From there to here

Few have had a better insight into this group of Cork footballers than attacker Conor McCarthy. In a fascinating insight into the mindset of the squad, he charts the progress back to 2004 and reveals the absence of ego and a preference for anonymity which characterises the group. Now read on...

Management found out a lot about players on these trips but equally, players found out a lot about themselves and their team mates. The biggest benefit wasn’t so much in the physical but in the tactical. You were able to sit down as a group and go through different areas of weakness. Talk them through and try to come up with solutions. These solutions could then be worked on in the session later in the afternoon.

IN A lot of the post All-Ireland final interviews two weeks ago, the Tipperary hurlers and management made reference to the fact that their sensational victory over champions Kilkenny was three years in the making.

At that time, the squad was at its lowest point and it was from there that their journey started. The All-Ireland was their defined destination. For many of the Cork side on Sunday, an All-Ireland success would signal the culmination of a much longer journey. The lowest point came in 2003. Cork had just been beaten by Limerick in the previous year’s championship and Roscommon later that year in the qualifiers. 2004 can be viewed as the starting point on this journey.

In 2004, Billy Morgan began laying the foundations. He knew himself this wasn’t a one-year job. Cork crashed out of the championship that same year to Fermanagh in Croke Park, losing by seven points in mid-June. After the game, we hadn’t sat down in the dressing room when Billy came in “explaining” how we were going back into the gym within six weeks. It was now clear how far behind the rest of the country Cork were in terms of preparation – arguably, though, the biggest issue was confidence.

Along with Ted Owens, Billy began what can be described as a culture of professionalism. They started players on a long-term physical conditioning programme under the guidance of elite coaches from UCD. Throughout each of the next four years – and not just in winter – this plan was followed through to the letter. Explosive power was the key term. Gym programmes began to entail things like clean and jerks, power lifting and plyometrics; stuff we had never heard of before. It was phased in such a way that your body had to go through each level before it could go onto the next.

Training, gear, facilities, travel arrangements, food all became professional standard. Every session became uniquely important. If the text for training decided that you had to be at the ground at 7pm for 7.30pm start, Sexton, Canty and Lynch would be on the field at 6.45pm doing individual practise for the half hour window. There was a set kit for each night and no one dared to deviate from this. That may sound pedantic but it was important: the attitude had to change and management wanted everyone to buy into it.

Everybody began doing two to three individual sessions a week outside of training. Collective training never lasted over two hours, including warm-up and cool down. Logistics couldn’t have been better and Mick Curtin, the logistics man, was invaluable insofar as he made sure there was never a lack of sports drinks, protein, fruit, ice, tape or anything else required in the dressing room before and after a session. Even the standard of the meals after training improved. Training was tough but the younger squad members were monitored very closely. The set-up was now like that of the top sides in the country and this gave the players huge motivation and encouragement.

The squad began to go on the week-long foreign training trips. These helped to bring the panel on. The schedule for the week was distributed on the flight. Each day consisted of three distinct parts. Aerobic or anaerobic training (ie running) /weight training / football. Tough as hell but the residual benefit and confidence in the knowledge that the work was done was significant.

Limits were extended these weeks. Management found out a lot about players on these trips but equally, players found out a lot about themselves and their team mates. The biggest benefit wasn’t so much in the physical but in the tactical. You were able to sit down as a group and go through different areas of weakness. Talk them through and try to come up with solutions. These solutions could then be worked on in the session later in the afternoon.

Psychologists or mental coaches would have been used in group sessions quite regularly. It’s no secret that Cork have been accused of being mentally weak in the past. Those notions never really merited any talk in the camp. Whether the allegations are true or not, mental coaching was now being addressed by all the top sides. Cork wanted to be up there and so they bought into it. It wasn’t talked about an awful lot. We all knew people had hang-ups about the area of psychology and mentioning their use often gives people a stick to beat you with.

However, no one will deny the importance of the mental aspect of games. When so much effort and time is spent on every other physical need, it surely makes sense to address mental fitness.

The majority of the sessions would have been done as a group and most people always found at least one or two things useful in each session. There was never anything weird or wonderful undertaken, it was mostly just an exercise in trying to tune into the upcoming game or developing techniques that helped maintain focus during games and eliminate distractions.

Billy wasn’t blessed with the most talented squad but he did have one of the most eager. Equally, he would have convinced players they were, in fact, the best in the country. Had we known how far off we were at the start in 2004, we may not have actually stuck at it. Billy was a perfect fit for the squad during those fragile years and he brought the side on to where, as he put it himself in his book, they could now legitimately challenge; those players in turn would have done anything for him. 2005, 2006 and 2007 ended with two semi-finals and an All-Ireland final respectively. Statistic-wise, it appeared progress had been made and while it is undeniable that Billy brought the side on hugely, it was still clear to everyone within the panel that this was still not where we wanted to be.

A NEW management team came in 2008. In many ways, this felt more like a natural progression as the new management filled roles that made for a smooth transition. Conor Counihan became Billy Morgan. Peadar Healy became Ted Owens. Ger O’Sullivan and Jim Nolan provided continuity as remaining selectors while Terry O’Neill came in for John Corcoran. An All-Ireland had just been lost to Kerry by 10 points. Many people would have taken a hatchet to the squad at that time, but Conor Counihan opted for a scalpel. Rather than what would have felt like starting again, he refined and reshaped. He fostered a very effective pattern of play but let it develop organically rather than trying to rigidly impose any particular style.

As a player, he was what we would have called a “life-taker” but as a manager, steadiness would be his main asset – and that has transferred across to a lot of the players.

Tactically, he focused on tightening up only two or three important areas. Pushing out in defence rather than sitting back marking only space became a big issue. It may seem like an obvious requirement at inter-county level but until it’s illustrated in a way that the team as a whole can understand, it’s unlikely to be implemented. Ganging up on the opposition ball carrier in the tackle was another facet of play that the side began to develop – the best illustration of this was probably in the game against Tyrone last year. The one other notable development in the squad was that the A v B games became ferocious, bordering on brutal. A talent stream of big and powerful U21’s were coming through. Aidan Walsh, Fintan Goold, Paul Kerrigan, Colm O’Neill, Daniel Goulding, Paul O’Flynn, Ciaran Sheahan. They were all naturally big and powerful guys. In older guys, the previous few years of structured weights programmes began to reveal real results. Aidan O’Connell came in as physical conditioning coach and took on what the UCD staff had started. Guys were stronger now and had to be prepared to win their own ball. Whereas the A v B games might have been one sided previously (with scorelines like 5-21 to 4-13), they now became championship-like affairs with the B’s winning as often as the A’s.

Competitiveness went to a new level and as any of the few onlookers in Páirc Uí Chaoimh or Páirc Uí Rinn will testify, there was an intensity and physicality to the games that often boiled over into toe-to-toe conflict. Respect was important however, and nothing ever lingered.

On the personnel side, the chemistry of the squad has changed in recent years also. The current set up would be of a very different make up to that when I started in 2003. I can honestly say there is zero ego in this Cork squad. The culture has simply evolved that way and at this stage, it just wouldn’t be tolerated. The fact that strong leaders emerged has probably been the main difference here. Guys like Anthony Lynch, Graham Canty, Owen Sexton and Alan Quirke became bench-marks in terms of training and attitude, positive guys everyone was happy to take their cue from. None of them were big talkers but they had a fierce determination and attitude. No fuss. No complaining. Just get on with it. Even through all of the setbacks; each year from 2004 onwards ended in huge disappointment. The accompanying criticisms have been brutal. They never let it affect the squad and kept the whole show on the road really.

This is probably one of the most intriguing things about the Cork football panel. The opinions that have been formed really don’t worry them. Anyone who knows them and knows them well will testify to the fact that it’s just not an issue. It wouldn’t be an effort by the players to be aloof, or a two fingered sign to the detractors. It’s just the chemistry of the squad. They would be pretty apathetic regarding criticism, accepting it when it’s justified, ignoring it when it’s not, but very rarely getting self-righteous over it. No one tries to create a siege mentality. They simply value the collective and place very little emphasis on external influences. These players won’t kiss the jersey, pump the fist to the camera or fall into the crowds at games; they are more the “get on with it” type of characters with huge personal pride in what they do.

And they accept the fact that football will always be a second sport in Cork to hurling.

It seems that, by and large, the Cork public don’t really know the players the same way their equivalents would in Kildare or Down. This distance, in tandem with some frustrating performances, hasn’t exactly led to a close player-fan relationship. However, I can honestly say that these players prefer the anonymity.

An example: before every serious championship match, there will be a press night on the Tuesday or Thursday night after training where the interviews are conducted for the week ahead. Getting guys on the Cork football panel to go to these press nights is a very difficult exercise and everyone pretty much bolts after training when it’s scheduled to be on. I suppose the players know that talk is cheap and realise that only one thing matters in the mind of Cork’s sporting public. Making all the positive noises in the world won’t make up for that. That’s just the way these guys think and that’s just the way this side has evolved.


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