At half-time in the recent Munster MFC game between Kerry and Cork in Tralee, I leaned into a conversation between a gaggle of lads in red and two natives.
To be fair, Cork had shaped the better side in the first half of the semi-final and should have been five or six points ahead. They were still well positioned for the second period to end Kerry’s dominance of the minor grade that had stretched back to 2014, but the fatalistic tone of the conversation indicated to me the Cork lads didn’t really believe their minors would get over the line.
Morale is evidently at an historic low in Cork football, apathy historically high. I know seriously passionate Cork football people and even they are at a low ebb at this stage. Before they’d have a fight with you, defend their corner in a conversation. They always felt they could turn Kerry over, that they might be coming with something for a Munster final. That can’t be said now.
At the minor game, I picked out the two Cork midfielders, two Douglas lads, and while the potential of Aodhán Ó Luasa from Naomh Aban had been well advertised to us in advance, it was Clyda Rovers’ Conor Corbett who really caught my eye. Fluid, languid, accurate.
I was thinking after how Cork manage the pathway for these nascent talents and how much of an influence (or an excuse) other codes or sports might be. Somewhere, somehow Cork is haemorrhaging, or squandering, an abundance of football talent.
I will never understand how Cork can’t find even 25 players they can wring the very best out of up through the age grades. There are probably 200 clubs playing gaelic football in the county of Cork. It bemuses me constantly that they can’t mould a group together to be consistently competitive.
A lot of fans found a handy fall guy last season in Peadar Healy, and before him Brian Cuthbert, like things had been brilliant since the 2010 All-Ireland or something. This year’s National League hasn’t bucked the trend in any meaningful way – an occasional glimmer of light here, a hugely disappointing display there. That will happen in a period of transition.
Goalkeeper Mark White and defender Kevin Flahive put their hands up in the league and are the debutants in red against Tipperary this evening. Realistically, Ronan McCarthy has to be given at least two seasons and a bit of space to allow him put a discernible shape on the set-up. He’s not working off a pool of players used to competing at the highest level.
At the moment, Division 2 is Cork’s standard.
Which demands a broader debate and a longer-term solution. I still go back to coaching as the root of the problem in Cork. We talk about Ronan McCarthy trying to fix Cork in two or three years, but he’s a sticking plaster. The real problem is they need to develop a five-year plan for football in the county. Get teenagers to play, play, play. Don’t even worry about winning competitions with development squads.
By the time they get to 18, the old minor grade, the coaching set-up should know the top 30 players in the county to get their teeth into, notwithstanding there will always be a couple of late developers.
The chopping and changing does very little for the prospect of continuity. The likes of Conor Corbett, create a clearly defined pathway to direct him up to U20 and into the senior cycle. And nurture him.
Whatever anyone might say about Jack O’Connor, look at the continuity of his involvement with Kerry - from U21 manager to senior, back to minor and Under 21 again.
Vast experience and credibility, and continuity. Jack hasn’t got every decision right but if you are coming into a Kerry minor or Under 20 squad and Jack O’Connor is in charge, you have confidence as a player of ability, this coach is going to improve me. I know there was loose talk about Jack going to Cork in the past. I don’t think it was ever likely, but a coach with his track record and pedigree would make this current Cork squad 10% better. Now in the age of tiny margins, that’s a quantum jump.
The apathy and negativity surrounding Cork football? Fight it, scrap their way out of the doldrums.
That requires leaders who demand everything of themselves and expect nothing in return. I find myself in Dublin quite a bit with work and when you talk to football people from other parts of the country up there, they struggle to name too many Cork footballers.
They are not on their radar. Everyone in Ireland knew and admired Lynch, Canty, Miskella, Nicholas Murphy, Donncha O’Connor and Colm O’Neill in their pomp. Now there’s a real dearth of leaders.
It’s like anyone who has won the big prizes; when you meet them, you get an immediate and better understanding of why they’re successful. How driven they are, how high the standards are, what they will, and more importantly, won’t accept. Henry Shefflin would be an example of that. In fact, most of the Kilkenny lads. They never seem to resort to excuses when they are beaten or moan about their lot, or the lack of support. They crawl into a hole, shut their mouth, absorb everything going on around them. They tell you nothing. But you sense it out of them. These fellas are coming out of the trenches at us. How Cork could do with some of that defiance.
It is not right for a county like Cork not to be in the conversation for the Super 8s. If they let things be for three years, McCarthy is made of the right stuff and if he is picking like-minded and bloody-minded characters, we might all be re-evaluating our sense of where Cork football is at. But concurrent to that three-year term can be a broader three-year plan of development and progressive pathways via coaching at under age level.
I’ve already tipped Tipperary to make the Super 8s and that assessment is based on them beating Cork in Thurles tonight. Sean Powter is out and Paul Kerrigan is unlikely to figure. That’s a lot of pace to be without. But this is the very definition of a 50-50 game. A win leaves them only one game away from a place in the quarter-final phase and they would fancy their chances against most counties at a neutral venue if they have to play one qualifier game.
The opportunity to develop, offered by three quality games at Super 8 stage, makes tonight massive for football in both counties. Tipp would feel their time is now. There is no entitlement in sport, but they’ve been to an All-Ireland semi-final, showing good consistency in League Division 2 and were a few minutes this spring from winning in Cavan and going to Division One for 2019.
They’ve lost plenty of leaders to injury and travel, but their graph continues to rise. People say they over-achieve, but the stronger their results and belief, the less over-achievement is part of their mindset. It’s expectation now. They’re a leading Division 2 team with aspirations to go to the top flight. Their age demographic is good and talking about believing in your manager – Liam Kearns has consistently got the most out of them.
History forewarns us annually that Cork might surge, might take a scalp like Mayo in Limerick last July. But Tipp havetaken scalps. Playing at home, with Cork under the pressure they are, it’s there for Kearns’ players this evening. Tipp see Cork as the fading heavyweight in the 12th round, vulnerable to the knockout punch.
Tipp’s next question of themselves is can they stay afloat in elevated company. They’ve been to Croke Park, they’ve taken scalps, they’ve now to prove they belong up there. That’s the next big progression for Tipperary’s players.
Cork’s priorities are more immediate, the goal absolutely clear-cut. Get over tonight. Build game by game.
The Super 8s can wait.