Saturday 20 January 2018

Mounting weight of evidence leaves Ger Cunningham's Dublin reign on thin ice

'After his first season in 2015, Cunningham lost Shay Boland, Gearoid Ó Riain and Ed Coughlan from his backroom team. There are no indications that this was the manager’s choice.' Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
'After his first season in 2015, Cunningham lost Shay Boland, Gearoid Ó Riain and Ed Coughlan from his backroom team. There are no indications that this was the manager’s choice.' Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

In February 2015, a month after Michael Carton gave a ringing endorsement of his management, Ger Cunningham described the news that Tommy Dunne was leaving as coach as "very disappointing". Dunne had been the only member of Anthony Daly's entourage retained when Cunningham took over the previous autumn.

The reasons cited for Dunne's exit were two-fold: a college course which he had been accepted on to in UL and increased business commitments.

A year and a half later, no longer involved in the Dublin set-up after quitting the previous summer before a qualifier match, Carton revealed a different environment to the one which he had spoken highly of in the first season. He recalled evidence of tension between members of the backroom team which became exposed to the players. And he cited the lack of a replacement when Dunne left as coach, despite undertakings from the management that the vacancy would be filled.

Carton had been contacted by the media after his decision to leave but declined to air his grievances. He did not want to compromise the team's prospects while they were in competition. In his case there was known friction over Cunningham's decision to play him at full-back after he had produced some excellent performances in the half-back line in the years just before. It is a manager's right to pick the team he chooses. Carton could have been accused of sour grapes. But it was not an isolated complaint.

At the end of the year, outside competition time, he cut loose. There had been misgivings expressed privately about Cunningham in terms of man-management and his strained relationship with other players and mentors. Communication, sources say, is not his forte. After the first year, Danny Sutcliffe, their best forward, stepped away and has not returned. Carton and Conal Keaney were near the end of their natural playing cycles anyway when they exited but it is obvious that relations between them and the manager had been frayed.

Mostly players will say what the management, and the group in general, feel is in the best interests of the collective. That makes sense; you can't have everyone hurrying off the press to reveal their latest gripe with the management team. But eventually, if there is an endemic issue, the lie can only last so long. Sutcliffe had already left when Carton's initial positive expressions on Cunningham were publicised. Over time the decision would look less and less inexplicable.

Another to go at that time, Simon Lambert, though not of his own volition, described feeling disrespected - he was 27, an excellent squad man and fringe team player who had fought his way back from serious injury. He started the two championship games against Galway in 2015.

The goalkeeper when they lost to Galway in Tullamore two years ago, Alan Nolan, also felt aggrieved on being released at the end of Cunningham's first year. "Ger told me I didn't take being dropped after the Galway replay too well," Nolan explained then. The inference in both cases was that it could have been handled better or more sensitively. Again, on their own, they might have been unremarkable cases of two players feeing hard done by when a new manager doesn't fancy them.

But mentors having enough after one year is unusual. After his first season in 2015, Cunningham lost Shay Boland, Gearoid Ó Riain and Ed Coughlan from his backroom team. There are no indications that this was the manager's choice. All over Ireland, and abroad, there are mentors who could in an instant list off credible reasons for stopping what they do: work, family and so on. They will overlook these impediments because they feel a sense of duty or simply enjoy what they do. It is not often you will hear someone entering a management team declaring: "I will give it the one year." If they leave it is likely that something changed the tenor of the relationship along the way.

The third season of Cunningham's tenure has seen Mark Schutte join the list of the departed. Having won an All-Ireland club hurling medal this year it is even harder to understand at face value. Dublin hurling followers thought they had won the contest for his loyalty. Schutte is a good footballer, an All-Ireland winner at under 21. He had a stint with the seniors under Pat Gilroy in 2011. But in recent years he has been one of Dublin hurling's most exciting forward talents. Recently it was announced he was not returning to the hurling panel and would be training with Jim Gavin's squad.

A source in Cuala said this was not that surprising when you looked at Schutte's football pedigree and how he starred this year for the club in the football championship. The source felt he might have found the possibility of winning an All-Ireland medal in five months too much to resist.

Some players have a reputation for being troublesome or hard work. The worry for Dublin hurling's welfare is that neither Schutte, nor his brother Paul, who has also not come back to the hurling squad, can be accused of that. They were always regarded as supremely dedicated. But their rejection of the hurling team is a huge morale blow to those who have worked for years, with some success, at building up its profile in a football-mad city.

With all this going on in the background, today is critical for Cunningham. A bad defeat will bring inevitable pressure on him to go, unless there is a remarkable recovery in the qualifiers. If they lose and are eliminated with dignity intact later in the summer he may decide he wants to continue. In that event the county board will have to show it is prepared to conduct an honest and fair review of his three years at the helm and act accordingly.

They have introduced some wonderful players in recent years, the likes of Eoghan O'Donnell, Chris Crummey and Donal Burke, to augment the remaining cohort of experienced players. They have played some good hurling in difficult circumstances. But all does not seem right and, as Bob Dylan said, when something's not right, it's wrong.

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