Mike Quirke column: Cork provide raw materials but finished product doesn’t work

It has become increasingly difficult to figure out exactly what is going on in Cork GAA, writes Mike Quirke
Mike Quirke column: Cork provide raw materials but finished product doesn’t work

I don’t profess to know any of the inner workings of their board or management structure, but what I do know, like most of the outsiders looking in, is that their county is too big, and they have too many clubs to choose from for the senior footballers to be floundering their way through Division Two of the Allianz League.

They are a proper dual county no doubt, but a county where their flagship senior football team isn’t close to where it should be.

Tomorrow evening, Kerry travel to Páirc Uí Rinn to face the hosts in the Munster U21 football final. It’s been a competition that has been a highly successful one for the Rebels — one of the few bright spots for their entire structure in the past decade. Since 2006, Cork have won eight of the 11 available provincial titles on offer — Tipperary have claimed two while Kerry landed just one.

Cork even went on to advance to two All-Ireland U21 finals in that period in 2013 and 2016, losing both, but still producing quality players at that grade.

A dynasty like that should be bearing considerable fruit. I mean, the accepted view of that level of sustained success at U21 level would suggest that it should provide a plentiful conveyor belt of talented players who are used to winning to the next level.

Somebody somewhere in Cork has been doing something right to have created that kind of winning culture at U21 level.

But it’s from there up that the problems take hold.

It makes little or no sense that a Kerry team that were hammered and embarrassed by 22 points by a vastly superior Cork outfit in the provincial U21 decider back in 2011 produced 11 players who would go on and win a senior All-Ireland title with the Kingdom in 2014, with nine of them playing in either the semi-final or final that year.

By contrast, that same victorious Cork squad from 2011 have achieved little if anything of note at senior level in the meantime.

For all that U21 domination, Cork have produced only a single All-Ireland championship title, back in 2010, along with three Division One league crowns. They have subsequently lost their core group of experienced players and with them, Cork senior football has lost the consistency and identity that made them a perennial top-four team through the noughties.

Right now, despite their impressive away result over Derry up in Celtic Park on Sunday (only their second win of their league campaign), they have stuttered their way through Division Two and desperately needed that result to protect against a nervy last fixture to stave off a potential relegation. Cork had only three of that 2011 U21 group starting that game against Derry on Sunday, while Kerry had six from the side humiliated by the Rebels six years ago featuring against Cavan last weekend.

Their defeat to Clare by eight points a few weeks ago, highlighted how far Cork have fallen. Not because Clare should feel inferior or be incapable of beating anybody, but it hardly even raised eyebrows around the country. People just kind of just took the result in their stride, as if to say ‘no big deal, it’s just another day’.

If Clare had beaten Cork a decade ago, the football world would have grinded to a shuddering halt.

But in 2017, it seems almost acceptable on Leeside. There’s a detachment, a tangible sense of apathy has permeated Cork senior football and it has led to a slippage in their standards. The numbers just don’t compute. And to be honest, I’m not quite sure what they even mean.

If players are being produced who are winning and dominating at U21 level (at least at provincial level) why aren’t more of those players being cultivated and moulded into a successful senior side, capable of getting back to the level where Cork football should aspire to?

If the raw materials are being produced, but the finished product doesn’t work, well then there must be a significant problem at management level to allow that to continue. I know that sounds obvious, and I’m not for a moment suggesting the problem lies with Peadar Healy or his management team, nor Brian Cuthbert for that matter. It’s a wider, much bigger issue.

I watched the promotional video for Páirc Uí Chaoimh a few days ago and it really looks a world-class venue, capable of hosting any range of A-list events. But again, I wondered how is that stadium going to benefit their teams in the long term? Will the one extra available training pitch make much of a difference to their senior footballers?

Would that money invested in the new plush stadium have been at least partially better spent employing full-time personnel to devise and implement a strategy to retain and better develop their U21s into the senior ranks? In fairness, the Páirc was in dire need of a revamp, but facilities never come before the players.

In January last year, Dublin made the shrewd decision to hire their former All-Ireland winning captain Bryan Cullen as High-Performance Manager for Dublin GAA. He had spent the previous four years as strength and conditioning coach with the Leinster rugby set-up. His specific remit with Dublin GAA was to develop and maintain a long-term player pathway from juvenile to senior level for the county’s players, as well as coordinating the strength and conditioning for the minor, U21, and senior squads. His role focuses on making sure players are ready for the transition from one level up to the next.

I think most county boards are crying out for a suitable person in that position, but particularly Cork. Unlike the vision displayed by Dublin to create a position like that in the first place, and I’m not sure that strategic forward thinking exists at decision-making level in Cork at the moment.

That they can be perennial winners at provincial U21 level, but persistent underachievers years later at senior grade makes no sense.

And it should stick out like a sore thumb to everybody involved in Cork football.

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