Upstairs in the Cork Institute of Technology student centre, a picture of the college’s 2009 Sigerson Cup winning team hangs on the wall outside Keith Ricken’s office.
The CIT GAA development officer doesn’t need to count the number of players in the picture. He knows the 33 of them by name.
Success, according to Ricken, is not that this group delivered the college its first and only Sigerson Cup football crown.
Success, says Cork’s All-Ireland U20 winning manager, is that each one of the 33 obtained a third-level degree.
Success is that each of the 33 came away from CIT with a positive sense of the place, came away with memories to sustain them for years to come, and came away knowing that if you work hard, the wheel - sometimes, though not always - will turn in your favour.
Sitting across from Ricken in his CIT office is Cork’s other All-Ireland winning football manager from this summer, minor boss Bobbie O’Dwyer.
“That’s it, that’s success,” he says softly, mindful not to cut across Ricken.
Here are two people from very different backgrounds - one from Urhan in the Beara Peninsula, the other from Knocknaheeny on the northside of Cork City - but who share the exact same philosophy when it comes todeveloping young men as well as young footballers.
Before entering his office, Ricken apologises for theuntidy nature of the room. He also apologises for not making tea.
But as the pair begin to pore through their respective All-Ireland winning campaigns, the mounds of paper, folders, boxes, and odd strewn water bottle quickly blend into the background. We easily did without the tea.
Eoghan Cormican: Bobbie, we’ve heard Keith’s take, but how would you define success?
Bobbie O’Dwyer [BO’D]: We played the Dublin U16s two years ago. Jason Sherlock was their manager. I met Jason afterwards and I asked him, what is success for Dublin at underage level because Dublin have only won one minor (2012) going back a long number of years.
Jason said that success for them is having 80% of their development squad players playing adult football in 10 years’ time. He was taking a broad-brush approach, one I really liked. We had 38 guys on our minor panel this year. No matter how good or bad things are, two, three, or four of them will go on to play senior for Cork.
Some will go in with Keith, but some of those guys will never again play for Cork. Those guys should walk out the door, having been in with Keith or ourselves, with their heads held high, feeling good about Cork football, and bringing something back to their clubs.
You are dealing with 15, 16, and 17-year-olds at minor and so their whole world is around [being a Cork minor]. Keith came into us a month ago and gave a brilliant talk. The gist of it was that you are not defined by success or failure. You are not defined by winning an All-Ireland. That is so true. I was in a Girls’ secondary school on Thursday talking to Leaving Certand fifth-year students and I could see this point resonating with them.
Sport is our thing, but whether you are interested in sport or not, do the best you can and be the best you can be in whatever you do. That defines us, that is our character. That is what we are trying to instil in the players and people we are working with.
EC: Had you not landed provincial or All-Ireland titles, Keith, would you have classed Cork’s U20 campaign a success?
Keith Ricken [KR]: Bobbie and I are both in the results business and we do want results. But we don’t want results for the sake of results. We want results for the development of young people. We won’t win every year.
You can’t. Had Tyrone beaten us in the All-Ireland semi-final, would it have been a less successful year, would we have brought fewer players through? No. We’d have still brought through the same amount of players, with the same vision and appetite for Cork.
I would carry notebooks, I am always making bits of notes. Before we ever played our first championship game this year, I wrote down, ‘this has been a real success’. I also said it to the lads. Now, we had won nothing. All we had played were a couple of league matches.
It was a success because when you came down to the pitch, whether we were in CIT or Páirc Uí Rinn or Clonakilty, there was a lovely buzz. Fellas wanted to be there. The session would have taken place even if I wasn’t there at all. It wasn’t happening because of you. It was happening with you. Success is fellas wanting to be there.
BO’D: Winning can be cold. You have to make cold decisions on occasions. They are not decisions we wake up in the morning looking forward to. I don’t get excited about having to drop a young fella or leave him off the match-day panel. The young lad might be going off the panel but you have to make him feel valued.
KR: Our job is to produce a positive sense for people who played for Cork, irrespective of where they go from here. Our job is to make sure that this time was a good time.
EC: But surely there has to be a benefit in putting an All-Ireland medal into the hands of the players on your panel?
BO’D: I spoke to the lads after the win last Sunday and what I said to them is something I took from John Kiely after Limerick won last year, that who we are tomorrow is the exact same as who we were yesterday.
Now, they are All-Ireland minor champions and nobody can ever take that away from them. Whether you were number one or number 38, you are a champion. But you are no different. Whatever backgrounds we come from, be it Knocknaheeny, Eyeries, or wherever, we are who we are. We are our own characters. We kept hammering that home to the lads.
We told them to enjoy the win, but to also mind one another. You would hope the bond created from being together all year, and from winning, will ensure that. Everything nowadays with young people is online, Instagram, etc. You have to be so careful. If someone sees someone else go slightly awry, someone will throw the arm around, we’ll look after each other, and protect one another.
They are bound to have their heads turned. Of course, they will have their heads turned. But they are good guys. It helps when you are dealing with a group who are aspiring to be the best they can be.
KR: I used to get a fierce ribbing over the clipboard I had on match-days. Somebody said to me, ‘what’s on it because you always have it but never use it?’ I jokingly said it contains the list of messages I must get on the way home. But that is the reality of who we are. You are still coming home after being involved with Cork. You must still get milk, bread, and dog food.
For the mentors and I, we go back to life, we go back to work. The players are the same. So by osmosis, you are hoping they too will be grounded.
Winning an All-Ireland is something you put on your CV. But more important is what this experience puts into their being. On very bad days, when they don’t think they’re up to much or will achieve much, they can remember and say, I achieved this by doing A, B, and C. That is how a win helps. It helps to cast doubts away.
Go back to the Sigerson lads on the wall outside. The win proved that if you work hard enough and do the right things, sometimes it goes right for you. That is what you’d be hoping this [All-Ireland] win will teach the U20s.
EC: There were times in both the All-Ireland minor and U20 finals where it didn’t look like it would go right for Cork. Bobbie, what was going through your head when Galway goaled 72 seconds from the end of second-half injury-time and Keith, what was your reaction when Dublin went 1-6 to 0-0 clear 12 minutes in?
KR: I find when I am doing this that I am training the lads, mentally, to react to different situations. And by doing so, you are almost retraining yourself. So I would like to think that what went through my head is what went through the lads’ heads - and that was, ‘what are we going to do next’.
Truthfully, when the Dublin goal went in, there was a beautiful moment which I will never forget where everything just slowed down and I remember seeing Sean Meehan run back to our goalkeeper Josh O’Keeffe and tell him, ‘it is okay, next ball, c’mon now’.
That was one of the golden moments in my time helping teams. The shit had hit the proverbial fan and they still believed, they bought into what we had been telling them.
That slow-motion moment, I was so immensely proud of Sean, Josh, and all the other players, even though I had just witnessed a horror goal. Directly after that, the ball was kicked out, worked up the field, and I wasn’t surprised at all that we stuck the ball in the net.
EC: Bobbie, were you as composed when the gap stretched to three so late in the minor final?
BO’D: I’m going to bring you back to a little over 12 months ago, our Munster semi-final against Kerry in Tralee.
We scored a goal in the 61st minute to level the game and all the jumping, hollering, and hooting outside in the middle of the field, well we were doing as much of that on the sideline. Kerry kicked the ball out, soloed down the field, and punched the ball over the bar. Game over. Season over.
We sat down at different stages throughout the year and worked on making sure that never happened again. Quite genuinely, it was something we practised at training. When the opposition scores a goal as late as Galway did, Keith or I on the sideline can’t influence it. But the boys knew exactly what to do.
There was Cian O’Leary’s sense of urgency in getting the ball on the tee and getting it back into play. Because of the key learning we took from last year, the boys responded as they did. You cannot influence what is behind you. It is about the next ball. There were 40 seconds between the Galway goal and the ball hitting the net below.
Those boys, I couldn’t be prouder of them.
You both talked all year about developing men, more so than developing footballers. Was part of that attempting to develop the character which shone through in those clutch moments in either All-Ireland final?
KR: I was sitting directly behind where Bobbie was standing for the minor final. I had the same view, more or less, that he did. I saw the exact same reaction from his lads as I did my own. I saw the same reaction from Bobbie as from ourselves.
There were no hands on the head, no jumping up or down, no cursing. You just looked on as a young lad kicked out the ball, possession worked down the field and a goal. In lots of ways, it was a carbon copy reaction. Bobbie and I would have the same ethos: you work with the clay you have, but the quality of the clay determines how well it handles in the fire.
The quality of the human being we are dealing with is a huge factor in what we are trying to do. You work with that and you are trying to improve that. We used always to say to the lads, character is like cordial. Once it goes into the water, you don’t know where the cordial is or where the water is. It just infuses everything. You are trying to character build because it is characters who play matches, not players. If you don’t work on their character, you’ve no idea what goes out onto the field.
EC: Would you agree, Bobbie?
BO’D: 100%. Because we are dealing with a younger group, it is just slightly different. One of our colleagues, Barry Corkery, does a lot of work with the players regarding leadership. The leader isn’t necessarily the fella standing up on the table roaring and shouting. There are different types of leaders; there is the leader who will go in and win a dirty ball but won’t open their mouth but they are doing it for their buddies.
EC: How important is it that these lads progress up the ranks with Cork?
KR: When the minors walked off the field to go up the steps of the Hogan Stand last Sunday, the first person they met was me. I shook every one of their hands. That was purposefully planned. When we came off the field in Portlaoise, one of the first people the players met was Ronan McCarthy.
If they have ambitions in football, which I know they do, taking the next step is what they want to do. These minors are going on a list. They’ll be invited into the U20s in the next year or two, if not sooner. They’ll be put on gym programmes and they’ll develop further from there.
EC: Bobbie, you, your players, and the Tom Markham Cup have spent much of this week visiting schools. How conscious are you that Cork football capitalises on the summer it had?
BO’D: At the end of the day, we are selling our sport and our sport is Cork football. Coming from a business background, I’ve got to make my product more interesting than the opposition’s product. And the opposition’s product could be a different sport, could be the Xbox, whatever.
Keith passed a comment before we came in about kids playing on the green. To me, there is nothing nicer than three or four young boys or girls standing out on the green kicking a football and they are the Danny O’Connells, Cathal O’Mahonys or Jack Lawtons. That is who they want to become, that player is their hero because that is who they have seen on television winning.
The excitement we got from the kids when bringing the cup into the schools the last couple of days (has been incredible). You’d be asking them who is their favourite player and they could name the goalkeeper, Cian O’Leary, cause he kicked out the ball so quickly for the winning goal, or it could be Conor Corbett because he got so many scores.
At GAA summer camps in Cork over the summer, young lads were turning up in a Kerry jersey, a Dublin jersey, a Manchester United jersey or a Liverpool jersey. You wouldn’t see as many Cork jerseys coming through. And part of it is: where were your heroes?
Since the U20 All-Ireland, they have new heroes to talk about. We are Cork. We are very proud of where we are from. Our young lads now have fellas to look up to.
KR: I got an email from a fella in CIT shortly after our U20 final. He lives in the City, across from a green. He never sees children play in that green. For two days after the U20 final, they played football on that green. It was almostincessant. He almost felt they were playing during the night. They were calling out names, the works.
A lot of our role models are not tangible, can’t touch them, be they soccer players, Presidents, famous people, the Kardashians, the Love Island crowd. To see something that is tangible, a young lad coming into a school and the young pupils can shake his hand and he is there in the flesh, that is lovely.
I got talking to this elderly man at a recent club game. He said something beautiful. He said being at an All-Ireland final, there is no mortgage, the price of hay doesn’t matter, the price of cattle doesn’t matter. It is just a beautiful day. What I wouldn’t have realised is the impact a win has on all the other people.
EC: Bobbie, you paid tribute to football project co-ordinator Conor Counihan after Sunday’s win. What did you mean when you said that Conor ‘has pulled an awful lot of strands together within the Cork GAA family”?
BO’D: Keith here is someone I have a huge amount of respect for so it is easy for me to pick up the phone and talk to Keith and get the benefit of his experience. That may not have been possible before. In Cork football, there are a lot of silos. It is a case of making sure the development squads talk to the minors, the minors talk to the U20s, and the U20s talk to the seniors with regard to skill information, strength and conditioning, and the sharing of he best information. We have a body of work to do to improve that yet but I can see it falling into place.
On Friday [yesterday], Conor has us down for a bit of work on the field. Some of Keith’s players were present, along with some of the minors and seniors.
Tackle drills and how to tackle properly were demonstrated, recorded, and then shared with the development squad players. That is a very logical thing to be doing. But that has never happened before. That is coming through Conor. He is making sure we are all headed in one direction.
KR: I won’t quite say guardian angel, but he is someone who has your back. When you are in management, it is all-encompassing and sometimes you can feel you are on your own. It is good to have someone who is linking people together.
There is a football family there. It is a small enough family but it is a genuine family. We had lads from the Cork juniors who went off, without being asked, and watched matches for us. They came back and the detail in their notes would blow you away.
It was great to see the joy brought to people by the winning of the two All-Irelands, but the sense of family, I would have got that long before winning.