the extent that was traditionally the case in a county the size of Cork, with the massive playing resources.

Obviously, times have changed. Hurling in the city is nowhere near as strong and the colleges landscape is a completely different place from where it was in the last century. The Mon went into decline, Farranferris closed, and St Colman's, like numerous other diocesan colleges around the country, no longer has a boarding school to draw on. That said, new schools have emerged and the trend appears to be finally reversing.

St Francis Rochestown were beaten in the Harty final this year. Youghal, Charleville, The North Mon Gaelcholaiste, Hamilton High School in Bandon, and even CBC, a traditional rugby school, are others that will join Midleton and Colman's in next year's campaign. In that regard, the signs are positive, and the number of Cork schools playing Harty hurling in 2015 is just one barometer of the improving health of the game at underage level within the county.

The secondary schools, however, will only ever be as good as the work being done in the feeder clubs that surround them. That's where the county board has to be proactive, and as supportive, as possible to the clubs and schools in terms of the resources and manpower they throw into coaching and games development. The penny also appears to have dropped in relation to other sectors the board have primary responsibility for.

Development squads, schools of excellence, strength and conditioning programmes - the other Munster counties, not to mind Kilkenny, had stolen a march on the Rebels in these areas. They may have caught up, which, with the sheer playing numbers they have, is potentially bad news for the rest of Munster. But they should never have fallen behind to the extent they did in the first place.

Going back to last Sunday, conceding an early goal in a game of that magnitude was the worst start Cork could have got. Even worse was the manner in which the goal was scored. You just couldn't see Kilkenny, Tipp, Galway or Waterford allowing Johnny Glynn to run as far as he did, never mind dink it over someone's head, before putting it in the back of the net. Someone in the Cork defence had to be prepared to put him on the flat of his back, take the resultant card, and make a statement to Galway about Cork's intentions for the day. As it was, all the aggression and physicality came from Anthony Cunningham's side, and Glynn led from the front.

For whatever reason, Cork lacked the edge they showed against Wexford and Clare, and what brought them to a Munster title last year. Despite that, they were still only four behind at the half, and five in arrears when Damien Cahalane got his marching orders in the 50th minute. To their credit, I thought they really dug in at that point and showed the required fight and work rate. Remember, too, they were operating with a completely malfunctioning half-forward line - Cork's numbers 10, 11 and 12 were all replaced - and the sending off meant Galway had the luxury of an extra defender. Yet the Tribesmen couldn't buy a score in the next 10 minutes, and the deficit was just four as the clock ticked into the 59th minute.

Mark Ellis then made a critical mistake, gifting Cathal Mannion a cheap score with a misdirected clearance. That was followed by a Glynn turnover from the resultant puckout, which he duly fired over, and with the lead out to six, the Cork players knew the game was up and mentally boarded the bus out of there.

While Cork are nowhere near as bad as they looked, it was still a massively disappointing end to their year. Their manager has taken a bit of flak, but I still think he's overachieved with the players available to him. Their cause wasn't helped either by losing Christopher Joyce and Lorcan McLaughlin, two of his first-choice defenders, to injury before the championship even started.

Ultimately though, whether Barry-Murphy stays or goes, the lack of talent coming through remains the key issue, and that's a problem not of his making. Cork will be back.

There are too many genuine hurling people in the county, putting the shoulder to the wheel, for them not to be. But the train was late leaving the station, and that's why it will take a little bit longer for Cork to get there.

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