Walking into the Cork dressing room in Killarney after the Munster final, I recalled the time we beat Kerry in the minor down there in 2010, writes Brian Hurley.
We probably had no right to win it that year but we had this tenacity and didn’t fear any occasion.
The boost of winning down there gave us the confidence to grind out two unbelievable performances against Armagh and Galway after that on a run to the All-Ireland final, where we lost out narrowly to a brilliant Tyrone team.
Looking around me, three weeks ago, I noticed only three others from that team. And only one who played any part in the senior final.
In 2011, I was part of the Cork U21 squad that hammed Kerry by 22 points. Just three of that team played a part three weeks ago. Kerry had eight.
Those Cork players should be in their prime now, mature players benefitting from the injection of youth and confidence that the Ian Maguires and Sean Powters bring. It doesn’t add up.
Where are they gone? What are the reasons?
Of course the step up from U21 to senior inter-county is huge. To really make it, you have to live and breathe football. You have to be totally obsessed with your own physical and technical development. Football must come first, everything else comes second. You need to obsessed about your diet, life off the pitch and most importantly how you approach training.
That culture of obsession just isn’t there for the majority of my generation in Cork. Not enough of them made up their minds that they wanted to be inter-county Gaelic footballers more than anything else in the world. Who could blame them? The pressure around inter-county football is massive and if you can’t hack it or don’t fancy it enough, you will fall between the cracks.
I even see this in my club - some young lads with serious talent losing interest, or worse getting carried away. They just don’t get it or what it takes. Whether it be travelling, college, rugby, soccer, city living or even women; invariably something else becomes more important.
There is a world of difference between that and the Richie Hogans, the Darran O’Sullivans, the Kieran Donaghys, the Benny Coulters or any of the other guys who have openly explained how they have given up their jobs to concentrate on being full-time inter-county GAA players. I’m not saying that route is entirely balanced, but it’s the standard, the madness that you need.
While I haven’t gone that far, I’d like to think I am similarly obsessed.
People have said to me; don’t rush back now to be playing that shite that we have had to watch against Tipp and Kerry. These people are clueless, they just don’t get it either. They can’t. For me, when I can’t play it’s like a divorce or a break-up. You love it yet you just can’t sort things out or go back to how things were.
I feel this jealous sensation watching and want to get back to that level as soon as I can. People might say you’re mad because of the current form, but if I was being honest that makes me even more motivated. Cork may not be where they were eight or nine years ago but I obsess about getting back trying to help this team achieve our goals.
Ten U21 Munster titles in 12 years. Great. But all the underage talent in the world is a waste of time unless you have the culture to capture it. Maybe the structures weren’t there to support a culture – honestly I’m not qualified enough to call that one. But one thing I do know, when Cork last won the All-Ireland, they had enough players of similar age who came together, who were all obsessed with winning an All-Ireland. Not just making the senior team for a few league games or taking an inter-county jersey home.
By 2012, Cork had lost John Miskella, Anthony Lynch, Nicholas Murphy and Derek Kavanagh. In 2014, Cork lost five more to retirement (Canty, Pearse, Kissane, Noelie, Quirke). Ciarán Sheehan to AFL two years later. Damien Cahalane switched codes to hurling, followed by Aidan Walsh. Last year Goulding, Gould and Paddy Kelly also hung up their boots.
That’s 15 key players from an obsessed group. A massive change. But for some reason, it’s not considered transition. We only deal with expectation.
Cork are expected to perform and to be up with the best just like in ‘07, ‘09 and 2010. It’s as if people assume the 2010 All-Ireland winners are still playing and that all those underage players came through.
Former players from every other county seem to set the expectation levels. Then they are more than happy to kick Cork and keep kicking them when those expectations aren’t met. They create the story and everyone buys in.
In the Munster final, Kerry flowed far better than Cork.
No question. They nearly always do, but when Cork take their chances and make it a fight, they stand a chance. They start to believe. In 2015, we took our three goal chances. And yet, after this game there was little analysis of the four goal chances Cork missed, compared to the unbelievable scoring efficiency that Kerry had, with no wide up to the 42nd minute.
One pundit even likened Cork to a dog that you hadn’t the heart to put down. Crazy stuff.
Each provincial final this year was won by between eight and 11 points. Have Galway, Down and Kildare endured the same kicking that Cork have got? That negativity doesn’t make things impossible but when it gets so severe, it does make things more difficult.
Push them down and keep them down. Someone said to me recently that I am now the only Cork football player, past or present, writing in the media, even though I haven’t yet written three articles.
In every game I have played, from U10 club level right through to senior inter-county, there are two important constants, confidence and pressure. How you manage both is what makes you stand out.
If I was to look back over the last number of years in my own game, I usually played off instinct and more often than not, things just came to me. Goals fly in without you even thinking about how you might finish them.
You go well, make a bit of a name for yourself, then you inevitably seem to get more attention and then sometimes find it harder to sustain performances and confidence in the face of stiffer opposition after that.
This is when it gets tough and you can begin to question yourself. You might lose some of that confidence. It can happen across a whole team.
Maintaining that confidence and belief when things are going against you or when people start to believe the pundits, that’s when you really have to believe you’re good enough, buy into the team even more and hope all those around you do the same.
You have to believe in the work you have done, that you are fit, that your diet is A1 and that no matter who you are up against, it won’t matter. Otherwise you will have doubts and doubts are the enemy. Those goal chances are saved or go narrowly wide.
As All Black Richie McCaw once said: “If you fear a team, when the heat comes on you will crumble”.
Mayo and Cork both need an injection of confidence this weekend when the pressure is greatest.
At least Mayo have had a settled team over the last few years and been able to grind out more results than Cork, even when their confidence was low.
For Cork to get that confidence that will allow them to grind out more games like they did against Tipp, the players need to become more settled, to start really nailing positions and become a little clearer on where they stand in the pecking order so that they can then buy into the system a bit more and have more confidence in it.
The negativity around them makes all that harder.
I’m not making excuses for Cork football or covering up the performance against Kerry. The goal chances could have changed the complexion but the reality is that the performance as it unfolded simply wasn’t good enough. Maybe it was down to the system, selection or even tactics but at the same time, Cork are not the same team as they were five or six years ago. It’s a totally different group.
Do I think Cork as a county should be achieving more? Yes, but being straight up, Cork at the moment are not at the level Kerry or Dublin are at. We have not managed the talent and other people have managed the expectation levels for us.
At the end of the day, it’s irrelevant. In the bubble of Cork football, all that matters now for the players is the match staring them in the face.
I know Cork have refocused in a big way since the Kerry game but the reality is that Mayo are a top four team and are expected by the bookies to win by at least five points.
Whichever team does come out on top on Saturday, they will have harnessed their inner confidence and navigated the pressure that bit better than their opponents.
That team will be a seriously dangerous animal for Roscommon in the quarters the following week. Let’s hope Cork are that animal and that this weekend, we bite back.
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