The need for a culture change in Cork

Kevin Clancy, Cork’s sport psychologist during their 2010 All-Ireland success, outlines the need for change within Leeside GAA.
The need for a culture change in Cork

Chances are you won’t know me. In what feels like a previous life, I was part of Conor Counihan’s backroom team with the Cork footballers between 2009 and 2013. One of the faceless tracksuits who sat in the nice seats behind him on the big days in Croke Park, Killarney, Páirc Uí Chaoimh and the Gaelic Grounds. I was the team’s sport psychologist and was there in 2010 when Sam arrived back on the Lee for the first time in 20 years. A fantastic day for a group who had toiled for years to get to the top of the Hogan.

And yet as I look at things now, as a Cork supporter, it saddens me that September 19th 2010 is the last day a Cork men’s senior team, in either code, have taken home an All-Ireland title. Only once since then have we even been back to a September showpiece, when our hurlers went down to Clare in 2013. One U-17 hurling All-Ireland title, won in August, is all Cork GAA has to show, at all levels, since the footballers kicked off the decade on the summit of the mountain. For a county of our size, with our population base and passion for gaelic games, that is not acceptable.

These days I work in culture change in Sydney, Australia. Many miles from the banks of the Lee. I help teams and organisations to figure out who they are and what they’d like to be in a variety of areas.

Understanding a culture means understanding four key aspects of how the collective goes about their business; their systems, their symbols, their people and the stories that get repeated again and again. Looking at Cork GAA through this lens makes for interesting viewing.

No county encounters the challenges that Cork face when it comes to co-ordinating club fixtures. 260 clubs - the highest total in the country. And every year we tick the box in completing our schedule on time. An impressive feat but one that masks a range of issues. There is seemingly a constant battle between our representative county teams and clubs over fixtures and no clear calendar to mark the two apart. Many also feel that our senior championships are bloated and lack quality, a fact supported by the inconsistent performances of Cork clubs on the national stage since Nemo Rangers and Newtownshandrum were dominant in the earlier part of the century. There are plans to reform the club structures in the county in the weeks and months ahead but historically Cork GAA, like a lot of counties, prefer slight evolution rather than revolution in these areas. So expect the changes to be minimal in this regard.

Failing interest in GAA at secondary school level, particularly in Cork City, the lack of a Cork GAA supporters’ club, insufficient numbers of full-time coaches and a disjointed player development pathway are other systemic issues dogging the county at the moment. Whilst acknowledging that these are complex issues that will not be easily resolved, they could benefit from some creative thinking. Unfortunately, innovations in this regard don’t seem to be forthcoming, nor welcomed, by the current administration.

Páirc Uí Chaoimh has become the central symbol of Cork GAA and nothing represents the divisiveness in the county more than our new stadium. I’ll admit I’ve never been to the refurbished venue but all accounts I’ve had are that it is spectacular. But that doesn’t help alleviate the nagging sense that the €80m allocated to it could have been spent more wisely elsewhere. Imagine a centre where all Cork’s representative teams could train together. Where our minors, U-20s and senior teams, both men and women, could co-exist in the same space. Think about what a powerful symbol that would be. It’s what Derek Kavanagh had in mind when he wrote in this newspaper about a place that communicated a sense to our young players that “we are Cork”. Instead, we’ve got a stadium that will be shared by our senior men’s teams on alternate nights through the year for training and used a dozen times for matches.

The people element of culture change is always the most interesting. After all, cultures are all about people. The systems and symbols are only as effective as the people who apply them or interact with them. It’s the element that organisations should be focused on getting right first off. Get your people dynamics right and the rest will follow. Of course, the world doesn’t always work like that and most organisations tend to put the cart before the horse and focus on systems or symbols instead. It is far more straightforward to put in place some new rules, or instigate a re-structure, or build a new building to house everyone than it is to tackle grey areas like effective leadership, aligning competing factions and building trust.

In 2011, the Dublin County Board delivered their ‘Blue Wave’ strategy. An ambitious plan that outlined a vision for the future of Gaelic games in the capital. Everyone sniggered at the temerity of the ‘cocky’ Dubs at the time but nobody is laughing today.

What is the vision for the future of Cork GAA? Kevin O’Donovan, our ex-coaching officer, is the only one in a position of power to come out with a blueprint for the future of the game in Cork. His ‘discussion document’ from 2016 was well thought out and stirred the passion of what was possible for players, coaches and supporters alike across the county. However, little meaningful discussion has taken place to explore any of the many options he proposed. In Cork at the moment, we’ve got great GAA men, like Donal O’Grady, Billy Morgan, John Allen and Conor Counihan, who’ve got nothing to do with our county teams, not it seems because they’ve got no interest but because the powers-that-be have no interest in them. Think about how their knowledge, skill, and experience could be utilised to inspire and develop the next generation of coaches, players and administrators.

And, finally, consider the narrative that pervades around Cork GAA today. At one time it would’ve been about the exploits of Ring or Lynch or JBM in ‘73. Of mushrooms and doubles and sticking two fingers up at the rest of the country for ever doubting us. Today, it seems to be more about apathy and hangovers from strikes and red tape and accepting our place in mediocrity. Cork GAA deserves better. Cork GAA deserves a culture where there’s a plan to plant mushroom fields, rather than hoping they sprout up from time to time.

Frank Murphy will retire it now seems in October 2018. There’s no doubt that he’s done a lot of good for Cork GAA in his 45 years in office and there’s also no doubt that his presence has cast a long shadow across the culture of the association in the county over that period. His parting will leave a vacuum. It’s my sincere hope that whoever steps into that void will have the foresight, the courage and the ambition to give the GAA in Cork a vision and a plan that we can all believe in and support.

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