WHAT IF. Two of the simplest words in the English language, two of the most profound words and one with which John McIntyre and Denis Walsh will have spent the winter cudgelling themselves.
What if Ollie Canning hadn’t got injured and Galway, two points up three minutes from the end of normal time, had gone on to close out proceedings against Tipperary in the All-Ireland quarter-final last July? What if, moments after Tony Browne’s equalising goal, Michael Cussen had found the range with practically the last puck of the drawn Munster final?
Now granted, to decree that either Galway or Cork would have kicked on from there and lifted the MacCarthy Cup is overdoing it wildly. But it wouldn’t have taken much for McIntyre’s team to have reached the All-Ireland final had they beaten Tipp, while silverware in Munster would have guaranteed that, if nothing else, Cork didn’t finish their summer by copping a trimming from Kilkenny.
Given the resources or lack thereof at his disposal, a provincial title and a respectable All-Ireland semi-final performance would have suppressed the debate about Walsh’s aptness for the position. All of which leaves both managers sitting uncomfortably as the 2011 championship dawns.
True, there can’t be a manager in the land who’s not twitching right now, but McIntyre and Walsh have more grounds for unease than most. With the former in his third year at the helm and the latter in his second full season, they’re no longer learning on the job, putting in the groundwork gauging the merits and demerits of their charges or generally getting the mistakes out of their system. The time has come.
What exactly will constitute success for Cork over the coming months is a different kettle of crubeens. For Galway ditto. After losing two successive All-Ireland quarter-finals by a point, a place in the last four would, on the face of it, represent progress for the westerners, who haven’t made it that far since 2005. But only on the face of it.
At this stage of his tenure we’re entitled to expect that McIntyre knows his optimum XV, has decided where Joe Canning is best deployed (as close to the opposition posts as possible, you might answer, except that confining him to the edge of the square puts the onus on him to do all the scoring) and has unearthed one or two forwards who can do some of the fetching and carrying for the Portumna man.
That last part may be both the most crucial jigsaw piece of all and the ultimate test of McIntyre’s acumen. While nobody is saying that the fields around Athenry and such places are awash with 20-something reincarnations of Brendan Lynskey — for a decade or more they’re been ochón-ing that the situation is quite the reverse, indeed — it cannot be beyond the compass of an imaginative management team to identify a couple of raw but hardy youngsters and coach them to carry out a specific job. Nor is this necessarily a matter of finding someone who’ll break hurleys and run through brick walls; Brendan Bermingham did a very good job at centre-forward for Offaly in the 1980s by virtue of moving the ball quickly. He seldom stood out, he never won a man-of-the-match award but it was only when he was gone that his true value became apparent.
If it turns out that the MacCarthy Cup ends up somewhere other than west of the Shannon or on Leeside, the odds are that McIntyre will be judged more harshly than Walsh who does not have Canning or Damien Hayes to call on, after all. And where the county’s long-term vitality is concerned no fixture Walsh’s side fulfils will be more important, or is likely to end more disappointingly, than the Cork minors’ recent defeats by Limerick and Tipperary. The flowering of the Sean Óg-Donal Óg-Diarmuid O’Sullivan generation enabled Jimmy Barry Murphy to transform the misery of Páirc Uí Chaoimh against Limerick into Croke Park glory in the rain in the space of three years. Walsh has been the beneficiary of no such bottom-up assistance and ultimately remains the interim manager.
All of that said Cork don’t have to win the All-Ireland but they can’t crash and burn along the way. They don’t have to beat Tipperary at Semple Stadium next Sunday week but they have to run them close. Walsh needn’t finish the season with a trophy in the cupboard but he must finish it with a legacy, manager of a team visibly stronger than the one that started it, a team that will go on to greater things in the next few years.
John McIntyre. Denis Walsh. The time has come.
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