This being Ronan McCarthy’s first championship game as Cork football manager, we can’t — and we won’t — accuse him of being inconsistent in his team selection. But when you look at the side he has picked for tonight’s Munster semi-final, and compare it back to last summer, the similarities are few.
Of course, this is nothing new where Cork football is concerned. Well, not since Conor Counihan stepped down as manager in August 2013 and out the door after him went the spine of a settled team which had delivered its fair share of silverware.
The team named by McCarthy for the trip to Thurles contains just six players from the starting XV that went down to Mayo, after extra-time, last July.
Such change in such a relatively short space of time is anything but the norm. By way of example: Tipperary, for their opening championship game last weekend, began with 10 players who started the qualifier defeat to Armagh last July.
Mickey Harte, for Tyrone’s Ulster quarter-final against Monaghan, selected ten of the starting team from their All-Ireland semi-final drubbing to Dublin. The figure was 11 for Mayo earlier in the month against Galway, while it was 10 for the Tribesmen.
Even more pronounced has been the change on the Cork bench. Six of the subs for this evening — Anthony Casey, Sam Ryan, Matthew Taylor, Cian Kiely, Stephen Sherlock and Ronan O’Toole — have never played championship. Of the 27 players listed this week, 11 weren’t on the bus to the Gaelic Grounds to face Mayo last July.
Compared with the side for Cork’s final Division 2 game against Roscommon in late March, there are seven alterations in personnel for today’s fixture.
This continues the trend where, post-Counihan, the same Cork team has never been put out two games in-a-row.
In the almost five-years since Counihan’s departure, three different managers have presided over 54 games (38 league, 16 championship) and still, a settled team has yet to re-emerge. Since the beginning of 2014 (McGrath Cup excluded), 76 players have been given game-time. From this group, 62 started at least one league or championship match. That the same 15 were never sent back out two games in succession illustrates the uncertainty which has dogged Cork football in recent years.
League, fair enough, one anticipates experimentation, but the flip-flopping and inconsistency of selection, which has become almost commonplace at championship time, is hardly encouraging.
Of course, the relatively short-lived reigns of both Brian Cuthbert (2014 and ‘15) and Peadar Healy (2016 and ‘17) fed into this. Still, that there’s been only one occasion in Cork’s last four championship campaigns where the personnel changes from one game to the next was limited to a single player says plenty — Fintan Goold replaced Donal Óg Hodnett ahead of the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Mayo.
Results-wise across the period we’re looking at, just for a bit of context, there were seven championship victories, eight championship defeats and one draw. In league, there’s been 19 wins, 15 defeats and four draws.
Cuthbert and his management — based on the fact that only 19 players were handed championships starts in the summer of 2015 (the figure was 23 in his first year) — were quite close to nailing down their strongest XV. The disastrous qualifier defeat to Kildare, though, signalled the end for them.
In came Peadar Healy, back out went the trawl. New management, new thinking. Leaving aside the McGrath Cup, Healy’s management looked at 19 players who had not featured under Cuthbert. Similarly, footballers who figured under the Bishopstown man, such as Cathal Vaughan and Alan Cronin, did not reappear during Healy’s tenure.
He afforded game-time to 46 players during his first season (2016) at the helm. Thirty players were used across their four-game championship run, 12 of whom didn’t spend a single minute on the pitch during that year’s league.
On the other side of the coin, there were 16 players used during the league who had no involvement come summertime. They included Andrew O’Sullivan (three league starts), Dan MacEoin (five times introduced as a sub), Daniel Hazel (two starts), Kieran Histon (one start) and Fintan Goold (twice used as a sub).
Championship selections that year varied pretty dramatically. There were four changes after the Munster semi-final defeat to Tipperary, two after the qualifier win over Limerick and four more ahead of the round 4 qualifier against Donegal. Only eight players who began the Tipperary fixture successfully retained their starting berth come Cork’s fourth and final championship outing.
By way of contrast, that figure was 12 when you examine Kerry’s opening and closing championship games.
2016, though, is by no means an outlier. During the 2015 league, Eoin Cadogan was tried at full-back, centre-back and midfield. Jamie O’Sullivan, too, was trialled at full-back and midfield.
Kevin O’Driscoll started six league games at half-forward only to find himself at midfield come championship. That was one of six changes made between the league final defeat to Dublin and their Munster semi-final against Clare.
Last year, there was simply no guessing what team would be put out for championship. After the escape from Fraher Field, four players were cut from the team for the visit of Tipperary. They shaded this Páirc Uí Rinn fixture with a last-minute goal, with management changing one-third of the starting XV for the Munster final in Killarney.
That didn’t go according to plan, so six changes were made for the Mayo qualifier. So only eight players who began their first championship match in Waterford started the one-point qualifier defeat at the Gaelic Grounds.
Healy and his management departed thereafter, Ronan McCarthy succeeding him. And similar to his predecessor, the current boss has been keen to introduce a fresh cohort of faces. Fourteen of the 33 players used during the Division 2 campaign were league debutants.
A constant criticism levelled at Cork football is they are not bringing through enough players who enjoyed provincial success at U21 level. The fault here, though, cannot be laid at the door of Cuthbert, Healy or McCarthy. From the team which contested the 2013 All-Ireland U21 final, 13 have seen game-time at senior level.
Turning to the 2016 Under 21s, which also came up short in the All-Ireland final, and you’ll find 15 players have already graduated to senior level. McCarthy is responsible for introducing eight of the latter bunch to league fare.
As the links to Counihan’s group dwindle, McCarthy wants the current crop to establish their own identity. And as much as consistency of performance is key to achieving this, so too is a consistency of selection.
“They were a great team, with some great players, had great leadership and came through a time when Cork weren’t successful. We need to let this group come through,” McCarthy said at the recent Munster championship launch.
“There are 30, 35 players there [at present] and by any definition, there will be leaders. We just need to let them emerge. It’s not something we sit around talking about but I really think we need to say thanks to that other team and move on.”
36 players used; 35 during league, 28 during championship. 23 players handed championship star ts. Eight players who featured in league didn’t see game-time come summer.
33 players used; 30 during league, 26 in championship. Seven players who featured in league didn’t see game-time come summer.
46 players used; 34 during league, 30 in championship. 25 players handed championship star ts across four games.The 12 players used in championship who didn’t figure in the league were: John O’Rourke, Conor Dorman, Sean White, Sean Powter, Michael Hurley, Noel Galvin, Alan O’Connor, Paddy Kelly, Stephen Cronin, Tom Clancy (Clon), Aidan Walsh and Alan Cadogan. The 16 players who featured in a league campaign which ended in relegation from Division 1 but didn’t see game-time come summer are: Ken O’Halloran, Kieran Histon, Jamie O’Sullivan, Andrew O’Sullivan, Bart Daly, Donal Óg Hodnett, Seamus Hickey, Dan MacEoin, Mark Collins (Skibbereen), Brendan O’Connell, Kevin Crowley, Fintan Goold, Cillian O’Hanlon, Michael Shields, Daniel Hazel and Micheál Aodh Mar tin.
35 players used; 32 during league, 29 in championship. Six players who featured in the league didn’t see game-time come summer.
33 players used. The 14 league debutants were: Mark White, Sam Ryan, Micheál McSweeney, Kevin Flahive (pictured), Daniel O’Callaghan, Stephen Sherlock, Matthew Taylor, Cian Dorgan, Sean Wilson, Cian Kiely, Dylan Quinn, Padraig Clancy, Anthony Casey, Ronan O’Toole.