Tuesday 20 March 2018

Old guard on margins but far from forgotten

Many in Cork believe John Gardiner still has a key role to play, says Damian Lawlor

WITH 20 minutes to go in the Munster semi-final against Tipperary and the game slipping away from his team, Jimmy Barry-Murphy looked to his bench. Noel McGrath had just scored a crucial goal and Tipperary were easing into a rhythm that would ultimately see them through to the provincial final. But when Barry-Murphy looked to the Cork dug-out it was the promise and hope of youth that caught his eye and not the experienced, steady hands of Seán óg ó hAilpín or John Gardiner.

Cian McCarthy and Daniel Kearney (who each scored a point) and Luke O'Farrell were all introduced. You can't help but wonder what the two veterans must have thought of it, especially the 29-year-old Gardiner, a two-time All-Ireland winner and someone who played all last year and throughout this season's National League.

Since the team's hammering by Kilkenny in the league final, Gardiner has not seen a moment's action.

Under their iconic manager, Cork are going somewhere again and it's obvious that Barry-Murphy has opted to change the dynamic of his team. In a climate where managers are often booted out within a year if results are not up to scratch, it was a bold move to go with youth. But does that mean Gardiner's top-flight career is coming to an end at just 29?

"There is no doubt that John still has something to contribute," says former Cork captain Mark Landers. "The key point is that we're not privy to the player's form at training -- or what goes on there -- but from the outside I feel John still has a role to play.

"Midfield is certainly an area where he could come on and make an impact. John is very experienced; he has been there and done that. When you look to your sideline in a game that is tense and tight and you need some fella who can handle the pressure, the likes of Gardiner has done it all before. You can't buy that experience -- especially in a championship that is now in its knockout stages."

Indeed, Landers feels that the former All Star should be given a chance to try out at full-back. "Full-back has been an area where we've used quite a few players," he adds. "Eoin Cadogan was there last year but this season Stephen McDonnell, Brian Murphy, Shane O'Neill and Damien Cahalane have all been used there. People would feel that John might not be suited to that role but I disagree.

"Good players who have lived all their lives in a backline can re-adapt at any stage if they have the will. John has been a ball player all of his life and in the modern game the full-back role has become a little negative and it may not totally suit him. But John is like any other lad who trains with Cork -- he wants to get in that team, no matter what the position."

Gardiner has plenty of mileage clocked up and has been through rough times off the field. "When he first came on the scene, John saw the more experienced players dealing with the county board in that first strike," Landers recalls. He would have been told that it was for their benefit down the line.

"On the last two occasions it would have been John and others who led the march for the benefit of the younger players who have now come through. As team captain, he was really in the front line for the last one and for any hurler to have to cope with that is not a good thing. You need to have a clear head and be happy in yourself -- I would say that those two strikes weighed heavily on John.

"They didn't want boardroom battles but John was one of those who was thrust into the middle of them. It's not so much the constant meetings, phone calls and collecting information that would have drained his energy -- it would probably have been the day-to-day stuff that got to him most. I know from experience that in work and life you meet people on street who were coming up and having a word, having a go. That does hurt a fella personally. Those strikes changed a lot of things and I would imagine it had an effect on some of the lads."

After losing to Tipp by nine points in last year's championship -- and ultimately falling horribly to Galway -- there was speculation that Gardiner might walk away, but such thoughts were never in his mind. Instead, he reported back for duty after receiving a phone call from Barry-Murphy and featured quite prominently in the league, mostly at midfield.

A natural number five who has always read the game well from the half-back line, that change must have been a big challenge even if he had some previous experience there.

Another test would have been seeing guys he soldiered with for 10 years slowly fading into the background. The average age of the Cork team has dipped considerably over the last 12 months with the retirement of Ben O'Connor, the injury to Dónal óg Cusack and the failure of Gardiner to consistently make the team. Brian Murphy, Tom Kenny and Niall MacCarthy are all 30 or over, with goalkeeper Anthony Nash and Shane O'Neill the only other players over the age of 25.

Sweetnam, Lehane and company are most definitely the future of the team but already they have seen that league prowess comes a bit easier than championship form. Having someone like Gardiner on the field in the white heat of summer hurling is surely something to consider.

It must be frustrating for him to look on as the youth movement gathers momentum. Apart from his skills, he offers leadership and a bit of cut. "I'll put it this way," Landers adds, "big-game experience, assurance, and an ability to pop up with a point or two? I'd be using him."

As Gardiner ponders his chances of seeing action today, it's pretty clear that he won't be the last to sweat on his future. Corner-back Brian Murphy, who is playing as well as ever, knows that Cork's prospects are bright but he admits it's unlikely he will be around to share in the spoils down the line.

"I've hit the 30 mark and this year, next year -- that's probably the end of the road for me," Murphy says. "When you're 21 or 22 and people are telling you to make the most of it, it won't last that long, at the back of your mind you're probably laughing at them."

Gardiner most likely felt like that. It's only seven years since he won his last All-Ireland senior and just 10 years since he burst onto the scene.

He must have realised that a clear-out was inevitable, but maybe not so soon. Since 2006, they haven't won any major senior titles and the last time they won an All Star was in 2008 when Ben O'Connor got the nod. In the meantime Kilkenny, their biggest rivals not so long ago, have won 34. Gardiner can take a lot of credit for the fact that the likes of Lehane, O'Farrell and Sweetnam can train and prepare in the optimum circumstances without an air of distrust and resentment lingering.

It seems incomprehensible that the sun is sliding down on his own career, but if that is his legacy, it is something at least.

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