Tuesday 23 January 2018

Lower-league players the real stars - Cosgrove

Wicklow manager Johnny Magee with selector Ray Cosgrove (SPORTSFILE)
Wicklow manager Johnny Magee with selector Ray Cosgrove (SPORTSFILE)

Michael Verney

'Don't know what you got (till it's gone)' is a popular 1980s song by Cinderella which Wicklow manager Johnny Magee and selector Ray Cosgrove have no doubt heard on the radio during one of their many trips down south from the capital.

And it's one which mirrors their journey from playing careers with the might of the Dubs, and Kilmacud Crokes, to the less glamorous life of Division 4 with the Garden County.

It may be just one hour down the road but there's no comparison between the two. As Dubs, nothing was spared in their preparation to be the best but being on the other side of the fence is a serious eye-opener.

While Jim Gavin's side are off casing back-to-back All-Ireland titles after their fourth successive National League crown, Cosgrove feels the unsung heroes of the GAA are inter-county players who make the same sacrifices, ultimately for little or no reward.

"We had the best of everything when myself and Johnny and Darren (Magee) played with Dublin," Cosgrove says. "We didn't want for anything. Gear, facilities, nutrition, sports psychology, the whole lot.

"When you step over to the other side of the fence into the lower leagues you realise and appreciate what these players put in. They are the real stars as far as I am concerned. You look at guys like Kevin McManamon there with three All-Ireland medals in his back pocket, if the Wicklow lads get to play in Croke Park once this summer that's realistically as much as they can look forward to.

"It's a credit to them, the commitment levels, to wear the Wicklow jersey. That's the buzz as I see it, them improving and willing to learn as footballers."

While he watched in delight as Dublin steamrolled Kerry in last month's league final, Cosgrove was taken by the aftermath, which highlights their ability to go from strength to strength.


Legendary Irish commentator Micheál O'Hehir famously declared, "It's Shergar first, and the rest are nowhere", at the end of the 1981 Irish Derby and the 2002 All-Star sees a similar situation with the Dubs in Leinster.

"You wouldn't comprehend. It's hard to even start to understand it," he says when asked if the gap between Dublin and the chasing pack is bigger than he ever imagined before.

"I see pictures of Jim and the rest of his management team after the league final in the changing room and the resources and backroom team that he has got - 15, 17 guys …

"The smaller counties in Leinster just do not have the capability to compare with that. All we can do is look after ourselves, improve and make that progress to step up to the plate."

Wicklow started the year minus 13 players for a variety of reasons but Cosgrove is happy with their progress and believes their work is really beginning to bear fruit 18 months into their regime.

"When Johnny got the job I had a bit of trepidation about what was in store but I do look forward every Tuesday and Thursday night going down and working with a great bunch of lads who are eager to improve," he says. "They are developing physically and they are getting technically better as footballers and that is showing. We only won one game in the league last year and we won three this year. That's huge."

The former Dublin attacker doesn't buy the notion that things took an inevitable dip after Mick O'Dwyer stepped away in 2011 after five seasons in charge, however. "Fellas get carried away with what Micko did," he says.

"Micko won a Tommy Murphy Cup. That's it. No National League. Micko was there for a long time and, no disrespect, he probably had a much bigger squad to pick from than our crop.

"Times were different back then. He attracted a lot of influential people around the set-up, but that's what comes with Mick O'Dwyer. The reality of the situation is that Wicklow are still down in Division 4.

"The seeds that this management team reap will not to be seen until that happens."

Cosgrove feels Wicklow's improvement, and that of other counties in the lower league tiers, is being hamstrung by lengthy gaps between championship fixtures while he feels club players are left out in the cold completely.

"Whoever loses between ourselves and Laois isn't out for another six weeks. In the middle of summer. They should be playing every second week. It's got to change," he reasons.

"For weaker counties to progress they have to be playing football. Be that as a league basis and getting four or five games or whatever it may be. That's how you encourage players to get better and to stay around during the summer. Not in the current format.

"The people I feel sorry for are the club players. Being involved in Kilmacud, we have played one round of championship football and let's be honest if Dublin get to September they aren't going to play again until October.

"That's crazy, scandalous at this time of year. It has to change but it will take time, no more than any other changes with the GAA."

Their 2016 championship opens tonight in O'Moore Park against Laois, who plied their trade two divisions above them in the league, and Magee openly believes that Mick Lillis' side have one eye gazing ahead to the Dubs.

It will be a decade since the Boys in Blue last left their Croke Park base for a summer tie when they contest the Leinster SFC quarter-final in Nowlan Park on June 4, but the Midlanders should be well-warned as Wicklow nearly shocked Meath 12 months ago before falling by three.


Cosgrove appreciates the challenge ahead but with the O'Moore men at sixes and sevens during the spring, he's relishing the underdog tag, as always.

"It's going to be really tough against a Division 2 team. We're in no way delusional, but we will try to put on the sort of performance that we did last year in Navan against Meath where nobody gave us a hope," he says.

Moving back to Cinderella, fairytale stories wouldn't get much better than an upset which would tee up a unique reunion for the Magee brothers and Cosgrove against their native county. And fairytales can happen.

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