That the Cork footballers start 2017 as a second-tier county is moot. Trust is thin on the ground and it’s a long road back to a point where Rebel supporters will back their footballers, something manager Peadar Healy accepts and understands. There are no excuses next season, he says. The answers must come from within.
Peadar Healy is employing construction metaphors as he discusses the task of rebuilding in 2017 the edifice that once was Cork football.
“The field’s ploughed, the site’s cleared now. This year was tough. We started late and we had injuries but I won’t allow any excuses next season. We have a lot to prove to ourselves.”
Healy is sitting across a large conference table from me with spread sheets and statistics east, west and north of him. He is dressed in all black, lean as a man who runs 6k daily should be, and exercised by the prospect of rekindling something good in Cork football.
It is said don’t ever take over a team or organisation at the top, but the task facing Healy and his management team is tougher still. At least the team at the top is there for a reason – Cork is second tier in everything but expectation. Context seems to have no place in football analysis down here. If the hurlers fall flat, supporters shake their heads and sigh. They shake their fists and wring their hands at the football failures.
Healy, a 52-year-old Glengarriff-based Garda, was much beloved as coach by the Cork footballers that won an All-Ireland six years ago, so much so that they actively canvassed for his appointment to succeed Brian Cuthbert. If the honeymoon persists at any level within the group, it’s worn thin outside. Healy is only looking forward but as a card-carrying member of the It’s Called Football For A Reason organisation, he hankers repeatedly for old values, and at times you’re not sure whether he is being wistful or serious. You sort of hope for the latter.
“I want someone to sponsor the footballs next year,” he smiles. “I want to give one to every fella to put his gear-bag, put it in the boot of the car. If he is going for a walk with a buddy, be kicking the ball to each other.
“Players come into a set-up, they come in and meet the strength and conditioning coach (S&C), the physiotherapist, the psychologist, the dietician. So much of me wants to say ‘here you are, there’s a football, put that into your bag, go home and kick it off the gable of the house or around the garden with the young fella.”
He recognises immediately this could be interpreted as ‘Healy slams modern ways’ and moves to correct himself when he shouldn’t. He nods. “The physical side of the game is important but it can’t be the be all and end all. Lift less weight and kick more ball I would say. Less bulk, more mobility – it’s the way rugby is now going.”
As a Ballyvourney man, he had the choice to erect walls across the county bounds or analyse the Kerry way. He coached Dr Crokes in 2014 and brought, for the first time, a Kerry man on board his Cork management team in Billy Sheehan. Things that he has seen and savoured in the Kingdom aren’t lost on him, though he is careful not to become a slave to things green and gold. “Gooch (Colm Cooper) came into a Crokes team meeting one night (he was injured at the time) with his leg strapped but soloing a burst ball. Always with the ball.”
Last summer he cycled his way around South Kerry, challenging himself to see every club pitch in the division. From Caherciveen to Portmagee to Dromid, he took the boat across to Valentia Island and stood on the embankment behind the goal there kicking the balls back to young
fellas. He knocked an hour’s great fun out of it.
But if Kerry’s football heritage engages Healy, Dublin is the benchmark for Cork and everybody else. The Cork manager saw them five times this year.
“The GPS figures for all inter-county teams are interesting,” he says, scanning his table of documents. “The top team in the country for distance travelled and all those key metrics are Dublin, Mayo are second, Kerry are third. Cork, by the way, are sixth.
“These stats grade the players and where they are at. To get from No 6 to No 1, you are looking at a particular type of player we need to bring in. Cork needs to change direction, it’s as simple as that. The corner-forward of three or four years ago, the one that can stay inside, is redundant. Now he must be a greyhound, have the ability to work outside his natural habitat - because the modern corner-back is going to work him anyway.
“I watched Dublin against Kerry in the first round of the National League, watched them against Monaghan, in Castlebar against Mayo, the semi-final v Kerry, and the All-Ireland final. The different range of options they have in terms of the type of player they utilise is very impressive.
“Look at the 2010 Cork team that won an All-Ireland. It was a strong, rangy physical team but the evolution since that is telling in itself. Michael Darragh MacAuley is covering between 12km and 15km a game.
“There is luck involved in terms of injuries – Dublin hardly had three disruptive injuries this season – but they are doing something very right in the background, in their S&C, their recovery, and of course, their ball work.
“The skill level has to be very high. Cork’s game has traditionally been a running game, that’s what we are taught here. Play your first option. If you see a pass on, give it. But we have taken a bit of this, a bit of that and once we get the ball, we are going to hold onto it, whatever else happens. Trouble is, too often, not much else does happen.
“Cork’s best game is move the ball, the first option. Heaven forbid we lose possession, because we don’t want the stats to be able to tell us we lost the ball 15 times in the opposition third. Me to You to Jack to Mary, we may never get the ball to the inside line, but we are going to have impressive passing stats.”
He took notes at the Ulster final this year. Six turnovers Tyrone committed. “If you were a neutral, it was mind-numbing but I found the tactical side of it very interesting. They frustrated Donegal, that’s their system, beat it if you can.”
Fluidity is a word Healy uses more in aspirational terms than existing. He’s not far enough down the track with Cork to employ it with any credibility. “I would be trying to play it some way like Dublin’s style of transition and work rate. Our fellas play their best football when they are in Croke Park. But we need to build that well of confidence in them too, and that will only come from winning games.
“Then they have confidence in their kicking, and belief in the system we are trying to teach. We know we must create a culture of belief.”
He cites examples from 2016: “Sixty minutes on the clock against Donegal in the Qualifier, we are a point in front; 61 minutes against Kerry in the League below in Tralee we are level. Same against Dublin in the League. But it’s the kicking on bit, continue playing with the belief that we will come out on the right side. Once they believe in the process and get the results, they will start to buy in more and more.”
Not that Healy isn’t aware of the leadership deficit in the Cork dressing-room, a situation exacerbated by the retirement of Daniel Goulding and Fintan Goold. Or the need for players to stop looking to the sideline for guidance and inspiration.
“I’m thinking, ‘Right lads, how bad do ye want it? We pick 15, provide the gameplan, the feedback. Football is a spontaneous game. On the sideline, you can make changes, organise free-kicks and kick-outs, they are the controllables. Ultimately the hammer falls on the manager’s head, but he can’t kick over a 20m free for a player either.
“The biggest thing with some lads in today’s society is they come into the squad and they think they’re made. That’s where you need the more experienced heads to guide the younger fellas and take no shit.
“Daniel is gone, Fintan too. They’re big losses, they were great guys in the dressing room, had the respect of the team. But Barry O’Driscoll will be coming back, hopefully younger lads like [Nemo’s] Alan O’Donovan, who’s a good one. Anthony Lynch would have jumped through a window for you, but that’s rare. Cork needs a new generation of leaders to build a new culture and position the county to contest Munster Championships and All-Irelands.”
Cork begin 2017 in the second tier of the Allianz League and with away trips to Galway and Kildare. The need to hit the ground running is self-evident.
“When we finish with the National League next spring, I want to have 10 or 11 places bedded down for Championship. We didn’t have that last season. We played 30 players in four Championship games, 46 in total between League and Championship.
“We started late but knew anyway we were going to have to rebuild a team. When we broke up last Christmas, we had 14 players injured. So from that point we were like the graceful swan paddling furiously beneath the surface trying to keep up. They were mostly long-term injuries and that doesn’t help when you are trying to mould another Graham Canty, Nicholas Murphy, Alan Quirke in goals, or Anthony Lynch – especially in that full-back line.
“We ploughed the field, cleared the site to see if we could pull any few players from around the county. Now we are in a place to reduce the panel to 27-28 and pre-habbing the injured players so they are ready to hit the ground running in the spring.
“That’s the area we are concentrating on at the moment. We must make sure we go into the McGrath Cup and then away to Galway and away to Kildare fit and ready. That could make or break us.”
Healy has shaken up his backroom team for 2017. Paudie Kissane is gone from the S&C role (and been picked up by Limerick), replaced by the highly-regarded Robbie Williams. Physiotherapist Brian O’Connell has been joined by Thomas Dekkers, who also comes with an impressive cv.
Now if management can only get Cork kicking the ball over the bar.
“We need to inspire the young fellas around Cork,” he agrees. “We were down in Castletownbere for a weekend, the players did a session and there was maybe five young lads wearing Cork jerseys, but there was plenty of Messi and Ronaldos. And Castletownbere is a very strong GAA area. Cork isn’t unique in that regard. Yes, it’s a results-driven business, but you also have to play attractive football., and if you do there is an appetite. There was 8,000 people at the Cork county final, more than the Kerry final, and both Ballincollig and Carbery Rangers went hell for leather for an hour. The crowd were engaged.”
Healy has had a series of meetings with management, players, fringe players and dual players. Kanturk’s Aidan Walsh will return to the football squad for 2017, but Damien Cahalane and Alan Cadogan will play hurling only, reluctantly in the case of the Douglas forward.
Healy’s not for budging on the old chestnut. “There’s our training programme up to Christmas,” he gesticulates to the page, “where is Alan or Damien going to train there? We need three nights a week, Kieran (Kingston) wants them three nights a week, UCC will look for Alan as well. And that’s without any club commitment. And people wonder how these lads get injured? With such an overload, it’s impossible in today’s game.
“When we had Aidan and Eoin (Cadogan) doing both, they’d arrive in on Tuesday after a hurling league game, do a bit but really only kick ball on a Thursday, then match on a Sunday. They can’t put in the time and recover properly. It’s either one or the other, it can’t change. You have to put the player first. I could be a selfish effer and squeeze every drop out of him but if Alan Cadogan tears a hamstring, he’s no good to anyone.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved