Just how far has Cork hurling fallen?

Empires rise, and empires fall.

As Tipperary supporters exited Croke Park after their county won the 1971 All-Ireland final, they’d have laughed if someone suggested they’d be in the wilderness for 18 years.

In the ’60s they’d won seven Munsters and four All-Irelands and must have felt comfortable looking forward to a similar future, having just beaten their bitter rivals, Kilkenny.

But the groundwork hadn’t been done. Between 1952 and ’62 Tipp won all the Munster minor titles bar ’58, adding six All-Irelands to boot. They were dominant at senior level in Munster in the ’60s but minor success had dried up.

Cork took over, winning 13 Munster titles from 1964 and winning eight All-Irelands in minor. This led to success for the Cork seniors in the ’70s and ’80s. Underage success is no guarantee of senior success, but it’s a major help: by 1980 Cork was the Emperor in hurling terms, leading the roll of honour in all major grades.

In attempting to gauge where Cork hurling is now you only have to look at the Cork stats and compare those to the stats of the current top teams, as success is always relative.

Since 1980, Cork have won six and lost five senior All-Ireland finals. Kilkenny in the same period have won 13 senior finals and lost six.

At U21 Cork have won four All-Irelands, the last in 1998, while Kilkenny have won eight. At minor Cork have won four titles, the last in 2001, while Kilkenny have won nine, the last in 2010.

At inter-county level in the main grades since 1980, Kilkenny have won more than double the number of titles Cork have.

How is the health of Cork hurling at present?

Is it in crisis or just going through a slump?

If it were a business, the call to arms would have sounded a number of years ago as competitors raced ahead, getting a greater market share. In 2005 when Cork won their last senior title, a well-known county board volunteer said to me that winning the senior title “papered over a lot of cracks”.

Lou Holtz of Notre Dame once said: “Nothing is as good as it seems or as bad as it seems” and reality is normally somewhere in between. But the stats don’t lie.

Cork have fallen behind their main rivals and “in between” here hovers around mediocrity.

Sporting excellence doesn’t just happen. Having performed poorly at the Euro finals in 2000 the German FA instituted a root and branch study of football and as a result structures for coaching and player development were put in place.

Today their national team is highly competitive and the Bundesliga attracts the biggest average crowd in European football, standing on a sound financial footing with 70% home players (in comparison to the English Premiership, where it’s 30%).

Kilkenny have understood for years that the groundwork must be done. Their first port of call is the primary school, and teachers and school principals who help develop hurlers in their schools are prized assets.

Appreciation is shown by the Kilkenny County Board, which organises a meal for them annually and distributes sliotars and hurleys to the various schools as a mark of appreciation.

Kilkenny’s Strategic Plan boldly encourages “young Kilkenny teachers working outside the county to return home with a strong open invitation to get involved in the Cumann na mBunscol philosophy” and the outcome looked for is that “development work at primary level continues at pace”.

Briain Ó Riain, one of two Kilkenny Games Development Advisers (GDAs’), told me that in Kilkenny, young player development is based on keeping the hurling activities age-appropriate, keeping them hurling at street league level in the clubs with conditioned games, on through to the skill based non-contact Go Games to further develop skill before the U13 primary schools competition.

“A good pathway onto second level,” as he says.

Hurling in Dublin is making huge strides at underage level, having begun their renaissance seriously about eight years ago. There are 50 GDAs coaching and organising GAA activities in schools and clubs. The Dublin County Board contributes almost €500,000 annually, or half the cost, towards those GDAs and the clubs make up the rest.

Kilmacud Crokes, current Dublin senior hurling champions have put huge resources into building a strong underage and developing club school links.

Dublin senior hurler Niall Corcoran has been involved in schools/club hurling development on a full-time basis for over six years.

“Support from the principal and staff in the feeder primary schools is key to developing good young hurlers. My role is to help create a good link between school and club as well as coaching on the ground. The plan is for the hurling work done in school to be further emphasised and replicated on a weekly basis in the club and vice versa.”

He also stressed that whereas nine primary schools feed directly into Kilmacud Crokes there is a fall-off in the teenage years and anything up to 100 Under 5s may be needed to develop top-class minor teams, such are the other attractions in their area.

I asked John Costello, chief executive of Dublin County Board, if he could pick one single development that has made a significant difference in the raising of standards in Dublin hurling. Without hesitation he plumped for all-weather, floodlit facilities.

The Alfie Byrne Complex in Clontarf, developed in partnership with Dublin City Council, is very accessible and “has made a huge difference being constantly in use,” he said.

Some individual clubs have their own top-of-the-range all-weather facilities and these are ideal for developing skill execution at top speed, which is necessary to survive at the top level as well as providing a much longer hurling playing season for all age groups.

But Cork are well behind Dublin in this area and should have these facilities in hurling strongholds. The city, Midleton and Mallow are ideal, accessible locations.

Facilities available to schools by day and clubs and inter-county panels by night would surely make a difference.

However, the development of Páirc Uí Chaoimh will take the bulk of finance and energy over the next few years and the provision of all-weather floodlit facilities in hurling regions should — but won’t — make the priority list.

How does Cork measure up when compared to Kilkenny and Dublin at primary school level?

Cork clubs and schools are investing a lot of time and effort in developing young players at primary and street league level. It’s very similar to the efforts on Noreside, although it’s difficult to benchmark the standards of development. Compared to Dublin with 50, Cork have five GDAs working in the whole county, resourced by the Munster Council and county board.

The general consensus is that five isn’t enough and they are spread too thinly. A GDA in Cork might be responsible for up to 30 schools and clubs whereas a GDA in Kerry might have nine.

Twelve GDAs with a lot of coaching duties consolidating good work being done in schools and clubs — with six devoted to the city — would be a good starting point. Club activists tell me they get good support and advice from the relevant GDA, helping them to implement nursery plans from four years up, but they realise the bulk of the work must be done by themselves with little direct help from the county board.

Some clubs are now providing their own coaches for their feeder schools but the economic recession and lack of resources made available for games development in County Cork limits the achievements compared with Dublin.

I looked at the Sciath na Scol A grade primary school competition winners for the past 10 years. Hurling is a priority sport in these winning schools, with interested teachers and a strong GAA ethos.

Scoil Oilibhéir near Blackpool is the only Northside school to figure in the roll of honour. It’s dominated by St Anthony’s in Ballinlough, with strong efforts too from St Columba’s, Douglas and lately Riverstown, who won in 2011.

Clubs have strong links with these schools and most of the panel members continue to play on with their clubs at underage level, with high retention rates.

Blackrock’s average intake across their underage from St Anthony’s is 45% and this was theaverage in their U21 winning panel this year, for instance. But a worrying concern when Cork needs all its resources to raise standards, is that around 40% of players from Sciath na Scol A winners in the past three years have moved on to non-GAA schools, thus losing out on player development, and in particular opportunities through exposure to top level competitions in Munster colleges hurling.

Brendan O’Driscoll chairman of An Coiste Oiliúna – responsible for coaching in the county – remarked: “Coaching in the primary schools in relation to the resources available is going well but second level may need attention.”

So can standards be raised at second level in Cork?


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