For all the fine deeds in his past and the fine words he has inspired players with, no one should rightfully expect new Cork football manager Keith Ricken to land to his first training session in a cape with a wand.
A pied piper he may be, but a magician he ain’t.
Cork football has been flatlining for the greater part of a decade and the infrequent successes at minor and Under 20 level in that period do little to alter than perception. Though the change in local championship format has stimulated the grassroots to some extent, there is still a way to go before the game on Leeside is on an upward trajectory. The old notion that ‘there must be 30 good footballers in a county that size’ approximates to a chocolate teapot in terms of its relevance and usefulness.
There will be some expectation attaching to Ricken and his management ticket for the reason the St Vincent’s man was championed as some class of ‘people’s candidate’ for the gig, but the bounce from that could be measured with an egg-timer. What lies ahead for the new Cork management team is a foreboding challenge, one that will ultimately be shaped by the events outside their control, those of Special Congress on Saturday week.
Cork’s CEO Kevin O’Donovan, a member of the GAA Calendar Review group, is an enthusiastic champion of a new football format that proposes a League-based championship next summer and Ricken should be energetically using his persuasive powers to ensure it claims the 60% required to start in 2022.
Cork is one of those football counties that needs to use a provincial championship next spring to brace itself for a summer of high intensity Division 2 action with a view to a place in the last eight of the blue riband. Right now, that represents success for Cork football next year. If the road ahead is daunting for Ricken in terms of Cork reaching and remaining at football’s top table, a top two (or three) finish in a Division 2 Championship is a clearly defined and potentially achievable goal for his first of two seasons in the hot seat.
The understanding is that four potential candidates met individually with Cork GAA’s top brass — Bobbie Dwyer, John Fintan Daly and Ned English being the other three. The cocktail of talents and attitudes of Ricken’s backroom team may well have been an influential factor in the final outcome.
A bit of northern teak? Try James Loughrey. Performance analysis background? Barry Corkery covers that off, having enjoyed success of late with Cork camogie, and with county champions in hurling, Blackrock and Blarney. Micheál Ó Cróinín is possessed of a good, measured footballing brain. Des Cullinane has been around the block too on the club and colleges scene.
For the fact that his brother has been dominating the headlines in recent times, Ray Keane of St Finbarr’s is an interesting addition, but his CV offers something more substantial than fraternal nous. He is a successful manager in his own right and led St Finbarr’s to a county senior title in 2018. More recently he was peripherally involved in Peter Keane’s Kerry backroom team and if he isn’t exactly the ‘outside’ influence that some in Cork were looking for on this occasion, he has been plugged into a top tier inter-county set up in recent times. It’s no load for Ricken to have.
No-one will ever know for sure whether the new management team beat off an offering from outside the county boundaries, but geographical limitations make that unlikely. If Cork wants to avoid extending themselves over the garden gate to Kerry in terms of a new manager, the options within a couple of hour’s drive are extremely limited — save perhaps Colm Collins in Clare.
The public advertisement that Cork GAA placed inviting applications should be interpreted as a willingness to look outside their borders for an improvement in their footballing status but evidently, they were as smitten as others have been when the Cork IT (now MTU) sports officer articulated his vision to the select committee.
Ricken’s Under 20’s deservedly defeated Kerry in the Munster Championship last summer at Páirc Uí Chaoimh and the manager was suitably measured in the aftermath. One hopes that’s a portent for the future. One of the most frustrating idiosyncrasies attaching itself to Cork football is the notion that beating Kerry is an end in itself. For too many years — and Billy Morgan did fine work in exorcising such limited ambition — a Cork win over Kerry was celebrated (in all grades) like a trophy in itself. After flooring Kerry, the Cork U20s walked into an Offaly side full of zest and intent in the All-Ireland semi-final and lost (admittedly without their star turn Conor Corbett). The Cork minors also beat Kerry in Munster but ran into a Tyrone combine harvester in the semi-final and lost 0-23 to 1-6. Could anyone realistically see Kerry capitulating to the same extent in an All-Ireland semi-final?
It is one of several psychological hang-ups Ricken will seek to confront and in terms of getting players' heads in the right space, his bona fides are well established. One underage player in Cork told lately how Ricken could convince him that he could plumb up and then deconstruct a washing machine while the kettle was boiling.
What Kevin O’Donovan and the Cork hierarchy are banking on here is the beginning of a decade-long process that culminates in stability as a Division One footballing force once more. History may show Ricken as the man to launch the vision. He has come up through the ranks, hence the succession planning is being adhered to. He knows the nascent talent in the county as well as anyone and he will look to put a structure in place that elevates the game to something approximating the excitement that currently exists around hurling in Cork.
It will never quite get to that point of course. Cork football and its constituency is a relationship that’s perennially lukewarm and fleeting but it’s a fair bet that the floating voter could get on board with a brand that’s always knocking around, like a Monaghan or Donegal, when it comes to the business end of the campaign. And once in a while, perhaps gets an invite to the Big Top.
There will be a degree of interest too in Ricken’s yet-to-be-announced coach, and the associated style implications contained therein. It is believed at least one of the prospective Cork candidates knocked on Donie Buckley’s door after his potential involvement in a Kerry management ticket was unsuccessful. But in that realm, rabbits in the hat are few and far between.
Ricken may have to look for a different kind of magic to make Cork football sparkle.