Have a look back over Conor Counihan’s lengthy interview with this newspaper back in September and the mass exodus from the senior football panel over the last three months no longer seems so startling.
From October 17 to November 18, 31 days, Cork lost seven players. Not just any ordinary seven players, either — seven who featured in the 2010 All-Ireland final.
Excluding Ciarán Sheehan, six of them retired, Noel O’Leary the first to announce followed by Paudie Kissane then captain Graham Canty, Pearse O’Neill, Alan Quirke and finally Alan O’Connor.
The last of them may have been a surprise as he is still in his 20s but then the other five were all in their early to mid 30s.
Was it something Brian Cuthbert said? Highly unlikely. Most if not all made up their own minds.
No, this was the most indelible end of an era seen in football for many years because this was a group that would fall as they would stand together.
As Counihan said of the panel: “There was huge focus there, huge spirit, the way everyone committed to it. Nothing was too much effort for any of the people involved.
“There was great camaraderie in the group and I could see that continuing. There were groups I’d have played with and there’d be certain friendships alright, but it wouldn’t be as strong — as a group — as existed with that group. Respect, I suppose, was the key factor.”
It’s not as if Cuthbert has been left high and dry. Two All-Ireland titles and four of the last Munster U21 championships tell a tale of promise.
It’s a transitional time and yet there are much more than raw materials at the Bishopstown man’s disposal. His clubmate Ken O’Halloran is due his head between the sticks after lengthy runs in the league in recent years only for Quirke to return later in the championship.
A fit Eoin Cadogan alongside Michael Shields provides two-thirds of a convincing full-back line. Ray Carey’s return is a positive but there will be decent competition for that other position involving Jamie O’Sullivan and Alan Cronin.
Counihan had already begun to work on reinventing the half-back line this year where James Loughrey and Damien Cahalane, when he returns from hip surgery, should be in receipt of starting berths once more. One of the Clancys could fit in alongside them very nicely or Andrew O’Sullivan.
Aidan Walsh’s spot in midfield is cemented although splitting his loyalties could test the dual star and Cuthbert. Fintan Goold may be best placed to partner him but the race to fill the vacancy left by Alan O’Connor and Pearse O’Neill will be the most keenly watched in spring as it’s possibly the one area where Cork are short on numbers.
It’s in the forward line when Cork have more options even with the loss of Sheehan to AFL club Carlton.
John O’Rourke, Mark Collins, Paul Kerrigan and Patrick Kelly (currently rehabbing from injury) are impressive options across the half-forward line.
Inside, Brian Hurley, apart from Loughrey, was the most exciting element in the Cork set-up in 2013. He might find himself joined by experience in Daniel Goulding and possibly either of Donncha O’Connor, who’ll be hoping to enjoy an injury-free season, and John Hayes after his recall. Barry O’Driscoll and Dan MacEoin will figure too. All in good time, Colm O’Neill will defy the odds once again.
Cuthbert will be afforded the space and time to formulate a team not to mention a style. With the players at his disposal, a more attacking variety is anticipated and his own comments suggest he is ready to embrace it.
Managing to keep Cork’s proud defensive record of conceding few goals under Counihan while speeding up their attacks will require patience, though. So league honours won’t be on the agenda but with a bye into a Munster semi-final there’s time for trial and error.
With the new men in his management team, he has surrounded himself in men who have been there and done it — Don Davis, Owen Sexton and Ciarán O’Sullivan. Ronan McCarthy, another former player, offers continuity.
Maintaining them as fourth favourites for the All-Ireland through these winter months of upheaval (and that’s ahead of Tyrone and Donegal), the bookmakers haven’t bought into the idea that Cork are a poorer ticket next season. Neither should we.
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