I won’t turn my back on Cork

GAA fans around the country awoke yesterday to another brewing row between players, management and officials in Cork. Michael Moynihan offers an insight into the background of this festering conflict.

A QUICK story offers some insight into the atmosphere that exists at the elite level of Cork GAA.

Last summer one of the senior hurlers’ training sessions had a capacity attendance of players and backroom staff, and when, after the session, all those in attendance queued up to be fed in Páirc Ui Chaoimh, it soon emerged that seven people were left without food.

In another county this incident would have been quickly resolved and seen immediately for what it was — a simple misunderstanding. In Cork it led to allegations of intimidation and, within days, a solicitor’s letter was issued by one of the parties involved.

On Leeside, the atmosphere has been that sulphurous for some time. As last year’s strike was beginning to warm up, Bob Honohan, central council delegate of the Cork County Board, spoke to Michael Scanlon of Cork radio station 103fm.

“Perceptions aren’t always right, but the perception is that there are some Cork hurlers who are doing very, very well indeed,” said Honohan. “And that if a club asked them to officiate at a function or present medals to juveniles, they’re referred to their agent. So be it if they’re operating within the rules.”

As an on-the-record snapshot of the attitude of senior administrators in Cork towards the current crop of hurlers, that could hardly be bettered.

Most observers date the curdling of relations back to the 2002 strike, when the players made a stand to improve the conditions in which they trained and prepared. Conditions improved hugely and Cork contested the next four All-Ireland hurling finals.

However, in the last couple of years the tensions have returned. Manager Gerald McCarthy was a relatively surprising appointment as manager two years ago, with many expecting Ger Cunningham, who had been involved in the previous regime, to get the nod.

Although there were public displays of solidarity after Semplegate and on the sideline this year, there was unease behind the scenes. That’s not probable cause for an indictment. Creative tension between management and players is common in many codes.

Early last season McCarthy and his selectors wanted to suspend one of the senior players, but they were unaware of the squad’s agreed protocols for disciplinary issues, in which a player facing sanctions would be accompanied by a fellow panellist in the interests of fairness. Time drained away before the meeting could be arranged according to those protocols.

At one point during the 2002 negotiations a player confronted county board secretary Frank Murphy about his attendance at senior hurling training sessions, yet in the middle of the 2008 season one selector was unavailable for several weeks, having gone to Australia.

The sense among players of hard-won concessions being slowly lost was reinforced before the Dublin-Cork qualifier game. Eagle-eyed observers at that match in Pairc Ui Chaoimh might have noticed some frantic activity near one goal before the teams emerged, when a crate of Powerade was thrown up onto the City End terrace.

The background? Lost in the controversy of last year’s strike was news that the county board’s lucrative deal with Coca-Cola had fallen through. Coca-Cola manufacture Powerade but the Cork senior hurlers resisted its introduction, backing the Gaelic Players Assocation-endorsed Club Energise instead. Accordingly, the appearance of a crate of Powerade in Pairc Ui Chaoimh ahead of a crucial game would have been read as an inflammatory gesture from the county board.

The lazy argument for the last few months in GAA circles has been that players have too much influence nowadays in the GAA, with the dread term ‘player power’ on heavy rotation.

However, there’s a clear paradox at work here. The goal of all management teams is surely a common one: to empower players to succeed in hugely pressurised games — to create highly motivated and determined individuals brimming with self-belief and confidence.

However, it must be unreasonable to expect those players to leave their independence of mind behind on the field. You can’t create tough-minded players and expect them to trust their own judgement only when it’s a matter of going for a point rather than a goal in the last five minutes of a game. It’s only natural that confidence will lead to them backing themselves in situations off the field.

The starkest irony in this case is that the Cork County Board itself can take direct responsibility for the blossoming of their senior hurlers into one of the most formidable teams of recent years. It was the county board which swallowed hard after the 2002 strike and facilitated the team, helping it to achieve All-Ireland success — all of which throws the most recent mess into sharp relief.

Nobody wins. Given the players’ acceptance of binding arbitration, their options look limited. Given his rejection by the panel, McCarthy’s prospects look equally gloomy.

Or maybe ‘nobody’ isn’t quite accurate. The county board’s preferred option is in place as manager and a group of players with whom administrators are clearly unhappy is approaching retirement age.

By the way, there’s still room for some gallows humour. The incident we outlined at the top of the page? Among the panel it’s known as Chickengate.


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