The Kieran Shannon interview: Catching just a glimpse of Cork’s potential

A year ago, Cork county board coaching officer Kevin O’Donovan circulated a 25-point blueprint for the future of Cork GAA.

To some, it was mutiny, but O’Donovan just wanted people to see a wider picture beyond their own self-interest. Many see the hurling renaissance as lessening the urgency for change but this Clonakilty farmer believes Cork have still just scratched the surface of its potential.

He didn’t go away, you know. Just because Cork hurling is back doesn’t mean he disappeared and that all of the county’s challenges and flaws vanished with him and his famous document.

Kevin O’Donovan is still the coaching officer of the Cork county board.

 In three months time that term expires, just like the tenures of some more senior, prominent members of the executive, but if the people of the quiet fields and clubs of Cork want O’Donovan to represent them in another position at the top table, he’ll do so.

 From spending so much time on the ground with them, he can see and feel their daily frustrations. But from that vantage point he’s also been able to witness and marvel at the wave of energy this summer’s hurling revival has generated throughout the county.

“My view would always have been participation and club first; if you get that right, Cork takes care of itself. But it is incalculable what the advent of a Mark Coleman or a Luke Meade below in west Cork or a Michael Cahalane coming on and getting a goal for Cork can do for a guy in an ordinary junior club where hurling is not fashionable.

“I’m looking at my own local pitch. Kilmeen and Kilbree. Halfway between Clonakilty and Dunmanway. We’re a football club, in the heart of football country. And yet there’s more hurling being played on that pitch now than there is football.

 So it’s more than the cliché of the fella walking down the road with his hurley

. It’s the conversation, the positivity, people wanting to get involved. It feels like we’ve been living in Kilkenny the last month.”

Just because he’s happy though doesn’t mean he’s content. Just because things are going well for Cork doesn’t mean things are grand. The last thing Cork GAA can afford now is to be complacent. What O’Donovan has learned is that change is so much harder to push through when an air of negativity permeates.

 “Like running on treacle,” he says. 

Cork football has that sort of a gloomy cloud over it at the moment. But what better time for some cloudbusting when Cork GAA people everywhere have been energised by the rays of light from the rise of the hurling sun? This summer has been merely a glimpse of what Cork GAA and Cork hurling can be.

Tomorrow Kieran Kingston’s seniors and Denis Ring’s minors head into Croke Park as Munster champions. Last weekend John Considine’s U17s went up there and won the inaugural All-Ireland in that grade. That didn’t just happen.

O’Donovan was liaison officer to that U17 team. Has known those players since they were U14. They happened to be the only Cork team these past four years not to win the Tony Forristal, finishing third behind Kilkenny and Galway, but their position was academic; what mattered was they were a good bunch and potentially a terrific one with the right guidance. So O’Donovan, along with the likes of Sean Crowley, the games development officer looking over that crop, headhunted John Meyler to link up with the old management team.

At times over the following two years they must have driven Meyler mad, coming up to him with their folders and diaries while he had more pressing and practical things to attend to, but they could live with his rolled eyes.

“John Meyler will be at an U14 C hurling game below in Blarney tonight looking to see what’s out there. He knows almost every underage player in the county. And every player who plays for him loves him. He has that gruff exterior that teenagers love. You know that school teacher who wasn’t friendly the first day but you could see there was a bit of fun in him? Meyler wins that affection and that respect.”

Last winter Meyler moved up. O’Donovan was a member of the appointments committee that assigned him to the U21 management post, and was about to recommend him as a selector with the senior team too, only to happily learn that Kieran Kingston had already asked.

Meyler’s promotion left a vacancy at U17, a competition that Cork and O’Donovan strongly canvassed Croke Park to provide because already that age group were missing out on their year at minor.

Again, Crowley and O’Donovan had a man in mind. John Considine. Someone who saw the complete picture with the player at the centre of it. Someone who had a good relationship with Denis Ring, the pair of them having been over the last minor team to win an All-Ireland for the county back in 2001. It’s no coincidence as far as O’Donovan’s concerned that the two U17 setups that worked best with their minor counterparts were the two that contested last week’s final.

The Cork senior manager is another who O’Donovan senses gets and sees the wider picture.

“We’re very lucky that Kieran Kingston had a son right through the whole system. There isn’t a parent in the county who knows Cork hurling better. He’s seen his son play two years as a dual Cork minor, the hurling under Denis Ring. He [Shane Kingston] has gone on to Cork U21. He’s going to UCC. He’s seen the development squads, their positives and the negatives.

“The interesting one about Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Luke Meade is that they were not underage superstars. They only blossomed as minors having been part of the development squad system on B teams and subs benches. Now, is that a sign that the development squad system is working? Yes, because it was kept broad enough. They were all smaller when they were underage. The development squad is supposed to still incorporate the smaller guy. Now, he might be in the back seat instead of the front seat, but the thing is he’s still on the bus, he’s still in the fold, he’s still in the family. And in the case of those lads, they took off then at minor and turned into different men and Kieran saw that.

“The other thing about Kieran is that he has integrity. And when you have integrity in a position like that, you can have an incredibly positive and benign influence on the whole scene. By not pulling players. By allowing club championship games to go ahead. By facilitating the Cork U21s.

“Just look at how much Cork hurling has changed from last year. How did the senior hurlers go out onto the field in Thurles against Tipp last year? They walked out. Now, obviously there was some logic to it, but the Cork team this year come out like men ready to kill. Again, there was something in it. It told me here are people who are willing to change their minds, that here are people you can have engagement with.

“And what was very powerful was the minors forming the guard of honour [for the senior team at last month’s Munster final]. It could have looked staged but no, it was highly symbolic. It said: We’re on the same team.”

So O’Donovan is invigorated by that, emboldened by that. The idea of different pieces of the Cork jigsaw coming together to complete a beautiful landscape. Now, if only more people could share and join in on that vision.

 That this isn’t reduced to dividing Cork people into them versus us. That a rebel like him is firmly on Team Cork.

“People say to me, ‘Cork hurling is back, you were scaremongering last year.’ And the easiest thing with me is to ignore me because I’m a farmer below in west Cork and my term is up in three months.

“But every point I put on paper 12 months ago, I wouldn’t take back a sentence of it. I would say that as a county we’re still operating at 25% of our potential – and we’re in an All Ireland semi-final.

“Just because Kieran Kingston took a team out and won three championship matches – which was a massive achievement – please don’t tell me that solves primary schools coaching in Cork county. Or please don’t tell me that means we’re now competing adequately at Harty level though we’re faring better the last couple of years.

“We still need a director of hurling and a director of football and for a county board chairperson to bang his or her hand on the table and say, ‘We’re not leaving here until we have a plan.’ We have neither a director nor a plan. So that’s where I’m going next. To fight this war.”

Kevin O’Donovan is a farmer. “A bad one,” he’ll add in his witty, deadpan way. “Milk a hundred cows with my father but next thing I’m running out the door to a match or a meeting. End up late for the meeting yet leaving the cows too early. Nightmare. I need a life coach.”

Some of the irony there is that he’s something of a coach himself. Hurling and football. He was a boarder in Farranferris where he played a bit of Harty which wasn’t bad going for a mediocre footballer from west Cork but, as he’ll quickly confess, that hardly made him a successful hurler. “A lot of us there spent so much time obsessing about the game that we couldn’t play with the height of nerves and worry. Being that analytical on the field is a recipe for disaster. But on the sideline it can be a help. When I came home from Farna, it wasn’t as a hurler. It was as a coach.”

After studying agri-business and playing a bit of Fitzgibbon in UCD, he’d throw himself into the local club, both as a coach and as underage club secretary. There he got to see it all. The challenge and hassle of fixtures, recruiting referees – so much so, he became one himself – and putting out and coaching a team.

When he started out, there might have been only six of them at training. Now he’d describe them as a club they can be proud of, “a good honest junior team that turns up the day of championship.”

Last summer they won their first ever west Cork junior A title. O’Donovan, who turned 40 last week, was still lining out at corner forward. The real satisfaction though was in the journey, how far and how much they’d come on. Seeing fellas who couldn’t swing a hurley when they first came up to the field now bursting out with the ball, firing it into him.

That’s how a coach thinks. Back in 2009 he was just after doing a HDip in education with the view of doing a bit of teaching to go with the farming when they all went out the window: His dream job, as a GDA (games development administrator) for Cork GAA came up. He got it, was put over the county’s various development squads and everything. Then three years ago he resigned. Went back to farming for a living. Only so his work for the GAA could really begin.

“I resigned as a GDA out of frustration with the GAA’s structures and so that I could stand for coaching officer [an unpaid voluntary position] to change those structures. I suppose I could have worked away, trying to build a little empire below in west Cork, and sometimes I think maybe I should have just bloody well done that. But no, we need a games programme for people to play the GAA.”

For him, that’s what it’s all about. Proper coaching and a programme of regular, meaningful games for all – for kids, youths and adults, at club, college and county. Right now the GAA doesn’t provide regular, meaningful games for all of them. Very few of them in fact. 

Take Cork. The Kelleher Shield provides regular games but they’re not meaningful. The championship is meaningful but not regular. A change has to come. But Croke Park isn’t helping.

“The GAA as an organisation has gone totally elite in the last decade. It’s all about winning. Now, I’m not anti-winning, but I think you win by getting your participation right first.

“Why is it elite? The Super 8 is the obvious example. I see the reason for it but tell me, where is the equivalent version of it for everyone else?

“The one thing I learned from my time as an underage club secretary was that the objective of any competition run by the GAA was to knock out as many teams as fast as possible so we could get the bloody thing over. And it’s understandable, because there’s heavy rain coming in November.

“But as a coach, and in terms of developing players and keeping them in the sport, to me, a good games programme is one where the gap between the first team finishing up in the competition and the last team playing in it is as short as possible. Soccer gets that. But we don’t.

“You look at our games programmes and the gaps in the summer and how the inter-county scene is encroaching the whole time. I don’t think anyone has this masterplan where they’re saying, ‘Let’s kill off the club game.’ But we keep pouring more and more into the mix and forgetting what the core should be – that in every corner of Ireland where they have a GAA club that they have a game every week or two. Yes, there comes a time when it’s ‘Sorry, there has to be knockout now’ but not before assuring everyone a programme of regular, meaningful programmes.

“I remember when I played junior football, we’d be knocked out every May after just one game, so I’m not harking back to some golden age when this was right. But soccer is the mass participation sport in the world, and one of the reasons is because they understand a games programme. Whereas we always want our minor to play this game.

“What do you need to solve that? Political leadership. At the moment it’s not happening. And I see the frustration of our GDAs on a day-to-day basis. They’re working so hard on the frontline but it’s like a nurse in the HSE. You just wish someone would reform the system and make it easier for you.”

The problem, he sees it, is that every piece in the jigsaw is taken in isolation instead of how it impinges on the rest of the picture. “We’re all failing to take off our own cap,” he says. “If I’m, say, Cork U15 manager, I’m in that box and unwilling to appreciate what’s going on with the clubs or at schools.”

The secret is to have a wider vision and appreciation for how all the boxes inevitably are all part of the one ecosystem.

“The GAA is essentially played in three places – club, school-college and county. And say a player can only play at three levels – child, youth and adult.

“So look at a 10-year-old in Kilkenny. He’s in his club – sorted. He’s playing in primary school – sorted. County, he’s watching TJ and Richie on TV. Sorted.

“Youth player then. Club, sorted. Schools level – sorted; a Kilkenny college wins the All Ireland most years. Youth level – development squad. Sorted.

“Then adult. Is he getting regular, meaningful club games? Sorted – they’ve five league-based championship games before the knockout stages. College – is he going to WIT? Carlow IT? County – Cody. Now you see why Kilkenny hurlers win All-Irelands.

“In Cork now we’re saying all our programmes are solved because we’ve development squads. But that’s just one-ninth of what you’ve to do. And that’s what I’m worried about.

“What primary schools coaching is going on in Cork city? It’s good in places, missing in others.

“Is a 10-year-old engaged following Cork, dreaming the dream? If I had some power, there’d be boys and girls given free tickets and free buses and you’d fill Páirc Uí Chaoimh every day with 10-year-olds.

“So that’s the vision people want. Administrators and coaches need to stop putting on their hat and just say ‘I’m only concerned with what happens in this box here.’ The administrators have to say, ‘It’s Cork today, it’s Kilmeen tomorrow and it’s Clon school tomorrow and one can’t walk on top of the other.

“Again though, Cork will need help from Croke Park – or put some pressure on Croke Park as to how it can help Cork. How can the county run a regular, meaningful programme of club games when headquarters are suggesting a hurling group stage in the early summer and then another group stage for football in the late summer?

“They didn’t look across all the boxes, the nine pieces of the jigsaw. But still, there’s so much more Cork itself could be doing to help itself.

He’s brimming with strong ideas, like on dual players. Allow it at club level. Allow it at county development squad level to about 14. But then, sorry, you have to make a choice. “You’re going to try to beat Kerry one night and then Kilkenny the other? Come on!”

He’ll go on, drive on. He got pulled up by the executive for that bit of a solo run he did 12 months ago, handing out his 25-point document to delegates after a regular county board meeting.

He just wanted it to start a debate; at the time they viewed it as mutiny.

They’ve come to co-exist since, possibly because they see his tenure is almost up, but O’Donovan got such support from the grassroots last year that he’s gearing himself up to run for another officership at county convention this coming winter.

“I’m here for the long haul. Because what I had in that document didn’t contain one single idea that was originally mine. This isn’t me selling my vision; this is me putting their vision on a page and saying, ‘This is what you’ve told me.’ I’ve been at hundreds of club meetings over the last couple of years where people said, ‘What a waste of a night that was.’ But I went home, jotted down some ideas from it and came up with that document.

“We have the greatest sporting organisation in the world and we’re from the best county in that organisation, in terms of history, promoting both games, the network of clubs. But at the moment we’re still only scratching the surface of our potential.”

He’s up for changing that. Thought it could mean a few more cows going unmilked in Kilmeen.


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