Something to smile about

Despite conceding two walkovers in the National League, Cork coach Conor Counihan managed to steer the Rebels clear of relegation. But now the hard work starts. He spoke to Jim O’Sullivan.

CONOR COUNIHAN avoids the footballing cliches when asked about this year’s All-Ireland favourites. He rates Kerry as highly as the bookies: “It comes in cycles and for Kerry their cycle comes around a bit more often,’’ he says with a smile.

“You’d wonder do they get off the bike at all.”

Counihan is deadly serious about overhauling the All-Ireland football championship, however, suggesting a competition run over a shorter period of time would improve the lot of ordinary club players and ease the burden on those involved at inter-county level. “I’d like to see greater planning going forward by the GAA at national level, in terms of squeezing that All-Ireland in a bit tighter,’’ he says.

“That way you could say to county players, ‘you’re not playing with your club for the next number of weeks’ and then the clubs would have them for a certain period of time. No one is getting the benefit at the minute.

Everyone is pulling and dragging and the player is caught in the middle.”

Having experience of it from both sides, he accepts that the introduction of ‘back doors’ at both club and inter-county level has had a major impact on the situation overall.

“It looks now as if the dual player is a thing of the past and that’s unfortunate because Cork is one of the counties that have suffered most. If you look at the Seán Óg’s of this world, Teddy (McCarthy) and Denis Walsh, they had major contributions to make to both codes. Now it’s becoming much more difficult.

“What I’m saying is that if the All-Ireland series is over five months, squeeze it into three months. I heard recently about a club losing 14 players going to America. Last year we had situations of clubs playing in June and the next round wasn’t played until September of October.”

The Cork manager accepts that there is also a need for local championships to be structured better: “Fellows need to know. You need to have fixtures planned for people.

“We have a situation where first rounds in local championships are going to draws and there’s a back door. To me that makes no sense.

Extra time is one way of moving the thing forward.

“The situation in inter-county where we had number 30 on the panel holding up a club championship game where there are 29 players involved isn’t fair or reasonable either. I’d release the guy on that basis, in as much as we can. I much prefer to see the fixtures progressing at this stage of the year because if they progress, there is an answer to it.”

Counihan’s county medals with divisional side Imokilly put him in the shop window for Cork, and he won two All-Ireland medals before serving as a selector under Billy Morgan and Larry Tompkins in turn.

He opted out following the 1999 All-Ireland final: “I would tend to do that with most teams, even with the club team at home. I gave it three or four years at the time and I stepped back. I would find it difficult to maintain and they might become stale with me.”

This time round he “threw his hat in the ring” because of his passion for Cork football and the hope that he could do something for the team. Looking in from the outside — “as an ordinary punter,” he says — he was encouraged to come on board because he was satisfied that the players would respond.

“Anything I would have heard in terms of their commitment and motivation would have been very positive. That is all I ever require of any team that I’d be involved with, that they’d be committed and motivated. And, that’s the one outstanding feature from my point of view to date. They are a very, very positive group to be able to work with.”

He accepted they’d be starting off at a disadvantage, in terms of missing out on pre-season training, and in the circumstances he regards it as a plus that they managed to survive in what he agreed was “a fairly competitive league,” avoiding Dublin and Meath but beating eventual winners Westmeath at home and Monaghan away.

One of the main criticisms of the team under the previous regime was that there was an overemphasis on short passing and that they had limited success in developing their long game — and Michael Cussen’s height at full-forward. Counihan admits that they wanted to change the style of play, but not in a major way — as he sees it, most teams have adopted the short game: “The exceptions are teams who have maybe big physical full-forwards and who are inclined to vary it a bit. I suppose it is an advantage to vary it, if you are to play the long game nowadays you have to have someone with a bit of physique to win that ball inside.

“It’s much better to watch, I’d agree, and I suppose that’s what the punter has a difficulty with. From a management point of view, it’s about results and it isn’t about being nice. It’s about winning at the end of the day.”

He points out that Michael Cussen has only been in the squad for 12 months — “a very short period of time” for any player. He also feels there are others in the squad “who have quite a bit to learn yet”, (an interesting comment, given it came before the team was finalised).

“I heard a comment the other day about talent — ‘hard work will only be talent when talent won’t work.’ It’s a very apt need to have that hard work element.

“You’re always looking to improve. We need to improve overall. We need to up it 10-15% if we are going to be achieving anything in the championship.”

Regarding Limerick, he’s under no illusions. “Their game with Tipp was reported as being a bad game, but I thought it was very competitive. In the modern game if you get 15 guys with the right attitude, it’s there for anyone. I feel the same about this game. I’d like to think we would win, but we have to be up for it.

“I know Mickey Ned (O’Sullivan) long enough to know that he is a very good manager and that he’ll have his team up for it. And if we’re not up for it, we won’t be at the races. You look at Meath coasting by ten points you’d say the story was up. They made changes probably on the basis that they felt they were going well and they’d try other things. But if the clock turns you just can’t get it back, if you go in with the wrong frame of mind, you can’t change that after five minutes by bringing on some fellow. It doesn’t work.

“Everybody has to be tuned in.’’


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