Bobbie O’Dwyer’s recollection is forensic, and not because his son was Cork corner-back in Tralee that night.
For those invested in Cork football, the narrow, season-ending minor football championship defeats to all-conquering Kerry in the past five years have burrowed their way into every crevice. In 2015 and again last year, Cork were a point short of Kerry in do-or-die jousts that the inequitable, and now dustbinned, provincial system served up. On both occasions, a first defeat ended their season, and most of their minor careers. By reaching tomorrow night’s provincial decider for the first time in three years, at least the Cork class of 2019 get the chance to find their feet over the course of the summer.
“In the bigger picture, what’s most important about reaching this final,” says second-season Cork minor manager O’Dwyer, “is that they will be playing football throughout the summer. There is so much to be learned at this time of the season. We went down to Tralee last year with a group of young lads and Kerry beat us by a point, 1-11 to 1-10. One is always disappointed to lose a game but the bigger disappointment was not being able to develop those players.”
It’s not the first time this has happened, and when diagnosticians set about their probe into the deterioration of Cork football, it should not be ignored. “My son was on that (2015) side beaten by Kerry in extra-time in Tralee and that was a very good team too. A couple of those lads have gone on to play senior hurling and football for Cork,” O’Dwyer says.
His memory hasn’t failed him. Mark White, Sean Powter, Dan O Duinnín, Shane Kingston, Gary Murphy, Stephen Sherlock, Nathan Walsh, and Eoghan McSweeney were among those denied by a last-gasp Kerry point. Their conquerors completed back-to-back All-Irelands that September. Cork, meanwhile, is still waiting for a Munster minor title nine years on.
O’Dwyer has lived the Kerry way, coaching with Legion in Killarney, and observed how they clear the obstructions holding back nascent talent. He knows, too, that the development squad system in Cork is playing catch-up but he believes Cork has learned from its neighbours and is ironing out the creases, one by one.
“The involvement of the schools and the standard of coaching down in Kerry, it’s something every county should aspire to. The football coaching education... there’s nothing beats playing football, learning how to kick with both feet, coaching good habits. A lot of work down there is in terms of coaching the educators. We are working on getting that right in Cork.
Have we got it right? We have a bit of work to do yet. The intention is there, there are a lot of very genuine people in Cork football that want to get it right.
And part of that is changing the perception of the development programme in Cork.
“I met a man the day after we lost in Tralee by a point last year. He said ‘I blame the development squads’. I don’t agree with that. There’s a lot of good work being done, but our work on the PR side, the communication, and the relationship between the clubs and the development squad system needs to improve.”
What O’Dwyer is too nice to say is that while Kerry appears to set differences aside for the greater good, turf wars have been a persistent problem in Cork. Clubs believe that development squads hog their players, whereas the inter-county coaching network insists it isn’t getting enough time with the young talents to hone their skills.
The truth is about halfway between.
“What is the right age to bring them in (to these squads)? I don’t have the answer but the reality of the development squads is you have the lads for about two days a month. Everyone says they are training five or six days a week — they do not. It’s very difficult to develop a player when you have him for an hour and a half once or twice a month.
“Therein lies the challenge,” says O’Dwyer. “If you can marry the skillset in development squads with benefits of playing club matches, the rising tide lifts all boats.” Clearly issues remain. Ten days out from tomorrow’s Munster final, up to eight of the Cork minor squad were playing Non-Exam League games with their clubs. Hardly ideal.
“I spoke to someone recently involved in the Dublin development squad programme. He measured success by whether 80% of the players were still playing club football in 10 years’ time. The reality of any minor team is that two or three that will come through to senior level.
“There is no doubt the talent is there in Cork,” O’Dwyer says. “How you develop it?
It’s a little bit more complex than saying we have 250 clubs, surely there’s one player out of every club we can develop? We have 26 clubs and 24 schools in our panel of 30-plus players. Clubs want them on non-training nights for Cork to play games. It’s a major challenge, to get that relationship right between club and county.
The regime change at the head of Cork GAA will help, O’Dwyer believes. New CEO Kevin O’Donovan has progressive ideas, and isn’t afraid to look elsewhere for best practice solutions.
None of which will put the ball between the uprights tomorrow at Pairc Ui Chaoimh (4.30pm throw in). Kerry are aiming for a seventh straight Munster title on the back of five successive All-Irelands. They’ve seen the cut of Cork’s jib in May, blowing them away 3-19 to 1-9 once roused by the concession of a Cork equalising goal just after half-time.
Cork will be better tomorrow though. And better again with football guaranteed into the depth of the summer.