It hasn’t always been the way of Cork GAA to sidestep intrigue and personality in the matter of team management appointments, but the absence of both in the speedy confirmation of Ronan McCarthy as the new coach to the senior footballers represents a positive in itself.
The speed with which Páirc Uí Chaoimh conducted its business in replacing Peadar Healy should not be confused with haste. On Wednesday night, their first choice said yes. With conditions, of course.
An early appointment has many practical upsides beyond eliminating the vacuum in which rumour and intrigue flourishes. First off, it creates certainty, breathing space and proper planning. It also facilitates continuity and a smooth handover of the squad and their training programme, thus avoiding physical deconditioning that would undo progress made in the last 12 months.
And there has been progress, for all the back-biting and head shaking beyond the walls of the group. That the 2017 results didn’t show it is beyond dispute, but the extra time loss to Mayo in the Qualifiers may have been more than the last sting of a dying wasp. It took longer than it should have for Peadar Healy to weed out the energy-sappers in the Cork set-up, but if the handover is smooth, Ronan McCarthy certainly has the basis of something to make progress with.
Cork chair Ger Lane signalled some weeks ago that they would be moving towards a head-coach type structure with Healy’s replacement, which surprised for the fact that Cork (and its players) has missed that front-of-house dressing room presence since Conor Counihan’s departure. The coaching credentials of both Brian Cuthbert and Peadar Healy have won approval from Pat Flanagan, who felt the Cuthbert management team was as good a structure as he’d worked under, and in Healy’s case, the Cork players who had benefited from his on-field sessions. However, the concern was that another similar appointment might have left the Cork dressing room looking around for who was actually in charge.
With Ronan McCarthy, there will be no such problems. Quiet and unfussy though he is, he knows what he wants and has the conviction to pursue it, even if there are casualties along the way. It’s nearly a decade since he managed Douglas to a county football final, and one of the recurring references to him in recent times is the dread Douglas players had of ringing him to inform McCarthy that they couldn’t make training.
Not that he’s a boot-through-the-door type. He was sensible enough last season when he went down to West Cork to take charge of Carbery Rangers to see that they were not far off winning their first county title and leave well alone. Rosscarbery players said he ‘tweaked’ things, and reinforced the inherent strengths and football heritage they should keep as part of their game plan. He likes the widescreen view.
On these pages in July, he implored Cork players to ‘make it worth the petrol money’ for supporters undecided whether to make the trip to Killarney for the Munster final. It’s unlikely the hardcore of followers will have cause to moan about a lack of effort from the Cork players with McCarthy in charge.
Unfortunately, inter-county football, at the level Cork should be operating, is about a lot more than fitness, toil, and sweat. To that end, the composition of McCarthy’s backroom team is fundamental to everything he proposes.
Ger Lane indicated yesterday that the school principal will perform the dual function of head coach and manager, but he will appoint specialists in his backroom team for specific S&C and other coaching functions. However, that must not come at the expense of a clear, unambiguous core direction for the Cork players in 2018 — that must come from Ronan McCarthy. If that sounds as obvious as water being wet, one night be astonished to discover the set-ups where mixed messages from the coaching ticket is the biggest obstacle to progress.
McCarthy must be a delegator, but a dictator too. He should seek counsel from his selectors, but, ultimately, he must pick the team. Selection ‘committees’, by their nature, are a disaster, irrespective of how democratic they might appear.
The fact that the appointment — made without complications, I am told — is for a three-year term, gives McCarthy the breathing space to develop a squad and system back to the point where it represents something Cork followers can relate to and get on board with. The senior side is a county’s shop window, but it’s been a mixed bag of styles for some time. ‘Transition’ is a handy catch-all when progress proves elusive and McCarthy’s first job next spring will be to get some forward momentum again. The first 100 days might only represent around 8% of McCarthy’s proposed time in charge of Cork, but the patience of the footballing public in Cork is short. A return to Allianz League Division One is a realistic goal.
The suggestion yesterday — again a positive — is that greater communication and synergies will exist between Cork’s senior set-up and the under-age programmes, from Under 20 down through the development squads. There are many improvements Páirc Uí Chaoimh can make to aid the development of football in the county — improved county league structures, for one — but McCarthy is not a director of football and once he finalises his management team, his focus will be on county championship matches and gym programmes from now until year’s end.
His focus has to be that narrow, certainly in the first season. How Cork play football into the medium-term future is something he may or may not choose to involve himself in, but it’s the elephant in the room. Below the line, the county’s coaching officer Kevin O’Donovan has shown an energy and appetite for restructuring the development squad coaching system, and this will take time. Striking the right balance between football skill and physical development is one that Cork has skewed in the past, in my view — often and belatedly bidding to turn athletes into footballers, rather than the other way around. None of this will be on Ronan McCarthy’s radar in 2018, but by 2020, a shift in approach should be evident across all grades in the county.
Some of the most straight-forward meetings McCarthy has over the coming weeks could be the most important. He would do well to retain the likes of Donncha O’Connor, if even to set the standards for those filling the dressing room spots vacated by good eggs like Kelly, Kissane, Goulding, and O’Leary, not to mention the crop that were allowed leave in 2014. He was part of both Conor Counihan and Brian Cuthbert’s management set-up, so it’s unlikely he’ll be blind-sided by nuts and bolts issues. He could, conceivably, make a play for the likes of his club colleague, Alan Cadogan, to concentrate on football next season, or even Damien Cahalane, but McCarthy will be judged on how he nurtures the nascent talent of Seanie Powter, Michael Hurley et al over the next few seasons.
One has to presume he has already boxed off potential problems with availability of training pitches in 2018.
The county board’s link-person to the senior football group will be a critical liaison in that regard, ensuring McCarthy’s management is not frustrated to the same extent their predecessors claimed to be.
This is a critical appointment and period for Cork football. The reopening of a new stadium and the introduction of the Super 8’s to the 2018 football championship conspire to make success less an aspiration, more an imperative for Ronan McCarthy.
But there’s something more fundamental on the line here. The slippage since 2010 — notwithstanding a couple of false dawns — has been constant and is in urgent need of reverse.
Apathy has begot a disconnect that has led to total disengagement from Cork football. If Ronan McCarthy can arrest that, it’ll be a good first step.
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