DONAL OG CUSACK: Cork in need of a culture shock

Busy week at the front! Before the questions, some answers.

Tipperary's Brendan Maher and Seamus Harnedy of Cork during last Sunday's All Ireland  Semi-Final in Croke Park.Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Tipperary's Brendan Maher and Seamus Harnedy of Cork during last Sunday's All Ireland Semi-Final in Croke Park.Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Do I have an agenda? Yes. Cork hurling.

Is it personal? No. If Frank Murphy and Bob Ryan produce a successful system that serves Cork hurling, I will be the first to shake their hands.

Was The Sunday Game the right forum for the criticism of Cork’s structure? The Sunday Game is the GAA’s biggest media forum. I believe Cork’s long-term collapse to be a disaster in the context of our greatest game. The more widespread and honest the discussion, the better.

Mark Landers said: “He has made valid points but I think it was ill-timed. It wasn’t appropriate on the night Cork were beaten, playing their worst hurling in 20 or 30 years, certainly in all my time watching Cork. Maybe he could have said what he said about Cork in an RTÉ review of the season.”

Are we really going to have an honest discussion over Christmas in the context of an RTÉ annual review? If we lost last Sunday playing our worst hurling in 20 or 30 years, the time for the discussion is now. A discussion over the failure of our structures is in no way a criticism of Cork’s players or those people playing and coaching who fight every day of their lives to fight the mediocrity which the county board has settled for.

Bob Ryan said. “I made a promise that I would make no public comment in relation to anything said by Dónal Óg Cusack, and I will not do so until I’m finished in whatever role I have as an administrator with the county board. When that will be, I don’t know, but until then I won’t respond to a comment made by him.”

Well done, Bob. Most constructive.

Am I saying that Páirc Uí Chaoimh could have been left the way it is? Of course not. I’m saying that Munster GAA doesn’t need another 40,000- plus seater stadium. That a more modest development would have provided a perfect venue for county finals and games of a 25,000-30,000 capacity. The millions saved could have been put where needed. Into coaching.

Last. If I’m so concerned, why am I not training county teams? Few things. Played for Cork teams from age of 14 through till 2012, when I got a serious injury while captaining the Cork senior hurlers in Thurles. Spent a full year rehabbing and recovering on a promise I’d be given the chance to win my place back. Then 10 days after presenting myself fit and ready and being invited back to squad training, told I was dropped. Stuff happens. Live by the sword, die by the sword and all that. Since then have been catching up on career, chairing the GPA, sitting on a number of committees, doing what I can and playing with my club, Cloyne. Lastly, I was never asked (actually now that I think about it, from having being dropped after playing for Cork for 23 years, I have never received one phone call from the county board. And not holding my breath. I know most other players of my generation are the same).

Are those working in the system the only people allowed to have an opinion on the system? Are the only people invited to work within the system the people with a certain opinion of the system? If so, we are in even deeper trouble. To be a stakeholder in the future of Cork hurling, you just have to care about Cork hurling as a part of our culture and our lives.

This week many people have contacted me quietly to talk about the state that culture is in. Most of the details below have come from those exchanges.

Where do we stand? Taiichi Ohno (who didn’t contact me) knew a thing or two about production lines.

He invented Toyota’s manufacturing process. I was on training this week and his philosophies were the basis of the teaching. There was a quote from him on the wall. It should be read by everybody in Cork hurling who still believes in the mushrooms theory of growing players. Ohno said: “No one has more trouble than the person who claims to have no trouble.”

We have trouble. We have a county board which claims we have no trouble. In itself, that is troubling.

The county board will tell you that we won a Munster senior title this summer and we were within the puc of a ball of winning an All-Ireland last year. But last year our senior hurlers won four of our 12 competitive matches, got relegated, and several times in the summer we were within a puck or a red card of not being in that All-Ireland final at all. Our senior team have been bravely punching above their weight for some time now.

If we look at the big picture there is very little coming through in terms of reenforcement and every county in Munster looks set to up their game over the next few years.

Look at the table above.

Cork won the first Munster minor championship in 1928. In the 80 years until 2008, they appeared in 44 finals and won 32 of them. Haven’t been in a final since 2008. A record.

For the last six seasons, this year’s Munster senior title and Newtownshandrum’s last Munster club title are all that are saving us from a bare cupboard. Not a single appearance in a Munster minor final, let alone a title. No Harty Cups. No U21 titles. Do we have to be winning at underage to have senior success? The Mushroom Men would say no. Our history shows a different correlation. What is important is that young hurlers get exposed to top level competition. In the last six seasons the Cork minor hurlers have played 15 championship games in all. Three of those were easy wins against Kerry. Of the other 12 games we won just two.

That means six years where no minor hurler has graduated having played in a Munster final or having played in Croke Park. In that period Waterford minor teams have played 26 championship games and won an All-Ireland title. Tipp have played 21 games, Clare have played 25, Limerick with this year’s All-Ireland final to come have played 18.

That lack of exposure leads to a lack of confidence which percolates upwards and outwards. We struggle at Harty Cup level now. We struggle at U21 level. We have played nine U21 championship games in the last six seasons, winning four and never getting outside Munster.

Somewhere, something went wrong. From 1994 to 2008, there were 15 Harty Cups played; Cork won eight. In the same period, we won eight Munster minor titles, appeared in six minor All-Irelands and won three of them. We won the U21 All-Ireland in 1997 and 1998 and lost four finals in that 15-year period. All that got us to five All-Ireland senior finals of which we won three.

The world around us has changed. We have just stood still.

Take the schools. Traditionally our schools have been our production line and our pride. In 1995 I played on the Cork minor team which won the All-Ireland. We beat Kilkenny by 11 points in the final. 12 of us (from Midleton and the Mon) had extensive Harty Cup experience from that and previous years. Underage club hurling doesn’t give you anything approaching the same intensity.

In terms of leadership, belief and experience, I believe Harty Cup was a huge part of the Cork hurling story.

In 2011, CBS Charleville had the bad luck to lose a Harty Cup final by 25 points. They are the only Cork school to have contested a Harty final in the last six years. In the years since the competition started in 1918, Cork schools had won the Harty Cup 40 times. Now nothing.

Take the last four minor hurling All-Ireland titles Cork have won. 1985/95/98 and 2001 (yes, we have won four minor titles since 1979). In three of these years Cork teams won the Harty Cup and the other year, 1998, Cork minors drew upon students who had been successful with St Colman’s in 1997 when they won both the Harty Cup and the Dr Croke Cup.

There has always been a strong link between the winning of the Harty Cup (Munster) or the Corn Uí Dhuill (Leinster) or the Dr Croke Cup (All-Ireland) with good minorperformance. Galway who have most of the summer to get ready for the All-Ireland minor series, are an exception in that trend. The last three schools to lift the Dr Croke Cup have all contributed to county teams who went on to lift the All-Ireland that year. This year’s Dr Croke Cup final was an all-Kilkenny game. Ardscoil Rís in Limerick won the Harty Cup. Kilkenny and Limerick contest the minor final on September 7.

In Cork, we have lost that link. It’s not until recent years that people have registered the drop in standards of hurling in the city. Farranferris closed to boarders at the turn of the millennium and closed entirely in 2006. The school hadn’t competed at top level since the 80s but it was one more hurling outlet to vanish.

North Mon went into severe decline after winning the Harty Cup and Dr Croke Cup in 1994 but that absence was disguised for a while by the rise of St Colman’s in Fermoy, who won five Hartys between 1996 and 2003, and appeared in three back to back Dr Croke finals, winning the first two. Since then, the college has closed its boarding section which has taken away a lot of its competitiveness at hurling.

The Mon still compete but with the Irish (Gaelcholáiste Mhuire) and English speaking sectors of the school fielding separate teams, the place isn’t an academy of hurling any longer.

If I look at the landscape and how it has changed even since I played Harty Cup in the early to mid 1990s the population shifted and the county board did nothing to prepare for that and nothing to stop the sharp decline in city schools hurling.

Schools in Rochestown, Youghal, Bandon, Charleville and my ownMidleton CBS look like being the future. Midleton’s Dean Ryan Cup win promises a revival. The job is to make sure there is no valley after that.

In the city, is it time to bite the bullet and enter an amalgamated team (leaving Rochestown out to develop on their own) with one full-time games development officer being helped by teacher coaches. There is no shame in amalgamating. Just reality. Dublin hurling did it and now Coláiste Eoin compete in Leinster as a single college while Dublin North and Dublin South both field teams meaning a good number of young Dubs sample good colleges hurling every winter. In Waterford, amalgamation was hugely successful for Dungarvan and the game grew in strength to the extent that Dungarvan CBS now compete as an individual school again after the amalgamated team won back to back Hartys. In Limerick, West Limerick Colleges entered an amalgamated team in this year’s Harty Cup. With Ardscoil, Doon CBS, Castletroy College all competing well as individual schools, there is a lot of Limerick lads getting exposure to good hurling.

In Cork, sadly we have the history of recent failure and decline that makes us entitled to look at amalgamation. Would Bandon be stronger if they threw in their lot with other colleges in the area?

And finally, when we look at how the geography of colleges hurling has changed in the county, does a single pitch Centre of Excellence in a not very accessible part of the city make any sense? Cork is a massive county. The biggest in Ireland. 2,900 square miles (Dublin is 356 square miles). Two pitches down by the Lee won’t save our hurling. We need a Culture of Excellence, not a Centre of Excellence.

In a county the size of Cork is a CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE of any size feasible?

Surely Mallow, Midleton, the city and some place in the west should be hubs of excellence etc with a games promotion officer in charge, with all-weather facilities available? Then develop contacts with either UCC or Cork IT or preferably both, to have an elite centre in the city, with sports science and injury facilities and indoor facilities?

We are a massive county in terms of our playing population. Bigger than any other county. Yet our GDOs are responsible for 25 clubs each. Whereas in Dublin where over 50 GDOs operate, they do so by each working for a single club, all a small collection of clubs.

In Waterford the equivalent officers work for on average nine clubs, in Limerick the number is eight with two officers dedicated to the city.

We hear excuses like Government grants and Dublin clubs pay half the wages of their games development people. Does that make Cork paralysed? Or does it make it imperative we put less money into bricks and mortar and more into developing our young players?

All that has saved us from complete obscurity is some good coaches fighting hard against the darkness, the sheer numbers of players we have and the pride and passion of our players. If we can’t give our senior team the exposure and the belief on the way up, we have no right to turn on them when they fail.

Unless we change, disillusion will set in.

I don’t have all the answers. Just a lot of questions. Now is the time for clubs and members to have the debate, not in five years time when the costs of Páirc Uí Chaoimh have skyrocketed (as they always do with new stadiums) and when the cost of neglect has killed off our hurling..



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