If Cork’s exit from the championship was highly embarrassing, then Ronan McCarthy’s exit interview to the print media was most intriguing.
Although he faced the customary rote of post-match questions last Saturday with what the Evening Echo’s Mark Woods described as “a calm dignity”, there was obviously only so much the Cork manager was prepared to divulge.
“After the first year, I’m very clear in my mind where I need to go from here and where we need to go,” he said after the Portlaoise massacre to Tyrone, “but I’m not going to share that.”
Upon which you could only wonder: what was it he clearly had in mind that he wasn’t prepared to share?
He seemed to share a bit more to Sky Sports.
“I think there’s no question that we’ve to go in a different direction in relation to personnel and so on. We’ve to be careful about that and sit down and give that a lot of thought about who we bring with us and who we let go…
“They [the 2018 panel] are an extremely dedicated, committed group, they train extremely well… but you have to transfer that onto the pitch. The question is at this stage, are some of the players not able to? That’s what we as a management team have to sit down and consider.”
Inevitably, after two defeats like Cork have just suffered, there has to be a significant change in playing personnel.
But there’ll have to be changes among the management as well.
McCarthy himself, as understandably and visibly devastated as he was last Saturday, is evidently up for the fight. Anyone who has spent time in his company will know there’s little he’ll shirk, be it a struggle, a fight, or the truth.
A week out from the 2002 All Ireland semi-final against Kerry, I interviewed the then Cork centre back for the old Sunday Tribune and it was hard not to be impressed by his resilience and intelligence. Here was a man who played a championship match for his club only hours after his father had died.
He never made his school team; they didn’t hold trials in Coláiste Chríost Rí in those days and when he asked their U14 coach if he could join in with Joe Kavanagh & Co, he was let go after two training sessions.
He never played minor or U21 for the county, with Cork winning the All-Ireland in his last year eligible in both grades. And yet by 1999 he was shutting down and standing up to All-Star talents like Maurice Fitzgerald and James Horan and three years later he’d won another senior Munster title when all but two members of the rock-star ’91 minor and ’94 U21 teams were finished with Cork.
“Players annoy me when they don’t get the most out of themselves,” he explained.
Over the same afternoon McCarthy also gave a fascinating glimpse into the conditions that would shortly thereafter prompt the first Cork GAA strike — when it did all kick off, the footballers were initially unimpressive and tentative in their support of the hurlers before taking their lead from an unwavering McCarthy — but what has stayed most vividly in the mind is some of the observations he offered on a range of sports figures.
The previous weekend Tiger Woods had failed to win the US PGA but McCarthy loved how he had reeled in four birdies in the last four holes to make the leaders sweat (the lack of such relentlessness from Cork must have made last Saturday galling for him).
And then there was his admiration for Kevin Keegan. Not just for how he had revived Newcastle but when he had resigned as England manager. The man had the courage and humility to know he was “not up to it” and no longer “the man to take it a stage further”.
That McCarthy possessed the awareness to so perceptively acknowledge another’s self-awareness would suggest that he has asked a similar question of himself in recent weeks. And while the answer may be that yes, as a real leader, he is up to continuing in the job, he has to recognise how badly he initially went about it.
When he spoke last Saturday about efforts on the training field having “to transfer onto the pitch”, the question isn’t whether “some of the players are not able to” but whether the current management team are suitably able to help enough players with that transfer.
You have to look at who McCarthy surrounded himself with. These days a selector can’t be just a judge but an actual coach. Over the last 50 years only Larry Tompkins can categorically claim to be a better footballer for Cork than Ciaran O’Sullivan was but as the case of Tompkins himself illustrates, a great player does not necessarily make a great coach.
Eamonn Ryan has been a great coach but over his three years now as a selector to either McCarthy or his predecessor Peadar Healy, his demeanour has brought to mind the one about the pig and the chicken with the Irish breakfast — the pig is committed, the chicken is merely involved. At this level you can’t be merely involved.
You can see why McCarthy went for Sean Hayes as his other selector — as the manager to Cork U20 and U21 teams, he offered some form of continuity as well as familiarity with the players and a certain credibility too for hailing from the Nemo stable.
But it’s only when you contrast such a profile and that of the whole Cork management team with their counterparts who won through to the Super 8s that you realise how isolated and insular the Cork football coaching culture is.
Take their conquerors last Saturday, Tyrone. The Mickey Harte project, after temporarily stagnating, was rejuvenated by the addition of Peter Donnelly who served time as a S&C coach and development officer in Cavan.
Or the winners of the curtain-raiser in Portlaoise. Kevin McStay has managed Mayo as well as Roscommon U21 teams and club All-Ireland champions St Brigid’s. Liam McHale also coached the Mayo seniors to an All-Ireland final (in 2004), Clare to a Munster final (in 2012) and Cavan in 2015.
Cian O’Neill started out on his coaching journey in Kilmihil in Clare as a young PE student before graduating to work with Mickey Ned O’Sullivan in Limerick, then Mayo and Kerry. One of Kildare selectors, Ronan Sweeney, coached both Waterford and Sligo under Niall Carew.
Kevin Walsh also coached Sligo before taking on his own county where he recently recruited the services of Paddy Tally who trained Tyrone and Down to All-Ireland finals.
Monaghan’s Malachy O’Rourke and his right-hand man Leo ‘Dropsy’ McBride have coached clubs in Cavan, Derry and Tyrone to county titles and Monaghan and Fermanagh to Ulster finals. Ryan Porter trained Dromore to county titles.
Just think of all the various footballing cultures they’ve sampled on their travels and coaching journeys, the ideas and systems they’ve been exposed to. The late nights plotting and scheming together trying to find a way to crack and beat a Crossmaglen or St Gall’s, all the coffees and chats they’ve had with other football people at half-time or at coaching conferences.
We could go on. How Dublin, while having a primarily Dublin-only staff, always have someone at almost every continued professional development event going; Jim Gavin, Jason Sherlock, or their godfather of Dublin coaching, Mickey Whelan, still studying and learning from others in his late ‘70s.
“And how do YOU replicate pressure in practice?”
How another proud and self-sufficient county like Kerry have enlisted James Weldon, the basketball coach who routinely takes a week out every year to shadow leading US and international coaches, observing how they plan their sessions, progress them, interact with players.
In Cork football, who’s doing that? Who’s travelling and coaching outside their county bounds and comfort zone, other than Ephie Fitzgerald and Paudie Kissane? Who’s doing a Ronan O’Gara who had the humility to go away and serve his apprenticeship elsewhere?
Cork football undoubtedly has longer-term issues to address. But Jim McGuinness didn’t wait for his county board to be a model of best practice when he inherited a team that had been embarrassed by Armagh much like Cork were by Tyrone; similarly James Horan when at the same time he took on a squad that had been beaten by both Sligo and Longford. Instead they got on with the business of surrounding themselves with the right people and setup.
Take the most fundamental source of sports confidence — physical fitness. Back in 2010 Cork were the market leaders, their S&C programme being coordinated by Munster rugby’s Aidan O’Connell. They’re a long way from that now, as evident by how they were steamrolled by Kerry and Tyrone. How is that possible, in a county which has had proven experts in that area like O’Connell and Dr Ed Coughlan — one of the architects of the Mayo football revolution but now back home, working in Cork IT — and Sean McGrath, who had a similar impact with the Cork hurlers in the O’Grady-Allen years? Was McCarthy even aware of their expertise? Or worse, was he aware of them and didn’t care to meet them?
Bar Down, every team that has contested an All-Ireland final this decade believed at the outset of the championship they had the best setup in the country. September may have always been beyond Cork in 2018 but it remains one of the few counties that with a bit of imagination should be able to command such a setup that would inspire its footballers.
McCarthy wouldn’t be the first manager to experience a chastening first season and turn it around, Derek McGrath and Kieran Kingston are obvious, recent examples. And as his own playing career shows, it wouldn’t be the first time McCarthy has endured failure and bounced back to compete and succeed at the highest level. But if he’s to transform Cork, he has to first transform and upskill his management.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved