Barry-Murphy’s second coming recaptures hearts and minds

The same day the Cork hurlers played their last game under Denis Walsh, the Limerick footballers met Offaly in the curtain-raiser in the Gaelic Grounds.

Barry-Murphy’s second coming recaptures hearts and minds

Offaly would lose but at least they had won a game that summer, unlike the side they beat in the qualifiers the previous week: Monaghan.

You think of where Offaly are now, back in Division Four, and Limerick, well beaten a fortnight ago by the Division Four champions. And look where Monaghan are at. That’s just one measure of the remarkable job Malachy O’Rourke has done.

Cork hurling didn’t seem in a good state either that particular sunny Saturday in July in 2011. On the day the players’ touch and teamwork was abject, their spirit broken. By the game’s end, Galway were toying with them, ending not just Walsh’s reign but essentially the team that Jimmy Barry-Murphy first built back in the late 90s.

He’s since constructed a new one. Only three of the Cork side that started that day started last Sunday in Thurles: Stephen McDonnell, Shane O’Neill and Patrick Horgan. Even allowing the fact that another six players who got game time that day also featured against Clare last Sunday, it is still a remarkable transformation job Barry-Murphy has overseen, one worthy of comparison with O’Rourke’s miracle work in Monaghan.

Unlike the Ulster champions under O’Rourke, Cork have yet to win any silverware under Barry-Murphy in his latest stint in charge. But already he’s won so much else. This side, his side, have truly won the hearts and minds of a Cork public that not so long ago was divided.

In these pages last Saturday, Enda McEvoy shrewdly identified something else about this team: their “Corkness”. Corkness, he observed, may not have won Cork the All-Ireland last year but it was Corkness alone that kept them alive in both games last September.

Not anyone could have instilled that Corkness. Walsh, for instance, was only able to properly stir it up for one wonderful afternoon down by the Banks one Sunday in May in 2010 against Tipperary. But under Barry-Murphy it is something that has been sustained, is constant.

He’s decidedly old school, superstitious even. The team no longer have camps because of how poorly the team fared in the 2012 league final only days after a weekend stint in Fota. Even though he’s previously spoken about the merits of sport psychology, he doesn’t believe this Cork team needs a sport psychologist. He also chose an unconventional approach in terms of strength and conditioning, issuing David Matthews with the job of moulding greyhounds instead of elephants. He even believes the dual star is still a living and real animal in 2014.

Maybe all that will catch up on him. Maybe, as Dónal Óg Cusack put it in his championship preview for RTÉ, that “the model” JBM and Cork have can only bring you so far, and not up the steps of the Hogan Stand in this day and age. Maybe Ger Cunningham’s absence from the training ground will be more felt than his legacy, and maybe those jewels of dual players will get caught between two stools and be playing neither code in September.

But in the meantime, Barry-Murphy has brought things Cork needed and things only he could bring post-strike three.

He realises that the most important aspect of tactics is match-ups, something he’ll sometimes get wrong but very often get right. He took enough of a long-term view to mandate Matthews to refrain from “throwing the whole kitchen sink” at the players in the first season, “just some of the utensils”.

He realises that while a sport psychologist can maybe give a youngster some techniques to ease any over-anxiety, a smile and a wink and a clap of the shoulder from him can do that and more. He makes players believe in themselves because he believes in them.

Look at the boldness and fearlessness Alan Cadogan plays with, the way Stephen McDonnell has been backed, how Mark Ellis has been trusted to man that number six shirt. Eighteen months ago, I wrote querying where was all the on-field Cork charisma you’d associate with Cork teams: look now at the buzz and aura Anthony Nash and Patrick Horgan now radiate.

He’s also made this Cork side very likeable again outside the county bounds. Privately he might rage against some referee’s decisions but never publicly, either on the line or in the media. That restraint and dignity is becoming increasingly uncommon among inter-county managers but JBM’s respect for officialdom and his opponents is not lost on others.

Cork are overdue winning a Munster title. Since claiming the 2006 provincial crown, they’ve contested seven major finals, winning none. Four of them have been on JBM’s beat. You would think if they don’t win in Cork next month, under him, then when will they? But already he has regained so much. That sense of unity, that sense and thrill of the big crowd and big day in Thurles and Croker, that Corkness.

In JBM, all of Cork may not fully trust but they can only truly admire and revere.

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