Playing five different midfielders during the course of last year’s All-Ireland final has to be some sort of a record but their telling use of substitutes all year proved masterful.
However, for many weeks in June, July and August, Conor Counihan was being accused of not knowing his best 15 players and not having the sense of how best to align them. It was a measure of the unity of purpose in Cork last year that during those periods of doubt and introspection for supporters, nobody on the panel of over 30 players broke ranks.
Players who were substituted or who didn’t get game time presented a united front post-match and those who had starred over the course of the summer, made a point of referring to the importance of less heralded contributions to the group dynamic.
Few players came to represent the de-individuation of the Cork panel in recent times as well as their most experienced player, Nicholas Murphy.
Players like Murphy are gold dust for any manager. We often speak of substitutes on strong teams who “would walk on to any county team in Ireland”.
We rarely question the truth of such statements until it enters conventional wisdom and some really average players earn reputations bigger than their talents merit.
Nicholas Murphy is not and was never such a player. For lengthy periods last year Murphy had to bide his time watching from the sidelines as the phenomenon that became Aidan Walsh took over his mantle in the middle of the park. And yet when the call came on the biggest day of all, it was Murphy who turned the game Cork’s way after half-time when two consecutive hits on Peter Fitzpatrick and Kalum King took the wind from the sails of the Down team.
Murphy finished the day as he began, sitting on the subs bench, but not since Peter Canavan’s cameo in 2003 has a substitute played such an important role in an All-Ireland win.
The super-sub moniker has held a special place in the GAA psyche since Seánie Walsh in the 70s but it never sits comfortably with those in question. Any substitute worth his salt would be deeply unhappy sitting on a bench for the best part of a game even if one does get to bask in reflected glory at the final whistle.
Player unrest is one of the biggest challenges facing any manager in today’s game. The balancing act between keeping substitutes suitably motivated, egos subjugated and discarding dissident players in time is one that has proven beyond many.
The stand-off between certain Fermanagh players and the county team management is making all the headlines these past few weeks but it is ironic that a Cork player who made his senior debut in an infamous qualifier against Fermanagh seven years ago, started two All-Ireland finals since and won an All-Ireland medal as a sub last year, is allowed to step off the inter-county carousel barely noticed.
Kieran O’Connor and John Hayes opted out of the Cork panel recently in a move that Counihan believed to be indicative of the “enormous sacrifices” currently demanded of players at inter-county level.
Paddy O’Shea and Kevin McMahon went earlier last month but their departures, too, barely registered because of the depth of latent and emerging talent in the county.
Observers and those of us outside the group will say it’s as it should be with any progressive panel; fringe players being regularly replaced with emerging (and possibly more naively enthusiastic) talents but were it to happen in a middle tier county, it surely would be a cause for concern.
PART of the explicit culture of any team is that the subs are as important as the players on the field and their trade-off for the hours of toil is the intangible reward of being part of something bigger. We have long admired players with numbers 16-30 on their backs on countless given Sundays for their ceaseless and hope-filled commitment to the greater cause but sometimes you just suspect that it’s a big lie.
We tell the kids on our underage teams that it’s okay to be a substitute every now and then. Likewise, we tell handy corner-forwards on the U12s to stand on the end line at the edge of the square when the ball is coming in so that they can pick up the crumbs from the full-forward. We’ve even enshrined it into our Go Games for U12s that matches are organised in a non-competitive manner and the emphasis is on full participation for all players rather than on the result.
All based on sound developmental principles, but hardly ideal preparation for the big bad world where only 15 get to start, five more (if they’re lucky) get to contribute and the dirty little secret that is winning is great and your self-esteem does get dented if you’re not part of the team.
Players at senior inter-county level are subjecting themselves to a fundamental and more clinical examination than ever before when it comes to buying into the community of the team and to the sacrifices that define their universe.
It’s all very well if Cork or Kerry or Dublin players don’t feel the benefits of representing the club, the parish, the county outweigh the more humdrum but equally pressing imperatives of family and professional life but we’re in trouble if this thing takes off.
The GPA indicated yesterday that 16 inter-county players have emigrated these past 12 months but what if more and more players opt out of panels in counties where the prestige of the tribe isn’t as tied in to their GAA teams?
I never met Kieran O’Connor nor John Hayes and I know little of their personal or professional circumstances but I know many of their counterparts in Kerry. Quality players leave elite panels because they become tired of running just to stand still on a plateau.
When you are neither the best or the worst player on the panel, there are only so many times you can recreate and reinvent yourself before you stagnate.
In telling us on these pages during the week that “the challenge is for new guys to get up to that level and see if they can make an impact”, Conor Counihan is not only saying that life goes on but he is throwing down the gauntlet to all aspirant Rebels.
Some of these will be on view in next Wednesday’s U21 match against Kerry. It’s hard to convince a 21-year-old that days like these will never come again, that the time is now, the place is here and that there are no second chances at a single moment. But I’m sure that if they asked O’Connor or Hayes this week, they’d be told that the sacrifices are worth making.