Back in January when Cork GAA released their five-year plan for Cork football, one of the first stated targets was for Cork to be “regular All-Ireland contenders of inter-county football, within three to five years”.
Fast-forward just eight months and Cork football is celebrating a first U20 All-Ireland title (ten years since our last U21 All-Ireland), satisfied with the progress shown by the senior footballers in competing with the best in the Super 8s and also still hopeful of minor success ahead of next Saturday’s semi-final against Mayo. Too early to be classed as ‘regularly’ but a positive start nonetheless.
The scenes on Saturday in Portlaoise were a joy to behold for all Cork football people as the Rebels stormed back from an early nine-point deficit to claim a comprehensive eight-point victory over a fancied Dublin side.
Blake Murphy’s volley to the net for Cork’s first score on 12 minutes ignited one of the great Cork comebacks in living memory. The response to the early setback from the young Cork side was a sign of a group who have been entrusted to take ownership and responsibility of their performances.
The manager Keith Ricken spoke after the game about how he was managing the whole group but that the players in fact managed themselves. His approach of allowing players take ownership of their team was repaid in spades by Saturday’s gutsy display. In recent weeks he has preached the importance of players responding to setbacks and mistakes in a defiant manner and his players duly responded with another comeback to add to their heroic efforts last weekend against Tyrone.
Ricken would be regarded as a fantastic man-manager with the ability to ground youngsters but to also make those in need feel ten feet tall. His last involvement with a Cork team was the 2004 minor team’s controversial defeat to Laois in an All-Ireland semi-final but he has played an important role in player development in Cork IT since, the highlight being the Sigerson Cup triumph in 2009. He and his backroom team deserve enormous credit for taking over in turbulent circumstances and delivering the ultimate success. However, as important as winning underage titles are, the development of young players is paramount.
Ricken made a point of thanking the county board which permitted them to bring upwards of 40-50 players to training throughout the year, thus ensuring numbers for A v B games every night at training. An extra 10 or 15 mouths to feed and mileage to pay, perhaps not a request that would have received much of a response in years gone by.
It was noticeable in the match programme that Cork named a large extended panel and these young players were all present on the pitch during the warm-up in Cork tracksuits. This inclusion on the big day is a reward for their efforts this year and should provide fantastic experience and motivation for those underage again for next year.
Yet in those opening 12 minutes Cork looked nervous and unsure of themselves. Playing against a gale, Cork struggled massively on their own kickouts. Cork keeper Josh O’Keeffe was faced with the unenviable task of trying to avoid Dublin’s man-mountain Peadar O’Cofaigh Byrne with kickouts hanging to just about the 45m line. When Cork did garner possession they made basic skills errors including the horror show for Dublin’s goal which added to the sense that a long afternoon lay ahead for Cork.
To their credit within six minutes, Cork had cancelled out the nine-point deficit when Colm O’Callaghan bundled over the line after both midfielders had combined to run through the heart of the Dublin defence.
The remaining 15 minutes of the half encapsulated everything there is to love about underage football. Fast, free-flowing stuff with man-on-man battles all over the pitch. The variety to Cork’s play was fantastic with the inside trio of Mark Cronin, Cathal O’Mahony, and Damien Gore looking stylish and dangerous with every possession. Cork finished the half with three points to incredibly lead by two at the break. Interestingly the Cork players were assembled in front of the main stand to soak up the applause from the large Cork contingent. Management making sure they felt the support and energy their performance warranted.
Cork took 10 minutes to settle into the second half as Dublin regained parity but the introduction of Jack Murphy sparked Cork into life with a run leading to a Cronin free before adding a point of his own from play. Cork were sensible in their approach with the wind and prioritised keeping possession as opposing to launching aimless long balls. Goalkeeper O’Keeffe deserves credit for utilising short kickouts as Peter O’Driscoll dropped into the full back line creating an easy out ball. Cork’s defending was brilliant in the second half limiting Dublin to just four points and only one after the 44th minute. They crowded the space around dangerman Ciaran Archer and allowed Dublin to take on difficult shots against a challenging wind.
At the other end Cork squeezed up aggressively on Dublin (now operating without black-carded O’Cofaigh Byrne) and won ball high up the pitch. It was a day where Cork forwards also put on an exhibition of point scoring from play with Murphy, Gore and Cronin all landing beauties. There’s no doubt too that Cork have a gem of a free-taker in Cathal O’Mahony as he landed frees that his selectors Micheál O’Cróinín and Colm O’Neill would have been proud of.
The final whistle brought scenes of jubilation and an outpouring of emotion for Cork football that hasn’t been seen on the national stage for the best part of a decade. The ultimate goal for Cork football is to lift Sam Maguire again as soon as possible and while underage success doesn’t guarantee anything, it is a decent indicator.
The 2010 senior triumph was backboned by the successful 2007 U21s (Michael Shields, Eoin Cadogan, Ray Carey, Fintan Goold, Paul Kerrigan and Daniel Goulding) and the 2009 equivalent featuring Colm O’Neill, Ciaran Sheehan and Aidan Walsh. In years to come, Saturday’s 2019 champions may be seen as vital to Cork’s eighth All-Ireland senior title.
Those celebrations continued into yesterday as the players paraded their All-Ireland and Munster titles around Páirc Uí Rinn at half time of Cork’s final Super 8s against Roscommon.
It was a fitting gesture by the County Board who deserve enormous credit for also encouraging young supporters on the field for a half-time kick around. In fact, Kevin O’Donovan as Rúnaí and Joseph Blake as PRO should be lauded for the small but discernible improvements they’ve implemented in their short time in office. Regular reports form County Board meetings, league finals being played off in the height of summer and a much needed radical overhaul of our club championships structures among the many positive changes made.
Yesterday’s senior game rightly plays second fiddle in terms of attention from the weekend’s fare. The hope attending the game was that given it was essentially a dead rubber we would be treated to an open attacking game of football. The scoreline may suggest that to be the case but the reality was very different as this was a poor spectacle from the off. A variety of factors were at play including the torrential rain which caused many handling errors, an overly-fussy referee and a Roscommon side who came to town with a very defensive approach. There’s little to be gained in analysing the game but Cork will have received further reminders of the dangers of switching off at the top level as Roscommon pillaged home four goals.In reviewing Cork’s season it really depends if you are a half glass full or half glass empty kind of person. Cork’s championship record reads six games played with two wins and four losses while their overall competitive record from thirteen games shows four wins, one draw and eight losses. Relegation to Division 3 for the first time in Cork’s history only adds evidence to suggestions that 2019 was another underwhelming year for the Cork senior footballers.That would, however, ignore the vast improvement in terms of performances that were produced on a consistent basis during the summer. Cork attacked and demolished two inferior sides while putting in creditable performances in losing to four Division 1 sides, and reaching the Super 8s. The team showed themselves to be adept at playing different styles of play against the very different approaches of opponents. New young players were exposed to championship and acquitted themselves well.There is no doubt that Ronan McCarthy and his management team will be assessing the futures of the current squad and liasing with Keith Ricken about which young players may be worth introducing for the winter pre-season. While some will expect many of the successful U20s to be parachuted into the senior team for 2020 the gap in physicality and athleticism between the grades means it will probably take a few years for the majority to be ready to make an impact. The hope is that this autumn they will be joining a professional setup with a positive culture and strong leaders which will ensure their potential can be realised.It is too early to claim that Cork football is back in a big way, but there is hope that the good days at senior level may not be as far away as we feared.