Masters’ decision to walk away a sign of the times

AND then there were two. Survivors from the Cork forward line that started the 2007 All-Ireland football final are becoming thin on the ground after James Masters’ withdrawal from the squad yesterday meant he became the latest attacker from that day no longer involved in Cork football plans going forward.

The only two from that sextet still standing are Pearse O’Neill and Donncha O’Connor, with Conor McCarthy, Kevin McMahon, Masters, Michael Cussen and Kevin O’Sullivan, introduced as a substitute up front in that game, all having departed the scene. The theme of change since then is also notable when other areas of the pitch are examined – of those who wore numbers one to nine in that game, only Michael Shields, Noel O’Leary, Ger Spillane and Nicholas Murphy have seen action during this year’s NFL campaign.

There are plenty of reasons for that high turnover, and the absence of some 2007 stars can be explained through injury, but Masters’ departure underlines the view that the current Cork set-up is the property of manager Conor Counihan. The team he inherited from Billy Morgan after that 2007 All-Ireland decider bears little resemblance to the current outfit. This is now Counihan’s team, completely shaped and drafted to his liking.

Of course the fact that Cork flourished in the U21 grade in 2006 and 2007 provided Counihan with the raw materials to undertake an overhaul. Over the past two championship seasons, he has given exposure to the inter-county senior stage to eight graduates from those teams in Ray Carey, Eoin Cadogan, Alan O’Connor, Paul Kerrigan, Paul O’Flynn, Patrick Kelly, Daniel Goulding and Colm O’Neill.

The process of infusing new blood has not halted this season with Ken O’Halloran and Eoin Cotter both handed starting berths last Saturday night against Galway, while from last season’s successful batch of U21’s, promotion papers have been handed to Aidan Walsh, Noel Galvin, Conor O’Driscoll and Jamie O’Sullivan.

Current U21’s Ciaran Sheehan and Barry O’Driscoll will have their progress monitored as well.

Masters’ exit represents a further step in severing the links with the past yet its a pity the Nemo man’s inter-county career has ground to a halt at the age of 27. For so long he carried the attacking torch for Cork, reaching his apogee in the 1-6 haul he weighed in with in the 2006 Munster final replay. Since then his career has stalled with injuries, most notably to his back, contributing greatly to his loss of form and younger, left-footed models in Goulding and O’Neill have stepped into the breach.

In the past 18 months Masters has seen limited game time as Counihan has pursued a policy of giving priority to youth, and that’s prompted Masters to make the decision to quit. He may return in some form or guise but right now Masters’ thinking is that he can be better served by training his focus on club matters with Nemo Rangers.

In a sense he’s a victim of what intercounty football has rapidly become, a game for young men as the shelf life of players becomes shorter. All the available evidence to this point suggests that Counihan is clearly thinking along those lines.

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