Cork GAA must kick off football plan on the front foot

Section 7 of the 42-page plan to lever Cork football out of its slump is headlined: What Now?

Well you may ask.

This Cork 2024 five-year plan is an overdue if positive first step, but the heavy lifting in it is as wide as it is deep. And it’s only getting started.

An unavoidable by-product of five-year plans is their ability to buy some time. Tracey Kennedy acknowledged that yesterday while stressing there are a significant number of year one to-dos in the document. Starting next month when they plan to advertise one of the key pillars of the plan – an overall High-Performance Director for GAA in the county.

Getting that one up-and-running is important. It’s hardly a stretch for any observer to assume on the basis of recent developments with Páirc Ui Chaoimh that the project will have some hoops to jump through in resourcing the appointments to kickstart this vision. That’s a deal breaker right out of the gate. The ground floor requirement of this plan to revive Cork football is the engagement of ordinary football folk around the county. As Brian Cuthbert said yesterday: “We need everyone’s help”.

If the clubs and the support base whiffs the merest hint of a problem with, say the appointment of a project overseer or a HP Director, they will disengage. That’s how wafer-thin the trust and buy-in is from Cork clubs and supporters towards their administrators and their footballers.

In her address to county convention last month, Tracey Kennedy got to the heart of the credibility issue when she told delegates there seemed to be almost an assumption that Cork GAA was at fault when something goes wrong. That was unfair, she protested, while acknowledging the GAA draws some of the criticism on itself. “We can’t control how we are portrayed in the media, but we have full control over how we present ourselves,” she maintained. Now would be a very good time to put the best foot of Cork GAA administration forward.

But let’s keep this in the positive column. The launch yesterday was an up-front and honest assessment of where Cork football is at. The involvement of Cork’s CCC – Counihan, Canty and Cuthbert (the latter having accumulated an impressive body of academic work on coaching practices in recent years) – underpins the document’s claim to plot a “new direction” for football in the county. Whether the group sought best practice advise from other counties on coaching priorities and dual-code issues is a pertinent point, but no-one can gainsay that trio’s authenticity when it comes to passion for and knowledge of Cork football.

Explained Brian Cuthbert: “Key appointments, allied to new structures at club, county and administrative levels will provide all of our stakeholders with a pathway that is co-ordinated and properly resourced. This is a time of opportunity that will require huge work but more importantly, it will require us all to put our own self-interests second to the greater good of football within our county”.

The 2024 plan is essentially twin-tracked: a proactive series of ground-up initiatives around the teaching and coaching of football all the way to facilitating best practice at the elite level; there is also “a call to arms for Cork Gaels” as Tracey Kennedy called it, essentially a re-connection from the Cork footballing public to their teams. It raises the old one: does a team motivate the support or the other way around?

Said Ms Kennedy yesterday: “Imagine what we could achieve if we all combined our resources and moved away from operating as individual silos dotted around the county. Imagine if we decided that we would break the mould and provide all structures and agencies within our county with a coherence and a co-ordination unrivalled in the GAA. Imagine if we were to create a positivity around Cork football that has been sadly absent in the recent past. The litmus test for the future health of

Cork football is simply how much change we are willing to accept. This is ultimately where this plan will succeed or struggle. The choice is ours; how great do we want to be?”

The reach of the project is evident in the scale of coaching goals alone. My experience in this county has been, and I retain this view, that Cork overlooks the most basic tenet of all: It’s called football. In a recent chat with the decorated Cork ladies footballer Bríd Stack, she said that Eamonn Ryan looked to develop footballers and, afterwards, create athletes. The men’s game in the county appears to have the opposite view. I’ve seen, first-hand, blue-chip Cork football talent give way to a gym obsession. Bulk over ball. Why are natural kickers of the ball seldom, if ever, found in the club ball alley or on the field honing their skills in the way hurlers do in Cork? I drove into one club ground a couple of years ago and was so shocked to see a lad on the pitch working aloneg on his kicking that I felt curious enough to get out of the car and find out his name and his age grade.

The appointment of a full-time High-Performance manager will bring uniformity to the physical development of Cork’s talent but changing the football mindset is possibly an even greater challenge. Seeking out the natural footballers and honing their technical excellence must take pre-eminence over, or at the very least, be on a par with how many kgs dead weight a player lifts.

In assessing the parlous state of Cork football, it’s well to point out – however incidental to the future - that the county hasn’t had the best of fortune in recent years in the code. Cuthbert’s Cork should have beaten Kerry in a Killarney Munster final in 2015 and would have but for an iffy Kerry penalty and a Hail Mary equaliser with the last kick of the game. A year later they were relegated under Peadar Healy from Division One of the National League on six points and with an unlikely sequence of results on the final day. Plus, there’s been at least three really promising minor football teams in recent seasons that have fallen foul to the ridiculous, and now mercifully disposed with, Munster Championship system of semi-final one-strike-and-you’re-out. In both 2015 and 2018 Cork lost provincial semis to eventual All-Ireland champions, Kerry, by a point.

“To suggest we are a thousand miles away is not accurate either,” maintained Conor Counihan at yesterday’s launch.

That all accepted, it’s evident Cork football is in some disarray. The talented minor from Mitchelstown Mark Keane was snapped up by AFL outfit Collingwood without hardly a whimper in the county. Another one lost. Mediocrity is the accepted norm at inter-county level and things are haphazard at club level. The senior county championship is in desperate need of a cull (five teams play in Division 3 or lower in the Co League), and the county leagues are less a breeding ground for talent and development than they are for ridicule.

Very little of what the Football Review group presented will benefit Ronan McCarthy in 2019 but around the time Cork 2024 was being launched yesterday, McCarthy was naming his team for the weekend’s McGrath Cup final. In the likes of keeper Chris Kelly, defender Nathan Walsh and forward Damien Gore, there are fresh-faced, genuine prospects. Add in Iveleary’s Chris Óg Jones and a handful of others to that. It’s not like there’s a dearth of talent in the country’s biggest county.

Maybe now there’s finally a plan, and a will, to harness it.


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