Sport Hurling

Thursday 23 November 2017

'A lot of players in Cork wouldn't be thinking too nicely of me for what I've done over the years' reveals Jimmy Barry-Murphy

Cork manager Jimmy Barry Murphy
Cork manager Jimmy Barry Murphy
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The great, redemptive pilgrimage hasn't quite recommenced in Cork. Numbers are down, optimism low.

Few men know better than Jimmy Barry-Murphy how the county's hurlers had a name, historically, for claiming sudden ownership of summer. Jim Barry's line of '66 still gets lazily recycled, a gentle but bogus wisdom that never really held up to serious scrutiny.

The notion of Cork hurlers having the gift of rising "like mushrooms" overnight belongs in the realm of make-believe, particularly in a dominion familiar with black and amber stripes.

"A load of rubbish," sighs Barry-Murphy. "It just doesn't happen. At least, not unless the opposition are average. And, right now, they aren't!"

For a man whose time as a player was more a movie than a career, it would be understandable if the lost glory of Cork hurling offended his natural view of the world. But if Barry-Murphy has always been the epitome of sophistication in battle, he is also hostile to any notion of entitlement.

Perhaps his return for a second stint as Cork manager articulated that humility best. For this, palpably, was no case of a golden ticket awaiting collection. Cork's last All-Ireland U-21 title was delivered in '98, their last minor crown three years later. The culture of winning has been lost.

And now, as he prepares a just relegated senior team for championship, there is no doubting the prevailing vibe within the county. Cork haven't even reached a senior Munster final since '06, cultivating what Barry-Murphy terms "a lot of negativity" as they now attempt to bridge that gap.

THREADBARE

Tomorrow's opponents, Clare, have beaten his team three times already this season. That the third of those defeats was delivered through a threadbare, extra-time verdict seems to cut no ice with the sceptics. For it doomed Cork to an accursed drop into Division 1B of the National League.

It was as if they left the league in ankle-chains.

If there was an over-reaction to that predicament, it didn't necessarily surprise Barry-Murphy. "No one likes to be relegated," he says evenly. "And there seems to be terrible negativity about playing in 1B, but I wasn't looking at it that way at all.

"We did it before when I was manager in 98/99. We were relegated and toured the country, played all the counties. We played Meath in Trim and won a very tough game. Played Laois in Rathdowney and they beat us. So, that doesn't worry me.

"In actual fact, I believe it can give you a chance to bring younger players through, give them a chance to develop and see how it goes. As it happens, I thought we had quite a good league this year. We lost to Kilkenny by two points in Nowlan Park. A draw there and we'd have made the semi-final.

"It was that fine a line."

In '99, Cork built on the experience to become All-Ireland champions. That memory, though, seems quaint to the point of eccentricity now. For hurling is played on profoundly different terms today, lives being lived to a more complex beat.

Through the winter, stories of disharmony within Barry-Murphy's management team stalked their every move. Social media was ablaze with rumour, half-truths and an assortment of elaborate fictions. Barry-Murphy's decision to let some decorated old soldiers go seemed to deepen the lust for bad news.

Much of what passes for gossip in Cork hurling is still framed today in the Civil War language of the strikes. And, for those trying to move towards a better future, this obsession with the past is bewildering.

As Barry-Murphy sees it: "I'm not on social media, but people tell me things, they show me things on phones I don't particularly want to see. I mean, earlier in the year there was a lot of negativity in Cork based on online websites within the county. When I heard what was being said, I was appalled.

"But I attach no credence to it because the people writing that stuff don't put their name to anything. So, I just dismiss those people without even a thought. There's a lot of that in Cork though. When you've had the strikes and all that, with a massive amount of comment in relation to pro and anti, you still hear that stuff from people.

"'So-and-so is with the strikers ... ' that kind of thing. When I took up this job, I had no interest whatsoever in that and I didn't get involved in any of it. My only interest was and is in Cork hurling.

"I'm quite old-fashioned I suppose. I mean, you do get a lot of 'did you hear ... ' over something someone will have said on Twitter. A player tweets and the tweet is then put to you by the media. That's fair enough, because it's in the public domain then.

"But it drives me mad. It's something I find frustrating in that you have tittle-tattle being followed up by people you'd expect better from."

The fundamental creed of Barry-Murphy's Cork today is one that covets trust then. His decision to move on without iconic figures like Sean Og O hAilpin, John Gardiner and – maybe most pertinently – Donal Og Cusack was interpreted as some kind of mission statement.

Cusack's departure drew Twitter criticism Barry-Murphy's way from, among others, last year's centre-back, Eoin Cadogan. The manager doesn't pretend to be indifferent to such calls.

"No I don't portray myself as a hard man at all, far from it," he reflects. "I don't like doing that. But if I feel a decision has to be made for the benefit of the panel or the team, whether that's substituting players in big games or not starting players or leaving players off the panel, I'll do it.

"There's a lot of players around Cork I'll tell you wouldn't be thinking too nicely of me for what I've done over the years. But my conscience is clear. If I'm wrong, I'll live by it no problem. It's all about trusting your judgment."

ENERGY

He still loves the energy of a hurling summer then, but loathes that hunger for an angle.

The Cork panel has a policy of not tweeting anything in relation to team matters, albeit such strictures can never exactly be watertight. He describes the current group as "intensely dedicated" and eschews any temptation to lament the psychological cuts suffered through a combination of winter defections, injuries and – in team-captain Pa Cronin's case – illness.

If relegation defined Cork's league campaign, it didn't truthfully represent their form. In a famously tight division, they paid for draws with Waterford and Galway and a narrow loss to Kilkenny.

They beat Tipperary by 12 points at Pairc Ui Rinn before suffering the one, categorical setback of the campaign, a six-point loss to Clare at the same venue.

That game hurt because, at the time, it left unanswered questions.

"We'd been quite comfortable in that game without playing brilliantly," recalls Barry-Murphy. "Then Clare came out and literally ran riot in the second half. We didn't seem to have an answer to them and that was a worry. But we spoke about that and addressed it.

"I was very impressed with Clare. They're superbly coached and superbly fit. Davy Fitzgerald has done a very good job with them."

The subsequent relegation play-off carried a faint thread of recidivism in that Cork, again, failed to close out a game they could have won. But the margins this time were miniscule. "It was anyone's game," he remembers. "Had one or two things gone our way, we'd have escaped."

To some degree, the relentless drain of personnel has clouded accurate assessment of progress on Barry-Murphy's first 18 months back at the helm.

Cork ratcheted their fitness work under Dave Matthews to accommodate a decent league run last season, the strategy carrying them all the way to final day and a bruising reality check against Kilkenny. Cork's efforts were the equivalent to tossing paper airplanes at a tank.

"Blown away by naivety mainly on the part of the back-room team," reflects Barry-Murphy. "I took a lot of the blame for that myself because I should have realised that, when there's silverware on display, the Kilkenny boys develop a different mindset. But that was a great lesson for us I thought."

Cork would finish the year edged out of an entertaining All-Ireland semi-final by Galway. Objectively, there seemed a good deal more positives than negatives. It just didn't feel that way in Cork.

"We were very competitive in that game against Galway, but that seemed to have been lost somewhere in the meantime," says Barry-Murphy. "Now maybe time will tell that they (the sceptics) are right.

"But I thought last year was very encouraging and we're hoping that the young players who came through will be better again this year."

He watches Kilkenny stockpile trophies and proclaims nothing but admiration for what they do. Indeed, he is bemused by those who allude to Kilkenny's physicality as some kind of dark side taken to an art form.

"I'm a huge fan of Kilkenny's," says Barry-Murphy. "I mean I've read a lot of stuff about them playing on the edge and all the old cliches about being over the top. To me, it's a load of rubbish. They're a fantastic team. I think they're tough, hard and playing to the maximum of their abilities, something they achieve by massive dedication to hurling.

"That's what I want to get in Cork. That's my only ambition. I mean people talk about Jackie Tyrrell, whom I think is a magnificent corner-back, being over-physical. It's rubbish. Tommy Walsh, the same.

"The one advantage they have is their total focus is on hurling. That's a massive factor. We'd love to have that in Cork and it's what we're trying to attain.

"I mean, realistically, you can think of three or four players who would be in our match-day panel for Clare this weekend if we only played hurling. But that's life in Cork. When you take on the job, you know all these minuses.

"That said, I love the way Kilkenny play the game. I like the manly way they take it. And I love the way they take their defeat when they're beaten and just get on with it. That's the way I want to be."

He believes that, in time, Cork can again be in a position to challenge the stripey men, but only if they commit to doing so on their own terms. "You play the cards you've been dealt," he says. "I don't think we can play their style of hurling. We've a different type of player.

"I mean I constantly hear people in Cork pining for 'big, strong men.' Big, strong men who are useless hurlers? That's the alternative and we don't want that. So, we're trying to develop something that suits our players.

"But it's hard to get there, because we're coming from a long way down."

The lack of recent underage success creates a psychological obstacle, though one – he suspects – to be occasionally over-stated. Many of the current Cork squad lost a Munster U-21 semi-final in extra-time to Tipp's All-Ireland winning team of 2010.

If there is ground to make up in their minds, Barry-Murphy doesn't regard it as a job for a sports psychologist.

"We don't have one in our set-up," he says candidly. "I think there are enough of us around the team who have won All-Irelands. Every one of us has won All-Ireland medals, we've all played at the highest level, we've all coached. I think we know enough to get inside the players' heads now.

"That's just my opinion. Some people around me might think I'm very old-fashioned, but I just have my own way of doing things. I mean I read all the cliches, control the controllables and all that. Maybe I'm wrong. Time might tell that they need this type of thing but, as far as I'm concerned, I think I can do that."

He doesn't anticipate a huge Cork following in Limerick tomorrow, even if Tipperary's recent eviction has levelled the playing-field in Munster. Indeed, Barry-Murphy says he was surprised that maroon so visibly dominated red on the Croke Park terraces last August.

"It probably confirmed that people don't really see us as being serious contenders again," he says. "Because Cork fans, to be fair, are like everybody else. I'm not going to bluff around it here, they're great supporters when we're winning.

"There'd be a huge buzz now if they thought we had a chance of winning the All-Ireland. But they're not entirely fools either. I mean maybe we simply won't be good enough to beat Clare. If that's the case, there's nothing you can do about it.

"But we've got some very promising players and I really am excited by them. And I'd certainly be hopeful we'll give a very good account of ourselves."

Irish Independent

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