Gregarious he was as a manager in front of the media, but on all matters Cork football, Conor Counihan will be remembered as a cagey operator.
On all other topics, he was positively effusive. Any time horse-racing was brought up in conversation his eyes lit up. Ditto his favoured Liverpool. Pre-Jurgen Klopp, their lack of size was always a source of despair for him.
That won’t surprise anyone: big men were always favoured by Counihan during his time although his methods were often seen as crude and rudimentary. One of his fiercest critics since stepping away from inter-county football has been Paul Galvin: “Jack (O’Connor) was clever,” he told this newspaper after his first retirement in 2014. “He had ideas, Cork seemed to have one idea. And this dummy teams lark...”
Now, Galvin feels the same way most do about Cork and Kerry facing off: deflated. Speaking to Larry Ryan of this parish last month, he said: “The Kerry-Cork thing, I don’t see any rivalry at all at the moment.”
As time moves on, so too have opinions, if not Galvin’s shifted, of Counihan’s Cork. They were consistency personified. They were fitter than most if not every other team but they cast longer shadows than others. For the 2010 All-Ireland final, only two of the starting players were under six foot and one of them was Noel O’Leary. In ’12, O’Leary was the only one. “If I had the players with the size, strength and fetching ability that Conor has...” was how Jim McGuinness described Counihan’s bounty of riches.
Counihan was clever never to overplay that fact, keener to let the pre-march parade speak for itself.
But in his final season, 2013, they seemed to be living off that reputation.
As then selector Mike “Haulie” O’Neill mentioned at the time: “That’s a perception I’d love to have out there, that other teams were thinking we were a physical team. I don’t know if many teams in the country believe that.
“Yes, we’re tall but we wouldn’t play a brand of football I would call physical. Perception is one thing but the reality is it’s not the size of the dog but the size of the bite in the dog that matters. The way the game has gone pace is a lot more important than size.”
Looking big is one thing; acting is another. Our analysis of the team Peadar Healy started against Tipperary earlier this month to Cork’s last Munster final win over Kerry five years ago shows they might not be taller but are certainly heavier than the former outfit.
That shouldn’t come as a shock when, like allowing for inflation, the changes in the game particularly in the realm of strength and conditioning must be considered. At the same time, the fitness shortcomings in the game against Waterford would have embarrassed the Counihan group. A factor that must be noted if not used as a mitigating one in Cork’s trudge to this provincial final is Healy’s determination to move away from some of what Counihan preached.
“The physical side of the game is important but it can’t be the be-all and end-all,” he said late last year.
“Lift less weight and kick more ball, I would say. Less bulk, more mobility – it’s the way rugby is now going.”
Healy mentioned how the day of the corner-forward staying inside was a thing of the past. Counihan would have been criticised regularly for how his inside men stayed there.
But the hue of that piece with Tony Leen was Cork had to be more like Kerry and kick the ball more and move away from their traditional game.
Tinkering with a county’s DNA is always a dicey exercise but Healy seems determined to put more of a foot into Cork football. “Look at the 2010 Cork team that won an All-Ireland,” he remarked. “It was a strong, rangy physical team but the evolution since that is telling in itself.”
Indeed, Cork can no longer wear down teams like they did seven years ago but that’s not to say size doesn’t matter particularly when Cork, contrary to opinion, still have so much of it and have a hoard of strong runners who can break tackles.
Should Eoin Cadogan, Alan O’Connor and Aidan Walsh come into the team, Cork are going to be even more physically imposing.
What’s more, Cadogan and O’Connor are players who are tough, not just appear it.
Wouldn’t it be a dereliction of duty not to embrace that?
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