This week, he went to the gym on Tuesday night. He ran on the treadmill for 45 minutes and did some CrossFit work. 2018 marks the year of a comeback for his club Saval. For the last two years he sat it out, managing Newry Shamrocks instead.
Football had eaten him up. He found himself being a pain in the arse for his clubmates as frustrations mounted up, so he stepped aside and waited for a serenity to come again. He’s not quite there yet.
The root cause is a county career that did not deliver from that final. If he could trace it all back, the main cause was James McCartan’s backroom shuffle at the end of an underwhelming 2011 season, when he discarded team trainer Paddy Tally and selector Brian McIver.
Perhaps some medals might have arrived. Either way he finds it incredible that both Cork and Down will be scrapping it out in Division Two in Newry tomorrow, with only one provincial title between themselves since that final.
“I thought that was a fundamental mistake. Those changes never needed to be made. Why change Paddy Tally and Brian McIver, who were winners, who got on very well with the players?” he asks now.
“James (McCartan) was the boss, but there were experienced players allowed to drift out - John Clarke, Ronan Murtagh, Ronan Sexton, players that pushed stuff in training and could have played more football. The likes of myself that got injured became peripheralised. I felt very bitter towards that. We had spent so many years as players, Coulter, myself, Ambrose Rogers, all had been there since Paddy O’Rourke and before that Pete McGrath.”
When you consider Cork’s subsequent decline, a remarkably similar process took place.
Manager Conor Counihan stayed until the end of 2013. They had possibly their best team in 2012 but were swallowed up in the second half of the semi-final by Donegal’s defensive strategy. At the urging of his players, Counihan remained in 2013 and brought in Brian Cuthbert who would succeed him the next year, and present incumbent Ronan McCarthy as selectors.
“Cuthbert was starting fresh, he got in and saw a staleness that had set in around 2013. He probably saw that in 2013 so he wanted to start from afresh,” explains Derek Kavanagh, a key figure in the leadership group that evolved under Counihan.
“Looking at it in the cold light of day at the start of 2018 it wasn’t the wisest thing to do. I am sure he might have kept on one or two guys to bolster the standards at training and things like that. You need those 30-year-olds, 32-, 33-year-olds to be policing the quality of training and to be doing that ‘behind the scenes’ work that every team needs that is invisible, I suppose, until they are gone.”
That Cork generation were unique. The group was everything and their unity was hard won through battles with the county board.
They had a perception problem however, or at least the lack of a real ‘Rock Star’ figure. Unlike every other group that won an All-Ireland since the turn of the millennium, there hasn’t been a ‘How We Won It’ book from players or management.
Down had a cast-iron Rock Star in Marty Clarke, returned from Australian Rules football, but then it became a problem.
“When Marty came in 2010, he offered us something that we hadn’t got. He was probably the last wee bolt we needed to make the machine work,” says Hughes.
“So Marty got a lot of publicity in 2010. In 2011, his head was turned big time and I think he thought he had unfinished business in Australia and I think the rumours of him going back to Australia, Collingwood coming back in and him being unsettled at home, it definitely had an effect. Obviously you hear this after the event, many years down the line. There were efforts being made on the management’s part to keep Marty happy and keep him busy because he was unsettled at the time.”
For Kavanagh, the issues that Cork faced were compounded by player defections over and back to the county hurlers, but also a lack of ready-made inter-county men coming onstream.
“We didn’t have the likes of a Daniel Goulding or Ciarán Sheehan coming through fresh in ‘13 and ‘14 and we don’t have that standard of player coming through. We were spoiled,” he states. “Like, these guys were nice young fellas. Their training ethic was impeccable and their skill and physique, they were just primed for senior football. We just don’t have those guys coming through.”
He continues, “If you look at the history of Cork football, we have always had great potential. We have always had to get on with it, despite not having the support of the general public, that’s just the way Cork football is.
“You have to factor it in, harness it and not let it affect you in a negative way which ultimately Billy Morgan was able to galvanise his team in the ‘80s and ultimately was able to galvanise us in ‘05, ‘06 and ‘07. Alright, we had heavy defeats but we kind of achieved a lot in a short space of time in consistently getting to All-Ireland semi-finals, considering what Billy Morgan took over in ‘04.”
He adds, “It just comes down to a simple point; the players are not there. People tell us the players have to be there, the size of Cork. They are not there. Not to that elite county standard.”
Our old friends the county board come into it too - no assessment of Cork Gaelic Games is complete without one - and the progress of diplomatic agitator Kevin O’Donovan to the role of vice-Chairman is welcomed by Kavanagh.
“Don’t start me on GAA administration. They are making an absolute f**king balls of it, from Croke Park down to the county boards. I don’t know why we have got so many thousands of GAA administrators,” he laughs, adding, “Kevin O’Donovan is an absolute breath of fresh air. He is so professional and rounded in his ethics.”
Hughes has fought his battles with the Down board, but a peace has broken out. He even defends them when they were caught off guard when they delivered a vote of no confidence in 2015 manager Jim McCorry, were gazumped by the club delegates who voted in favour of him, only for McCorry to later leave.
“Do I have a lot of sympathy for Jim McCorry? Not really. As a player who would have been close to a number of players on that panel still, Jim McCorry never had the changing room. And that’s why he wasn’t manager for longer than a season. The county board, to be fair, knew that.”
Present incumbent Eamonn Burns doesn’t impress him though from his season as a selector in McCartan’s final year.
“He taught me in the Abbey Grammar. He taught me for three years in school. He had taught with my father who was vice-principal so they were colleagues. I’d known Eamonn Burns for a long, long time. And when Eamonn Burns came in as selector, I never had one conversation with him. Never once. Not one word.”
Mis-management at all levels has cost the two counties. They have repented at leisure.
Allianz FL Division 2: Down v Cork
Páirc Esler 1.30pm
F. Kelly, Longford