We’ll skip with the preamble. Any assessment of where the Cork hurlers go from here has to start with where John Meyler goes from here.
And as he’s a man who is admirably blunt when he feels the occasion warrants it, we’ll be frank about it here too.
His time, not just his term, has expired. While his achievements have justified him been given two years in the position — not something every manager can retrospectively claim, or indeed not something this column could have forecast when he was appointed — there’s no need or case to extend or fudge this. The team needs a fresh impetus that only a new manager can bring.
To be fair, Meyler is likely to recognise as much himself — or that a more attuned county board will — though he was right not to make any pronouncements about his future immediately after something as emotional and devastating as last Sunday’s defeat to Kilkenny.
Whenever and however Meyler steps aside, he and his management should not only be thanked for their service but the memories.
There is understandably a degree of outrage and impatience among the Cork public with the county going a full decade without winning an All-Ireland for the first time since the 1880s and the side, for a third straight year,losing upon its first visit to Croke Park.
But it’s worth remembering where Cork were when Meyler joined the senior set-up as a selector to Kieran Kingston in the autumn of 2016.
A pre-Davy Fitz Wexford side had been too gritty for them in a second-round qualifier. An earlier defeat in Thurles that summer to Tipperary had been the county’s most abject Munster championship performance in 20 years. They’d lost all five of their round-robin games in the league. No one back then could have envisaged Cork winning the following two Munster championships.
The championing and promotion of the likes of Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon; Patrick Horgan’s three-year stretch matching even Lar’s Lazarus act of 2008-2011; turning around an eight-point deficit against Clare to win the 2018 Munster final; even something as recent as the ambush of Limerick last month: Meyler contributed in no small part to such great days and welcome developments for Cork hurling.
So did his management team. Just as Meyler always exuded dignity in how he conducted himself in public, every utterance of Donal O’Mahony’s smacked of intelligence, the same way Kieran ‘Fraggy’ Murphy radiated passion and sincerity.
But things stagnated this year. After two seasons of having some involvement with the set-up, Gary Keegan departed over the winter, his role having become more akin to that of a mere sport psychologist to individual players than a high performance consultant advising and reviewing and upskilling the set-up in its entirety.
Did Meyler commission or welcome such accountability of himself and his management? The next manager must.
No one should be sacred.
No one should feel entitled or comfortable.
Dr Con Murphy is rightly and universally respected and loved but over the weekend, it looked as if his mission was to complete the shrine to Cork GAA chivalry that constitutes a snug in Páidí Ó Sé’s pub in Ventry.
Fine to be photographed warmly greeting Stephen Cluxton, an associate from International Rules trips; such exchanges are common after round-robin games, league or even championship.
But posing and beaming with Brian Cody moments after the hurlers’ three-year push to win an All Ireland had fallen short? You think that would sit right with a Cluxton or a Cody if their team doc carried on like that after losing a huge game? It’s no longer good enough to say it’s just Con being Con, a reminder that Cork will always be Cork.
Brian Corcoran was quoted extensively yesterday claiming Cork lack the necessary belief to win All-Irelands because of their lack of underage success, but as plenty of other top operators in sport could tell him, it is neither a prerequisite or a guarantor of senior success.
The Donegal footballers had won next to nothing before Jim McGuinness came along in autumn 2010 to transform them and their sport. Whatever underage honours any Galway hurler had won was a distant memory by 2017.
Even the likes of Joe Deane and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín which Corcoran namechecked had thought their success of 1999 couldn’t be repeated until they insisted upon having a high-performance set-up.
Excellent preparation — not underage success — is what mandatory to compete and win at the highest level.
Under McGuinness, Donegal felt no one was better physically, mentally, and especially technically prepared, just as Corcoran and his teammates were when their careers were transformed by Donal O’Grady and Sean McGrath.
There will be some support for Kieran Kingston to return to the helm, especially were he to bring with him Pat Ryan who was well respected by the players for his work on the training ground in 2017. But would either be able to give more than two years to the job when they couldn’t the last time?
Because this can’t be just a a big squeeze to win an All-Ireland before Patrick Horgan or Anthony Nash’s window closes. For sure there needs to be a suitable sense of urgency and for certain there would be a beautiful symmetry of Cork winning the All-Ireland on the centenary of the birth of a particular clubmate of Horgan’s, one Christy Ring.
But there needs to be a grander vision and ambition to all this. Pat Gilroy and Jim Gavin didn’t just set up Dublin to win an All-Ireland; they came in to win All-Irelands. Plural. Multiple.
The next Cork manager should be thinking along similar lines. Just as Dublin progressed under four years of Paul Caffrey, Cork made significant strides under four years of Kingston and Meyler. But Dublin didn’t promote within. They made a clean break, going for a detail-obsessed manager in Gilroy accompanied by a ground-breaking coach in Mickey Whelan.
Last Monday on Off The Ball, the leading hurling writer Denis Walsh touted the name of Donal Óg Cusack as someone to succeed Meyler.
He certainly would bring a lot to the party. That forensic attention to detail. A ruthlessness and healthy scepticism of, as he put it in his book, “the good ol’ boys of Cork GAA, part of the Masonic system” which needs to be shaken up. He’s got something Cork GAA doesn’t have enough of —external experience, from coaching Clare where the players still rave about his input in to the national league triumph of 2016.
And he’s a winner. In his book, to defend the fact he wasn’t “always the easiest” to deal with, he quotes from another Al Pacino film, Any Given Sunday, where Jamie Foxx’s Willie Beamen says, “I’m trying to win, coach. I ain’t trying to disrespect nobody, but winning is the only thing I respect.”
There would have been no strikes in a Kerry or Kilkenny because there they keep the main thing the main thing — winning, or at least striving to win. If Cork want to get back to what should be the main thing and not peripheral matters about personalities and history, then Cusack should no longer be persona non-grata in the corridors of Páirc Uí Chaoimh or indeed the wider Cork GAA community.
That’s not to say he’s the only or even outstanding candidate. Also worthy of consideration are the Murray brothers, Paudie and Kevin. Like Cusack, Paudie is merciless, obsessive and a winner, while as Joe Quaid pointed out in these pages, coaching a senior inter-county camogie manager in many ways better prepares you for the challenges of a full inter-county season than taking the U21s ever could.
Kevin, meanwhile, is a cutting edge coach in the mould of Paul Kinnerk, not just because he’s studying for a post-grad in the discipline but in how he can apply such a constraint-led coaching in both football (as coach to Billy Morgan’s Sigerson-Cup winning teams in UCC) and the small ball with the all-conquering Cork camógs.
Every night Limerick and Tipperary feel, with coaches like Kinnerk and Eamon O’Shea with the whistle, that no one else in the country is training better or more diligently than them.
That Joe Schmidt could observe and admire and learn from their session. Cork haven’t had that conviction since the middle of the last decade.
Until that returns, Liam MacCarthy won’t.
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