Time for Cork’s backseat drivers to change direction

It was a small thing but it told us a lot.

Time for Cork’s backseat drivers to change direction

Amid the sense of anticipation triggered by the sight of the Cork football team bus navigating through the crowds and pulling into Fitzgerald Stadium for the Munster final replay, this column was nonetheless struck by the prominence and placing of non-performance personnel.

Sitting on the third seat on the right to our nearest window was Frank Murphy, one seat ahead of county administrator Diarmuid O’Donovan.

Having been on plenty of team buses myself heading into Croke Park over the last few years, it struck me as odd. In those setups, any board officers sat a good few rows further back, just across or beside or behind one of the physios or stats guys, but not in front of them.

It was the same with the dressing room and the pitch. Last year when watching from the terrace Cork warm-up for their Munster semi-final against Clare, I was again taken by the number of county board officials loitering on the field. Cork may have won plenty of All-Irelands in the past with such a volume of administrators hanging on or around but in the top set-ups that I’ve worked in, only the county secretary as a conduit to the fourth official would be allowed such access. Everywhere else and everyone else was a no-go. That dressing room and that pitch was a performance zone, and unless you were facilitating performance, you were best staying out of the way until after the final whistle.

Other top set-ups like Donegal don’t even have county board officers on the team bus on match day. A number of players didn’t even learn what the county secretary looked like until after they’d won their first provincial title under Jim McGuinness. There’s no fear of that happening in Cork.

Chances are, all of Cork GAA will be turning to them again in the coming weeks in the search for new managers for their senior inter-county teams.

The way the performance and fight of the Cork hurlers petered out in the last 10 minutes last Sunday had much the same end-of-the-road vibe about it as similar defeats to Galway in 2002 and 2011 which marked the last games of Bertie Óg Murphy’s and Denis Walsh’s respective tenures.

When Jimmy Barry-Murphy said he’s looking forward to next year, take the man at his word. He can’t wait to not have the hassle of inter-county management. For a time it was right for him and he was right for it but now that’s changed. He just wants time to let the required people know before any reporter.

Brian Cuthbert might be more reluctant to move on but as much as we sympathise with a good man who has tried to fight the good fight, Cork football and these players could probably do with a fresh start and new narrative.

The paradox of Cuthbert’s management is that he tried to provide exactly that when he shouldn’t have.

Probably the most underestimated manager and team of the last decade is Counihan and his Cork side.

People sniff that they won just one All-Ireland – you try and win an All-Ireland. The three D1 leagues they won has been used as a stick to beat them with rather than a measure of their staggering consistency. In their unity, preparation, how they valued and cultivated leaders; they had something special. A John Miskella would be identified to mentor a Ciaran Sheehan, room with him, slag him, coax the kid to sing in front of the whole team, bring him out of his shell off the field so he could do likewise on it.

From observing each player, conducting questionnaires with them, they knew Daniel Goulding responded best to being told he was probably the best right-corner forward in Ireland while a Michael Shields reacted best to being challenged, even scolded.

It was in trying to maintain that progressive player-led culture that Counihan reluctantly and selflessly remained on as manager in 2013 upon the pleading of the players. It was also with a view to the future that he brought Cuthbert and Ronan McCarthy in as selectors that year. They were two growth-mindset coaches, likely to be part of, if not leading, any future Cork senior management.

Instead of providing continuity or evolution, Cuthbert opted for revolution. One autumn Friday in 2013, Graham Canty met his new manager expecting to hear what new role was envisaged for him only to be told there was no role for him at all. Noel O’Leary and Paudie Kissane were similarly moved on while Pearse O’Neill inadvertently learned in the paper he was surplus to requirements.

In not suitably valuing such servants and leaders Cuthbert was already being viewed warily by the next line of leaders. Over the past two years that wave of player has regressed. Take Goulding. If he were with Mayo, they’d probably be going for a second, even third All-Ireland in recent years. Yet look at him now, a bit player.

For sure, Cuthbert has been unlucky – Padraig Hughes, etc – and needs to being kept within the Cork system somewhere. But a team playing for each other and its manager does not break like it did in Thurles.

The Cork hurlers similarly wilted there. Too much is made of their (lack of) underage pedigree. Plenty of that team have won Fitzgibbon Cups. Any team that has the firepower of Conor Lehane, Patrick Horgan and Seamus Harnedy should be in any All-Ireland shakeup. You don’t need to have won at underage to challenge and win at senior, as much as it helps. You can more than make up for lack of traditional Corkness by providing players with a high-performance environment.

Cork sport is loaded with people who can provide just that – but does Cork want that help?

History now shows the lunacy of blowing up the hurling managerial set-up that had contested four consecutive All-Irelands for the crime of losing the last of them by just three points to the greatest team of all time. And yet in many ways JBM was an inspired appointment, the ideal candidate that straddled pro and anti-strike camps at a still sensitive time in Cork GAA. Now it’s time to reach beyond the divide.

The best high-performers were on the side of players during the strikes. That’s ultimately what the strikes were about: not emotive concepts like professionalism versus amateurism, but best practice, best processes, high performance; it’s a shame that term wasn’t in circulation then.

I remember interviewing Dónal Óg Cusack for the 2010 Munster final at his workplace, a world-leading pharmaceutical business. On a noticeboard were certain achievements and targets. Six years earlier there was a product that took 16 days to turnaround. Within three years they had it down to eight days. By 2010 they had it down to 4.5 days. Their next goal to have it whittled it down to 2.5 days.

That’s what so much of the strikes were about. There was the environment Cusack worked in every day, coming up with ways to make sure that plant stayed in Cork, not China. A multi-national, high-performance mindset, compared to the civil service one en vogue in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

The question now isn’t whether the county board is adequately familiar with what constitutes high performance but rather has it the humility to defer to people that do.

There are some signs of hope. Chairman Ger Lane’s affability and diplomacy as a liaison officer to the Cork footballers under Counihan was pivotal to that team’s success. Diarmuid O’Donovan was down to be a selector of Teddy Holland’s, yet even then at the height of that standoff and my writings being critical of the board, he would remain highly affable towards me.

Future chair Tracey Kennedy is another genuine people’s person. My first interaction with her was when she was PRO at the hurlers’ 2012 NHL final press day. Before the night ended, she asked myself and The Sunday Times’ Denis Walsh, another Corkman regularly critical of the board, to stand in for a photograph with her and numerous other pro-board sympathisers.

The gesture reminded us of a scene in the film Michael Collins where Collins admonishes a young soldier who has shot Harry Boland. “But he was one of them!” the soldier pleas.

“No, sonny, you don’t understand,” moans Collins. “He was one of us.” Maybe Kennedy can remind Frank and the rest of the executive of that. To set up performance directors for hurling and football, reach over the divide, sound out the likes of John Allen, sports scientist Sean McGrath, Donal O’Grady, make peace “with the man with the laptop”, one Mr Cusack.

Even if it means taking more of a back seat on the bus.

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