Paddy Kelly did Cork some service by venting his frustrations

There are a couple of ways of looking at the fact the Cork footballers are in a makeshift gym in a warehouse in Fermoy close to the football field where they’ve trained this winter.
Paddy Kelly did Cork some service by venting his frustrations

You can see it as another measure of how far Cork GAA has fallen behind their rivals, that in a year where Kerry will be moving in to their centre of excellence in Currans, one of Cork’s two flagship teams can’t secure a facility during the winter where a pitch session and a gym session can be accommodated in the one evening.

Or, you could see it as an encouraging display of initiative shown by the current group of players and management.

It’s not an either/or, of course. In fact, a reasonable assessment of the situation would be to simultaneously hold both views.

The Cork County Board, as occupied and as obsessed as they are with finalising the redevelopment of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, are not geared towards making Cork GAA as competitive and as successful as it could and should be. But that doesn’t mean that the county’s senior footballers and management should or will just roll over and accept another season of stagnation.

Paddy Kelly did his state some further service last weekend by stating and explaining in this paper his frustration with the state of Cork GAA. It’s something Cork GAA people needed to hear. A light needed to be cast back in the direction of its powers that be. Too many Cork players like Kelly have handed back the red jersey with a sense they weren’t sufficiently given the best chance to compete as they should.

It wasn’t always the case. After the second Cork GAA strike of 2007-8, the Cork footballers would go on to either win the Munster championship, the national league or the All-Ireland itself in the next five years. That consistency was rooted in the kind of set-up they had fought for. For a few years there Cork were the most physically impressive and dominant team in the country, market leaders in the area of S&C. As well as that they were a team of leaders, full of veterans fully committed to winning.

A decline started to set in during the 2013 season, but after Counihan stepped down, that process accelerated.

In the space of a couple of weeks, a core group of veterans all either retired or were retired shortly after the appointment of Brian Cuthbert. Just as costly was the new manager’s decision to dismantle the leadership groups and systems that had worked so well under Counihan.

It would ultimately be Cuthbert’s undoing. The players’ own standards dropped. Back in 2009 when Counihan’s Cork beat the then reigning champions Tyrone in a landmark All-Ireland semi-final for the team, Graham Canty went down the whole team bus that evening having a quiet word with all the younger players. There’d be no drinking that night and there’d be no discussing it either; the leaders had met and their word would be complied with.

In contrast, a couple of days after the 2015 Munster final replay defeat to Kerry, Cuthbert was having to drop a few players off his starting 15 and matchday panel for the qualifier against Kildare the following Saturday because of a breach of discipline regarding drink.

Cuthbert’s own departure led to further instability and a lack of continuity. Heading into last year’s Division One league campaign, the Cork footballers were working with their fourth different S&C coach in four seasons and with 17 players listed as injured.

With so many players out, Peadar Healy had to blood an extraordinary number of debutants in that league campaign, as many as 11 in fact, and relegation could not be staved off.

Injuries would continue to blight Cork’s season. A week out from the first round championship clash against Tipperary, four key players broke down injured. When Cork would make it back to Croke Park for a fourth-round qualifier against Donegal, they would start four players who hadn’t started any previous game all year — Donncha O’Connor, Tom Clancy, Sean Powter and Stephen Cronin.

Just as tellingly, they were without the four players best suited to marking a marksman like Paddy McBrearty.

Instead Eoin Cadogan, a player playing with an injury himself and more suited to a bigger, slower target man a la Michael Murphy, had to take up McBrearty and was duly taken for seven points from play.

Cork’s injury difficulties contrast enormously to those of the two teams that contested the All-Ireland final. Both Mayo and Dublin had virtually a whole complement of players to work with for the All-Ireland series, despite training at a level that has made them the fittest in the country.

Again, that doesn’t just happen. Since the start of the Horan revolution, Mayo have had only two lead S&C coaches. The same medical team has also been intact for most of that period. Such continuity reduces the number of injuries.

This year Cork are working with a fifth different S&C coach in five seasons, Paudie Kissane having moved on to coach and train Limerick, to be replaced by Robbie Williams, best known for his work with Olympic medallist Rob Heffernan. The emphasis is on pre-hab, not weights.

Back when Cork were contesting All-Irelands, the likes of Pearse O’Neill were hitting the 100kgs mark. Now the model player is much leaner. Research by the sport scientist Kieran Collins of Tallaght IT has shown that while the average high intensity metres per player by Mayo and Dublin in the All-Ireland series has been 27 over the last five seasons, Cork’s has been only 21.

This year, as well as re-establishing player leadership groups, Healy has brought Collins into the Cork set-up to monitor the load players are doing. A second physio has also been recruited, a minimum requirement for any other contending county but an unprecedented number for a Cork set-up.

In Dublin, Bryan Cullen oversees the athletic development of all players from minor right up to senior, providing a level of co-ordination that no individual S&C coach working in isolation with a particular team can. It’s something Cork should have too if the board understood how high performance now works.

In the absence of such structures, Healy is manfully putting in place systems that should serve Cork better in the long term. County board chairman Ger Lane spoke at county convention that the team has to deliver this year, inferring promotion from Division Two is a must, in contrast to the patience he is willing to give the county’s hurlers. While a certain level of accountability is necessary, an understanding of the footballers’ circumstances would not go astray either.

Currently 16 of their 36-man panel are either injured or just returning to play. In two weeks time they open their league campaign away to Galway, followed by another away trip to Kildare. Should a Paul Kerrigan be squeezed back for such games, risk injury again and be unavailable during the championship?

The Cork management have learned the hard way the answer is no. Some more patience may be required.

The time for the board to put other longer-term processes in place, like a Cullen, or a supporters club to help fund one, though, has surely come.

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