VIDEO: Killarney provides chance for new Cork leaders to emerge

When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, it marked the culmination of a $24 billion NASA space program. 

VIDEO: Killarney provides chance for new Cork leaders to emerge

Ten years later, NASA sheepishly admitted they could not return to the moon even if they wanted to — they couldn’t remember how. Too many of their key people had retired and the tacit knowledge built up had not been passed on in anticipation of that event.

For Cork football, winning the All-Ireland in 2010 should not have been as difficult as landing on the moon. But for players and supporters alike, it certainly felt like it! It was the culmination of a process Billy Morgan started back in 2004. Morgan always placed a huge emphasis on leaders. He identified them. He coaxed them. He rang them and encouraged them continually. He gave them belief. Along the way, there were some bitterly disappointing defeats but the leaders kept the show on the road.

One of the key moments that helped to shape the leaders on that emerging team was the 2006 Munster final in Killarney. Going into the game, Morgan made seven changes to the team that scraped past Limerick in the semi-final. Just like this year’s game, Cork were given no chance. Essentially, the players were given no choice. Come out fighting or get turned over like no Cork team ever had before.

Ironically, there was a freedom in that. With the level of expectation at zero, guys came out fighting not for themselves but for each other and for the team. New leaders simply had to emerge. Cork rallied and drew the game. They should have won but for the sending off of Anthony Lynch, whose red card was subsequently rescinded. That game and the replay (which Cork won) were key developmental days for the new leaders in that generation.

Even during the dark times of the strikes, one of the notable features on the players’ side was the fact that one young player was included in every delegation. Some may have seen this as endeavouring to infect their young minds. The intention was to ensure the values and intentions were upheld. The reasons why — the mistakes made by all sides needed to be lived and understood for those who would come after.

From 2008, Conor Counihan continued to cultivate and refine the leadership group. There were more dips but the trend line stayed on an upward curve. Maybe more All-Irelands could have been won. Maybe it was the resilience generated by that leadership group that won three league titles, three Munster Championships and an All-Ireland. Certainly, the record doesn’t look too bad compared to say Armagh, who are still lauded based primarily on their 2002 success. Either way, the end product for Cork in 2010 was a squad with an immense amount of experience and tacit knowledge of how to win.

To the bar stool experts, this leadership bit is too abstract. Simply give them a collection of talented individuals and they can pick the best team. The reality is different. Leadership counts.

At the end of 2013, Brian Cuthbert was left with a lot of quality but he had a very different leadership profile, an older one. Many of those leaders had come or were about to come to their natural end. By 2011, injury had finished Derek Kavanagh and Anthony Lynch. John Miskella and Nicholas Murphy, who were both 35 plus went shortly after. Beginning 2014, it was clear that some of the remaining key personnel would also not be returning. Whether through retirement or otherwise, Cuthbert began his term with the departures of Graham Canty (then aged 33), Pearse O’Neill (then 34), Paudie Kissane (then 33), Alan Quirke (then 38), Noel O’Leary (then 31).

The loss of that level of experience left a vacuum. Succession planning was key.

There were options. In moving down the age bracket, the Cork panel beginning last year did indeed have some ‘ready now’ candidates. Whether through luck or circumstance, this leadership pipeline was eroded. In the space of a month, Australia took Ciarán Sheehan (then 23). Alan O’Connor (then 28) and Ray Carey (then 27) became hugely important figures but they both slipped through before they should have, at a time when they were perhaps needed most.

Compounding the leadership vacuum was the subsequent persistent nature of the injuries to Shields (now aged 28) and Donncha O’Connor (now 34) which robbed Cuthbert of what would have been two consistent on-field generals. The departure of Aidan Walsh (now 25) to the hurlers has been another nail in that leadership coffin.

Cork’s league form over the last two years has belied the reality of this leadership vacuum. The expectation, the scrutiny and the consequence that will combine to generate real pressure in championship just isn’t there in the spring. It’s almost impossible to replicate, but it’s where the leaders must be assembled and empowered for July assaults.

So the tracing of the names and the ages makes it easier to see how this loss of leadership has affected Cork over the past season and a half. Much of this circumstance was outside of the management’s control but bearing in mind the nature of some defeats, the question is whether more faith could have been placed in Paul Kerrigan, Fintan Goold and Daniel Goulding (all now 28) up to this point. Similarly, Paddy Kelly (now 29) was injured through much of 2013 but was played at centre-back in 2014 before being dropped for last year’s Munster final. These four guys all played in the 2010 final. They were the next group to step up, the incumbent leaders. However, for one reason or another, they have not yet found their feet in the new regime.

In dropping one player over another, we often think in binary terms. Is one guy better than the other? It’s too basic. Arguments based purely on ability neglect the need for form and chemistry in the squad, the need for certain fellas to be given the scope to find their voice. Every successful squad will have a core group of five or six players who have been given their head by the manager, a level of reassurance or consultation that has allowed them to realise their true worth. They evolve to inspire those around them and are the ones who will ultimately be responsible for digging out the result at crunch times. If these guys aren’t identified or if too many of the existing ones start to feel vulnerable, they become unsure of their value and focus only on themselves. The dressing room will become a very quiet place. The pitch becomes a minefield of people minding their own corners.

There’s a fine line between drawing a reaction and undermining a player’s confidence. Only a winning manager gets to decide in hindsight which one it was. On that note, and if the Kerry team plays as selected, Eamonn Fitzmaurice will not be without his own worries in regards to his continuing high risk/return selection policy. He has slavishly adhered to his two stated values. Form in training will be rewarded and no player is relieved of the need to track his own man. Barry John Keane’s form in training combined with Colm Cooper’s defensive lapses against Tipperary have forced the manager to back up his words with actions. Not forgetting either that the Kerry defence, if left exposed, still looks vulnerable to that Cork full-forward line which is undoubtedly locked and loaded. Expect Donncha Walsh and Johnny Buckley to gun it backwards to protect their full-back line whenever Cork gain possession.

The Chinese have a saying that a crisis is simply an opportunity riding on a dangerous wind. Over the past year and a half, Cork have stumbled onto a leadership crisis. Against Kerry in Killarney, in all of their might as All-Ireland champions, this crisis presents an opportunity for new leadership to emerge.

Choice has again been removed from the equation. The potential for a big loss is there but equally, the lack of expectation and the disrespect Cork have been shown could release a performance. Certainly, the chemistry of the Cork team looks stronger. Eoin Cadogan and Goold have been brought back into a starting 15 which now has seven All-Ireland medals in its ranks. That’s seven more than Cork had going into that game in 2006.

There’s a few more on the bench. If this leadership balance has been recalibrated, a reaction will be coming. A performance might be enough for now. A victory would send Cork over the moon.

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