Now is the time to stick not twist. The long-term future of Cork football depends on it.

Now is the time to stick not twist. The long-term future of Cork football depends on it.
BETTER DAYS AHEAD: Cork defenders Kevin O’Donovan, Sean White, and Liam O’Donovan in the wake of Saturday’s loss. Picture: James Crombie

Six months out from an American general election, the two major political parties are required to form transition teams. This legal requirement forces both candidates into as smooth a transition into government as possible, irrespective of who wins the race.

In 2016, Donald Trump did not want to appoint a transition team. That would have required setting aside some money that could have been otherwise used for all-important political advertising. The law forced him to anyway. In November of that year, the day after Trump was elected, he unceremoniously fired his entire transition team, token as it may have been. In his book, The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis describes brilliantly how this made for the most chaotic and dangerous situation the superpower had ever known.

In 2012, the Cork football team was a GAA superpower, slugging it out in an All-Ireland semi-final with fellow heavyweights Donegal. Since then, there have been three handovers in management across the Cork senior football team but with very little transition. Of all the reasons for Cork’s regression from superpower status, this is actually the top one.

Of course, it’s not the entire story. And it won’t suit those who have been hunting a head on a stick, one person to blame.

No one person was at fault but lots of people have regretted how this has unfolded.

While people may argue over the managerial appointments, a balanced view would be that each new Cork manager since 2013 had the credentials and each was deserving of the position. All three were true Cork GAA men, all three were willing to step forward and all three worked themselves hollow in the role. Crucially, however, all three were debutant inter-county managers.

It was not a case of Liam Sheedy or Billy Morgan returning to dial up or down the key levers based on their experience. The proposition was different. Loads of promise and potential but little support structures or public patience. Entire backroom teams had to be assembled, dismantled and reassembled in two-year cycles.

Anyone who knows anything about inter-county GAA will tell you that this makes success very difficult indeed. Six different Strength and Conditioning coaches in six years, each with their own philosophy, in a sport where conditioning is king, will inevitably reset the dial each time. Each appointment was made with the best of intentions but within the silo of each new tenure or season.

Up until this year, long-term strategic planning has certainly been absent in Cork football but this was evident long before 2012. At the same time as most other counties were employing GDA coaches and putting together strategic plans, Cork were of the belief that being Cork would continue to win us an All-Ireland every few years.

Unfortunately for Cork, other counties were streaking ahead with actual strategic plans, real-life coaching structures, full-time Strength and Conditioning coaches and supporters clubs to fund all of this additional investment.

That approach would, of course, come to yield inevitable progress. The most obvious example is Dublin with its Blue Wave document, its circa 60 full-time Gaelic Development officers (outside of those employed by clubs), its coherent S&C model cascaded down through county underage teams by Bryan Cullen and its commercial fundraising muscle, spearheaded by John Costello and Tomás Quinn.

In other counties, the comparable evidence of progress paints Cork in even poorer light. In approximate terms, Tipperary has one Games Development Administrator (GDA) per 18 clubs, Limerick has one GDA per 11 clubs. Clare has one per 10 clubs, Waterford one per 17 clubs. Kerry has one GDA per 10 clubs. In Cork, there is 1 GDA per 37 clubs, in a county that has significant hurling needs as well.

Hold on, did Cork not win several underage titles in football through the early 2000s and an All-Ireland in 2010? Not exactly a parallel process. Underage potential and athleticism has always been there in Cork and will continue to be there by virtue of sheer population long after the decline has been arrested. Linking this to senior success cannot be achieved with just hope and expectation because Cork are Cork.

What actually started in 2004 and ended in 2010 is the same thing that happens in most counties that win an All- Ireland every 20 years. An extraordinary confluence of events. A very special group of players came along with immense leaders and an amazing level of resilience. An especially talented bunch of youngsters followed. Two managers came along in 2004 and then 2008, both happening to be bang-on appropriate appointments at each stage with a seamless handover between both regimes.

The irony is that now, strategically, Cork football is actually in a very good place. Underage structures have now been developed and cultivated through iteration from both Kevin O’Donovan and Brian Cuthbert. Excellent people are giving their time to these Cork underage and development squads.

Marquee names like Colm O’Neill and Donncha O’Connor have been roped into these underage teams.

Donncha O’Connor
Donncha O’Connor

Other underage representative squads are now sprinkled with calibre in the form of Gary Sheehan, Robbie O’Mahony, Paddy O’Shea, and Brian Morgan. The real heroes of this future story are the young, dynamic, and progressive Rebel Óg managers like Daniel Cronin and Niall Twomey who are pushing relentless progress.

Conor Counihan has been installed as Director of Football to join the dots through these grades and ensure the Cork senior football teams in 10 years’ time will again be a superpower. He has plans to inject many more former players into the underage coaching cycle as well as tap into the wealth of experience in former managers and coaches like Larry Tompkins, Billy Morgan, Peadar Healy, and Brian Cuthbert. A full-time high-performance manager for both codes is in the offing to support the coherent athletic development of the production line.

The administration is changing and fresh ideas and energy have created a revised club championship structure. It’s not a bullseye but it’s progress. Alternative fundraising sources, with separate governance, has finally come to fruition in the shape of Cairde Chorcai. This will generate serious commercial revenue streams that will be routed most appropriately to coaching, facilities, and teams, as opposed to stadium debt. If any of these key pieces of the jigsaw were absent, they would be written about as missing links.

With regard to the long-term future of Cork, there are in fact very few missing links.

Of course, that will do nothing for results this summer. There was plenty to be encouraged about in Saturday’s Munster final, but the Round 4 qualifier result in two weeks’ time will shape the summer’s narrative. Tables may yet be thumped in that regard but let’s not confuse this with the longer-term strategic direction.

Let the narrative be a positive and informed one. Many commentators from outside the county have lined up to be the new arbiters on the future of Cork GAA but there is no evidence to suggest they have looked beyond senior team results. Simplistic solutions like outside managers with expensive price tags and high profiles completely miss the point. It’s akin to a rowdy mob mentality in the town hall. Cork has a manager in Ronan McCarthy and regardless of Saturday night’s result, it is his very visible conviction we must back, not the table-thumpers.

Keith Ricken has been installed as a very credible Under 20 manager and should logically be groomed for natural succession. Other commentators have poured scorn on the recent five-year strategic plan, appearing to hold little regard for precedent of what has actually worked in other counties. If these individuals have any professional experience or credible familiarity with strategic plans, it would be good to engage. It really doesn’t appear so and on that basis, this too is table-thumping.

These are the same Sunday Game voices that would have thought Kieran Kingston mad when he cited that the Cork senior hurling team was actually in a good place immediately after the inconceivable loss to Wexford in 2016.

Kieran Kingston
Kieran Kingston

Twelve months later, Cork were Munster champions and a sending-off away from an All-Ireland final. Kingston had simply looked deeper into the structures and future that he had helped to craft. A head on a stick 12 months earlier would have achieved nothing. In fact, it would have halted progress.

The table-thumpers can continue with unchallenged dialogue at a superficial level but for Cork football, the strategic plan is already underway. Now is the time to hold the nerve. That starts by backing Ronan McCarthy and his management team in Year 2 and into Year 3 of their regime, regardless of what the rest of the summer has in store. Saturday’s performance made that a lot easier. Superpower status will be achieved again — just not overnight.

GAA podcast: Should Kerry sweep? Cork binning excuses. The adoration of Michael Murphy. Tripping Dublin

Mike Quirke reviews the GAA weekend with Oisín McConville, Donncha O'Connor and Tony Leen.

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