At eighteen, Phillip Lahm was a highly regarded prospect at Bayern Munich.
With outstanding French full-backs Willy Sagnol and Bixente Lizarazu the unrivalled custodians of the No’s 2 and 3 jerseys, the club sought to send the young defender out on loan to continue his development.
However, despite coach Hermann Gerland’s total faith in the talent and application of the young man he could find no takers. As the story goes, one manager travelled a distance to scout Lahm but was so unimpressed by what he saw that he demanded Gerland cover the petrol money he had spent.
The doubters are always there to put you down, but eight Bundesliga titles, six German cups, a Champions League and the World Cup later, it’s fair to say Lahm had more than paid his way in terms of mileage.
It was late Autumn 2012 when the phone call came from then Cork manager Conor Counihan, and I had no hesitation in agreeing to come on board.
The chance to work as a selector under an All-Ireland winning manager and a squad that only two short years previously had climbed to the top of the mountain was an opportunity I was never going to turn down.
I had a huge desire to see from the inside how a successful set-up operated and the profile of the group suggested there was still much more to come. Hugely talented players, an extremely favourable age spread, experience of winning already under their belt and a real sense of stability, continuity, and growth in the squad. Everything pointed to an upward curve.
Yet the current travails of Cork football make it hard to believe that such promising times were a mere five years ago.
One of the many interesting things I learned during my three years involved under Conor and Brian (Cuthbert) was how fragile the confidence of players can be, particularly the elite ones. I must say it was a point of view I didn’t immediately buy into.
Truth be told, I was broadly sceptical about this. You see, I was judging on the basis of my own playing career. Your average inter-county player who worked diligently throughout his time to earn a place on a consistent basis and fortunate enough to win a couple of Munster Championships and a League medal along the way.
In contrast, many of these players, infinitely more talented than I could ever have dreamt of, were relatively young, hugely able and had known nothing but success. By July 2012, plenty of them had four league titles (three Division 1s), three Munster championships and, of course, the coveted All-Ireland already collected. What doubts could they have, I thought?
However, in hindsight, I would have to acknowledge that the former Cork managers were spot on. Just look at the demise of Tiger if you need proof. Even the invincible have doubts.
Cork have not won a big match since the Munster football final in 2012, yet we have been a breath away on more than one occasion. For starters, the epic comeback in Killarney in 2013. Seven points down at half time became nine early in the second half, but an heroic performance from Alan O’Connor, introduced as a sub for the second half, led the fightback.
A late Brian Hurley shot for goal, which would have seen us home, cannoned off the shoulder of a totally unaware Brendan Kealy. Twelve months later, the one point quarter-final defeat to Mayo in Croke Park. Eight points all at half-time, seven points down with 20 minutes to go and we ran Mayo ragged for the last quarter to bring the game back to a draw (through a Donnacha O’Connor goal).
However, a cheap turn over by, of all men, Paddy Kelly led to an Aidan O’Shea goal at the other end and it was enough to see Mayo home by the narrowest of margins. Cork topped Division 1 two years in succession in 2014 and 2015 but failed to win the competition outright and, of course, we cannot but mention another Herculean performance from Alan O’ Connor and that draw in Killarney in 2015.
There is no question the cumulative effect of these ‘near misses’ has had its impact on the team. Falling so agonisingly short has gradually chipped away at the confidence of the players, year by year, game by game,, to the extent Cork now look like a team that doesn’t know where the next big win will come from.
Yet now, when the doubt is greatest, is precisely the time that real winners back themselves most. The most incredible thing about Roger Federer’s never to be forgotten victory in Melbourne last January was not the fact he was 35, or had come back from a long-term injury lay off to claim his 18th Major.
The most astonishing thing was that his last Grand Slam had been in Wimbledon 2012, and in the Rod Laver Arena he beat the man who had physically and mentally dominated him during the intervening time. In the darkest period of his career, despite the doubts and with the odds and everything else stacked against him, he backed himself to come through. True winners never give up believing.
This Cork group have been winners before and can be again. The real pity at the moment is that such is the negativity around the county that supporters don’t seem to appreciate we have some real quality players in the team to supplement the tried and trusted members of the squad. We have some real gems who have what it takes to be successful at the highest level. Kevin Crowley is a dinger of a player and will get stronger and stronger as he puts his injury problems behind him.
Ian Maguire, another unfortunate with injury setbacks, has a huge physical presence and his marauding runs from midfield will trouble every opposition and continuously drive the team forward. Stephen Cronin has wonderful game intelligence and big match temperament while John O’ Rourke is simply a class act, a brilliant two-footed, intelligent footballer in the Declan O’Sullivan mode.
There is no question that, to date, John has failed to hit the Dromid Pearse’s man’s standards at inter-county level.
But, I guarantee you he has all the raw materials to be an inter-county player in the O’ Sullivan ilk, running games from start to finish, the player that makes the difference. Indeed, such was O’Sullivan’s quality towards the end of his career that it is easy to forget his own difficulties in the earlier years.
Jack O’Connor is to be commended for the way he kept faith with O’Sullivan when Kerry supporters had turned against him. The good ones like O’Connor and Hermann Garland see it before everyone else and back their own judgment. Similarly, now, the likes of Crowley, Maguire, Cronin and O’Rourke should be supported, persisted with, believed in.
And so Cork, like the great Federer, head to the next big challenge with much to anticipate despite recent setbacks.
Yes, you can choose to dwell on the poor performances in both league and championship, the long-term loss of Brian Hurley or the postponed opening of the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Or you can approach it like Alan O’Connor. Like all players, he has experienced his fair share of winning and losing, but the reason the towering midfielder from Kealkil is so revered by Cork supporters is that he is fearless in giving his best every time he pulls on the shirt.
Dismissive, if not disdainful of reputation, brave to the point of reckless, every ounce of his being invested in giving his all. Whether he plays or not is not the point. The point is forget about winning or losing. Fans know on any given day, the result is never guaranteed.
All the Cork supporters ask on Sunday is that each Corkman who enters the fray follows O’Connor’s lead and makes it worth the petrol money.
The author is a Munster Championship-winning Cork defender, an-ex Cork selector and manager of 2016 Cork SFC champions, Carbery Rangers
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