Flash forward to the third quarter of the All-Ireland senior hurling semi-final, when Cork were two points up.
Waterford would eventually overhaul them to make the final, but by any metric Cork’s progress in the 2017 season was phenomenal.
The lion’s share of the credit goes to Kieran Kingston, who stepped down as manager last Saturday.
Last May an untested Cork side were fifth in the provincial rankings, their supporters hopeful of a decent showing against All-Ireland champions Tipperary in the provincial opener.
By July they were Munster champions, having beaten Tipperary, Waterford and Clare en route. With encouraging signs at U17, minor and U21, the general expectation on Leeside is that the good times are around the corner.
Which is what makes the loss of Kingston so disastrous. When the Tracton man took over Cork were at a low ebb, and proceeded to lose to Wexford for the first time in 60 years. The harvest from years of failure at underage level didn’t look promising in terms of rebuilding prospects: Down for years was the common refrain.
Credit Kingston for boldness.
He consulted widely and brought Gary Keegan on board to help the team focus on improving their performance as a result. He instituted a development squad policy to accelerate the progress of promising young players and showed the courage of his convictions by picking some of those young players come the summer.
How did that work out?
Two of those young players were nominated for All-Stars last week, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Mark Coleman, with Coleman also making the shortlist for Young Hurler of the Year. Another of this season’s full debutants, Colm Spillane, picked up an All-Star nomination too.
Another crop of young players was earmarked recently for the same development squad process, and with candidates arriving with more successful underage careers, there was a genuine sense that another generation of quality players could be brought through in the next 18 months to two years.
Why then did Kingston step down?
The manager has referred in the past to the workload involved in senior inter-county management, and the difficulties of combining that workload with his own business, one which necessitates considerable travel.
Given that he also spent three years as a selector — and coach — with the previous manager, Jimmy Barry-Murphy, it’s understandable that a certain amount of fatigue would set in.
But having brought the county senior team from nowhere, practically, to within sight of an All-Ireland final, it appears negligent of Cork County Board officers not to have been more proactive in keeping Kingston at the helm.
A county board elsewhere, witnessing his achievements, would have moved heaven and earth to facilitate Kingston and retain his services.
Certainly, better lines of communication between the executive and management would have helped. At the scheduled county board meeting tomorrow night it would be interesting to hear, for instance, exactly how much contact there was between senior officers of the board and Kingston since the defeat to Waterford in August.
A wag told this writer that the Munster Council should have sent Kingston and his backroom team up to Dublin for the All-Ireland final on an all-expenses-paid trip, given the 27% rise in attendance at provincial games this year driven by Cork’s renaissance; did the executive of the Cork County Board ever consider such a gesture as a thank you?
On a more serious note, there have been tensions behind the scenes. Sources close to team management indicated recently that before one significant national league game this spring the Cork hurlers simply could not find a pitch to train on and had to cancel a session — a terrible indictment of a county with over 200 registered clubs.
This is where resources become an issue. The recent revelation of a Cork football support fund, rumoured for some months but hardening into fact on these pages last week, shows the importance of maintaining competitiveness — not financing managers, but facilitating management.
Extra finance brings in resources, and those resources free up time, which is what those at the top level of management truly struggle to find. With extra resources in place then time spent sourcing fields to train in or organising players’ gym memberships can be better spent coaching and managing.
In that regard Kingston’s Cork were positively spartan, bringing a backroom team of about a dozen to games: One, Declan O’Sullivan, doubled up as physio and team strength and conditioning coach. Compare this to the two and three dozen bodies found in the Bedouin caravans accompanying many intercounty teams.
Kingston’s departure leaves the door open for another man to come in, of course. The Cork County Board has expressed its interest in appointing coaches rather than managers, which puts selectors Pat Ryan and John Meyler in pole position to replace Kingston. That offers some prospect of continuity to Rebel supporters.
And the possibility of an external appointment?
“If it happened, it would be a first,” Lane said, “so I wouldn’t expect it.
“What you want is to have somebody capable in the role and there are a number of capable coaches and managers here in Cork.”