KIERAN SHANNON: Cork hurlers high performance driven by Gary Keegan effect

They’re not half-pregnant now. For years there, that’s essentially how the Cork senior hurlers were going about the place. 

“We have to believe that the athletes we have can realise a potential greater than they currently are. We can’t be half pregnant on this. We’re either high performing or we’re not. You’re not going to compete at the top end unless you’re fully in.” — Gary Keegan to the Irish Examiner, December 2014

They may have been under the illusion they were working both hard and smart but in hindsight as Conor Lehane admitted the other day they were only “farting around” in terms of high performance.

Now that’s changed.

It’s evident from the way they’re talking, thinking and playing.

Gary Keegan isn’t a visible figure in this Cork setup, for numerous reasons. The former performance director of Irish boxing and Irish Institute of Sport likes to keep a low profile when acting as an advisor to teams. 

He would have been a sounding board, for instance, to Jim Gavin in recent years and occasionally addressed Gavin’s team to no-one else’s knowledge while we’d learn only from Anthony Daly’s autobiography that he provided similar counsel to the Dublin hurlers for a period of time.

Still, despite his preference for discretion, the Cork hurling management let word be known last autumn that Keegan would be working with them in 2017; by bringing such a respected high-performer on board, Kieran Kingston’s management was signalling an impressive ambition and humility as well as affording themselves a bit more time and credibility to turn this Cork project around. 

And though you haven’t since seen Keegan’s face or heard his voice about the place, those who know what he’s about can clearly hear him whenever the Cork players and management speak.

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Kingston constantly talks about performance, not results, because like Keegan he now understands it’s a more effective way of freeing players up and thus be more likely to deliver results.

Diarmuid O’Sullivan speaks about players being free to make mistakes, as long as they’re trying to do the right thing, because like Keegan he also now knows such a mindset actually reduces the chances of players making mistakes.

Anthony Nash spoke after last Sunday’s win about Cork’s belief being rooted in preparation and “going through process”, things “we believe in this year”.

Other teammates mentioned about when John McGrath fired past Nash last Sunday, the mindset of the group was to view it as a challenge rather than a calamity and how they were mad to see how they’d respond.

Such outlooks may seem like performance psychology and preparation 101 and 102 – process-task orientation over outcome, perceive challenge instead of threat – but what you have to remember is that for the previous five years or more little value or emphasis was placed on psychological preparation; anything that came along in that way was of the homespun variety.

Keegan would have noted other low-hanging fruit when it came to high performance. And to his credit, and especially Kingston, such fruit has been firmly grasped.

Physically as well as mentally, Cork had serious ground to make up on their competitors, most graphically illustrated in how they were pushed aside in the All Ireland series by Tipperary in 2014 and Galway in 2015.

After last Sunday’s win Diarmuid O’Sullivan spoke about how Cork had “bulked up” over the winter, complementing speed with strength. 

Anthony Nash has gone so far as to describe the team’s S&C coach, Declan O’Sullivan, as “the best” in the country.

That, of course, is not important. What’s important is that Nash believes it. 

O’Sullivan had a brilliant reputation as a physio to the team before qualifying with a MSC in strength and conditioning, but last season would have been his first over a full senior inter-county squad in his new capacity. 

That season’s experience, along with his willingness to upskill – something Keegan would encourage and demand of all support personnel – are clearly kicking in for the likes of Nash now.

Of course Cork used to be the market leaders when it came to such matters back in the noughties when they contested four consecutive All-Ireland finals. 

That’s essentially what the strikes were about for that generation of Cork player; the right to a high-performance setup, but with that term and mindset hardly in circulation back then, the whole debacle was cloaked in more loaded terms such as a fight between professionalism and amateurism. 

In the fallout Cork hurling became a bit like NASA a decade after the moon landing; there was such a loss and turnover in personnel, they had forgotten how they had got there in the first place. 

With so many prophets in their own land and a few even exiled to other territories, hiring an outsider like Keegan was an acknowledgement of that.

It’s still very early days in this Cork project. Cork have had plenty of false dawns over the last decade or so. Those comebacks against Galway and Clare in Thurles in 2008. 

Ambushing Tipp in the Páirc in 2010. Reaching the league final in 2012 in Jimmy’s first year, something that evoked a stream of references to parties in 1999. Reaching the 2013 All-Ireland final. Winning the 2014 Munster final. 

Beating and out-fighting Clare under the lights in Thurles only as recently as 2015. The Cork public has a tendency to get awful giddy one moment and then awfully apocalyptic the next.

This time though there are firm grounds for cautious, measured optimism.

For one thing, this Cork team seem well aware and well steeled when it comes to the excitable nature of the Cork public – Keep The Outside Out is another mantra of theirs that seems just like the sort Keegan would if not coin at least encourage.

Anthony Nash spoke last Sunday evening about how the team is still a long way from being among the top teams in the country. But, he added, they’re getting there. 

Enda McEvoy of this parish called right it on Monday. It’s too premature to say Cork are serious All Ireland contenders for 2017. What they are though are serious All Ireland semi-final contenders for 2017. 

Contrary to popular perception, Cork didn’t come out of nowhere in 1999. Big strides, like winning the league and winning a game again in Munster, were made in 1998. 

Donegal 2012 doesn’t happen without Donegal 2011. Tipp 2010 doesn’t happen without 2009 or 2008. This could be the year Cork make a move towards something bigger next year or the next.

For generations the lifeblood of Cork senior teams were highly successful underage teams and players. That stream dried up some time ago but could have been offset by proper preparation at senior level. Again, that wasn’t forthcoming. 

Good players were made to look inadequate players because they weren’t confident players. There wasn’t enough for them to be confident about. Cork were trading off Cork being Cork and that was about it.

Someone like Keegan will tell you, confidence is based on two things – how you prepare and how you think. Cork are now preparing well. Ally that to good all natural Corkness and that’s a powerful combination. 

A false, undeserved confidence won’t take you far. But a Cork team with genuine, earned confidence? Look out as they look to land back on that moon.


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