IT wasn’t Cork supporters disappointed following the poor display in the Munster MHC semi-final play-off loss to Tipperary in Thurles on Sunday.
Even among the local Tipperary media in the press box, seasoned observers of the game, there was a bemusement at how far back Cork have slipped at minor and U21, two grades they had dominated for so long.
And while there is no guarantee that success in those grades will lead to senior success, nor indeed is it a prerequisite that a team must have those underage credentials to win a senior All-Ireland, there is a very definite relationship between winning at underage and going on to do the same at senior level.
Ger Cunningham won a couple of All-Ireland titles at both minor and U21 with Cork (one of his U21 medals as a sub on the football team of 1981), then went on with many of those teammates to win senior honours in 1984, ‘86 and ‘90. Without question, he says, that winning experience at underage was a factor.
“Look at how many players came from the U21 teams of 1997 and ‘98, the last All-Irelands for Cork at that grade, and then from the minor team of 2001, the last minor title. The U21 teams formed the backbone of the team that won the All-Ireland senior in 1999.
“They were joined for the All-Ireland successes of 2004 and ‘05 by John Gardiner, Fraggie Murphy and Setanta Ó hAilpín from the minor team of 2001, while Kieran ‘Hero’ Murphy, Martin Coleman and Cian O’Connor were also on that minor team, along with Tomás O’Leary, who would also have made it at senior level but he went to rugby.
“They came through to reinforce the lads who were there already and unless you’re very lucky with the crop of players, that’s all you’re going to get in any particular year. Whatever about winning though, we need to be at the coal-face at least, participating in Munster and All-Ireland finals on a regular basis, but we’ve had only very sporadic success in that.
“The U21s were unlucky last year to lose to Tipperary, who went on to win the All-Ireland but they missed out then in appearing in those bigger games.
“You just don’t get a chance to see people performing then in the white heat of a Munster final, or an All-Ireland final, and that’s what you need to see, that’s what they need to experience – you can’t beat that.”
Efforts are being made in Cork, in hurling, but the county is well behind the other major hurling strongholds, well behind even the football set-up in Cork itself, which is now reaping the benefit of the academy system put in place several years ago.
The Cork U15 crop did very well last year, but questions do have to be asked of the county board as to what’s being done to replicate the system in Kilkenny whereby most of the top former county players are asked to give a couple of hours a week to a structured underage coaching programme.
How many top forwards of the 70s/80s/90s, even of the current team, have been asked to give some of their time to the academy system?
They are there, in abundance, but have they ever been approached on a formal basis? Over a decade ago in Kilkenny Ned Quinn and Pat Henderson took the situation by the scruff of the neck and the whole hurling world knows the result of that.
Cork needs someone to do the same, someone with real vision, someone who will forget about petty point-scoring off the field and take a holistic approach, do whatever is necessary for the overall good of Cork hurling.
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