The Cork hurlers may have struggled to get goals last season, but their county board has, of late, developed a happy knack of hitting the target.
It wasn’t always thus. But the early encouragement of a five-year football plan and the rebirth ofhas been followed by a proper pathway for hurling into 2020 and beyond. The sense that GAA momentum in Cork was dreadfully retarded under previous administrations grows.
Not that there is anything bewilderingly brilliant about putting structure in place. It was serendipity that so many inter-county vacancies arose together at the end of this season, but maximising opportunity and inherent advantage is not something Cork GAA has always excelled at. Securing the services of Aidan O’Connell, as the GAA’s High Performance Manager in Cork, to buttress the management set-ups of Kieran Kingston, Pat Ryan, Donal Óg Cusack and Under 16 manager Noel Furlong, was a tidy piece of work in itself.
But one hurling legend, Jimmy Barry-Murphy, slipping through their grasp, and the appointment of another in his stead as Cork minor coach had the simultaneous qualities of stardust and nitroglycerine - and was always destined to garner the lion’s share of headlines.
The irony of a Cork GAA chairperson standing foresquare behind a man who terrorised the executive during two divisive player strikes was evidence, of itself, that the ‘wars’ of 2002 and 2008 are over and almost everyone has moved on. Dónal Óg Cusack will remain a marmite figure in Cork and headlines outside the realm of sport have helped nourish the enmity towards him in some quarters.
But at a press briefing in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and with Cusack sitting two places to her left, Tracey Kennedy, the Cork GAA chair, offered zero ambivalence in her (and the executive’s) support for the appointment of the Cloyne man as the county’s minor manager for 2020.
This is our man and we stand fully behind him, were the unspoken words, as she stated: “Every question that should have been asked of Dónal Óg in the process was asked by the appointments committee. Both they and the Cork County Board are absolutely satisfied with all responses provided by Dónal Óg.
As a County Board, we are satisfied with (his) explanations to us and we are the people who are appointing him.
It’s an unequivocal position by Cork GAA. Subject closed? Somebody in media land said: ‘It will always follow him around’. Must it really? Maybe in 2020, Cusack gets to explain hurling strategies and philosophies rather than character judgements.
*A footnote on Cusack from this morning’s briefing: He will continue his RTÉ ‘Sunday Game’ role as an analyst.
So what else did we learn from the new sweep of Cork hurling managers?
Returning senior Cork manager Kieran Kingston admitted there was “an itch to scratch” for him in his return to the hurling hot seat.
“When I did leave (in 2017), I had good reasons for it. I didn’t rule out coming back at some stage (but) I didn’t think it would be so soon. When John (Meyler) decided to step down, such an opportunity arose.
An approach came from the players, supported by people around this table. I still had that hunger, an itch I had to scratch again, and I grabbed it with both hands.
“We are starved of success. Since 1990, there’s been four All-Irelands, and next year will be 15 years since we last won the senior. I am realistic and results speak for themselves, and we are, based on those results, a mid-table team, so there’s a massive challenge. But there’s a huge passion to get us back to the holy grail. That passion never goes away.”
Later he clarified that ‘mid-table assessment’.
“I am basing ‘mid-table’ on recent results but in the last couple of years, Cork have been there or thereabouts. I speak of the potential of a squad I know very well, many of them in their peak years between 25-27. And the group behind them have built a huge experience, so you have a group coming to the boil in terms of top performance. We are focused on the development of the player.
We must create a culture within that environment that enables the players to flourish both as people and hurlers.
It was mentioned several times by the Cork managers – including Cusack when he spoke of accepting the offer to get involved.
“For me the most important thing was the (executive’s) joined-up thinking – the overall vision and plan in place. I’ve had a really good meeting already with (HP director) Aidan O’Connell. The most important appointment I felt after the senior manager was the High-Performance manager. It’s a fantastic opportunity for everyone to start moving in the one direction but with a clear strategy and vision we can all execute. We just want to give to Cork.
Any of the players of my own generation, they just want to give with a purpose – an intention we are all going somewhere.
“The growing of that culture, that culture of excellence in Cork, I see as key. Winning is important, but from a minor point of view, I would see the development of players as important as that winning. They are not mutually exclusive aspirations. You can develop a young player as an athlete and a competitor and getting them to understand how to express that desire through attitude, training and ultimately through playing.”
At a Board meeting Tuesday night, CEO Kevin O’Donovan went through the tick-tock of Jimmy Barry-Murphy discussions and the stillborn involvement of coaches Ben O’Connor and Jamie Wall (though they were unnamed).
Cusack said he got the call “over the weekend” but indicated that he would have been speaking to the Board executive anyway “about possibilities elsewhere – it looked likely I would be involved in some manner,” he said.
Getting only one season as minor manager has a Mick McCarthy-Stephen Kenny feel to it, but Cusack knows it’s a shop window opportunity – however short.
My motivation is I want to contribute to Cork, I want to make a difference. Everybody has different challenges and different constraints. A lot of the minors are only there for a year anyway so my focus is to give it everything I can for that year and see where we end up.
"Excited would be the best description of my feelings at getting back involved with Cork.”
New Under-20 manager Pat Ryan has already worked as a coach with Kieran Kingston and Cork and is confident they can work again together on a hand-and-glove basis.
“We have a different (in terms of development) type of player at U20 level but myself and Kieran had a fantastic working relationship in 2016 and 2017 and that won’t change. From Noel (Furlong) through to Donal Og to myself and Kieran, I think there will be a great synergy between the four of us with regard how we want Cork teams playing going forward – and the leadership qualities we want them to show on the field.
The reaction to the U20 football All-Ireland showed how much Cork is starved of success. Cork hurling is huge in people’s lives and until you are involved in it you don’t realise how much it means.
"I wouldn’t be here only for my club, Sarsfields, which has been a huge part of my life. The club is foremost in our minds on a day like today.”
Senior manager Kieran Kingston says he’s about 90% there is terms of completing his full backroom team – including another selector and a Strength and Conditioning coach. While new HP director O’Connell will ‘oversee, supervise and support what happens’ he won’t be the S&C coach to the seniors, Kingston explained.
“The most important component part of us all getting involved was the culture the Board has introduced,” he said. “From Noel Furlong, up to senior, irrespective who’s in charge of those teams, that there’s a succession plan in terms of players and culture, S&C, and that all that is seamless.”
O’Connell added: “My job to work with the hurling and football coaches at all levels is to build a support team around their management structure. From nutrition to S&C to video analysis to the medical side of things. The other side is to challenge them that everything is at the standard required to drive the county forward.
“There will be disagreements. They happen all the time at professional and elite level and that’s healthy. You work through them. From the environment I have come from that’s a very normal part of the process.”