Time for Cork to change course

GUTTED: Pearse O'Neill is dejected after the loss to Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final. O'Neill is one of several stars to call time on his inter-county career.

Cork football may be rocking but Brian Cuthbert has a chance to transform their game for the better

I once met Alan Quirke at a mutual friend’s wedding in 2011; he was a fine man of admirable integrity. We conversed about the state of football and about how much progress had been made by Conor Counihan and the then current Cork team.

After the pleasantries, I took an opportunity to inform Alan of how, as an outsider looking at it from as far away as Crossmaglen, I wished he could view Cork from the eyes of those vastly removed from the set up. The point of my advice was that I didn’t believe that this massively strong, physically imposing, athletic group of individuals had the self-belief to improve on their success to date.

In years previous, I had been part of an Armagh squad that was in this same position. Managed by Brian Canavan and Brian McAlinden we lacked the ability to be introspective. We couldn’t look inward at ourselves while trying to look forward in tandem. Kerry and Galway were handed victories as we did not have the confidence or conviction to close out the games. The post mortem was full of counterfactuals, immature conditional propositions like “had we taken down Maurice Fitz, he wouldn’t have scored the goal”, or “had we won more breaking ball, we could have set up more attacks”. What we lacked was the pervasive belief in our own ability.

This is where Joe Kernan comes in. Crossmaglen were after winning All-Ireland club titles and Joe knew that if Armagh were to change, then he needed to extract the innate self-belief of the Crossmaglen players and instil it into Armagh. He already had all the players with all the ideal skills and attributes but this was to be the missing ingredient for his magic potion. Does Brian Cuthbert know what Cork’s missing ingredient is? He has the raw physical ingredients, he has a large player base from which to choose 30 county footballers and presumably he has the backing from his county board. Yet they under-perform. I’ve no doubt that this question bobbles around his mind every night he sleeps and each time he daydreams. Should Brian solve this puzzle, the Cork people’s mindset will change from one of anxiety to one of hope.

A review of the championship will show that it was make-or-break year for many counties. Jim McGuinness pushed hard but the players rebounded tired after two years of complete commitment; Kerry’s ageing players had one last sing-song which nearly spoiled the Dublin party and now Cork appears to be dismantling; imploding is probably a better verb.

This is not a transition. A transition is where people leave as part of a phased process in a structured, strategic manner which allows for a pathway to development of new talent. It is a mutually advantageous cycle of holistic change where the primary benefactor is the team itself.

What we are witnessing is a mass exodus of players who feel they have nothing left to offer or don’t want to give any more. How has it come to this?

The retirees, all well into their 30s, must have seen this day coming. The management and county board must have seen this day coming. Where is the attempt to smooth the transition for young talent? Could this have been avoided? Should a few of these players have been convinced to take a primarily mentoring type role in the new set-up?

Green shoots rise even from the fiercest of fires, so change can be good. Cork football needs a full root and branch review.

Kernan had success at Crossmaglen to draw upon, what has Cuthbert? Club football is at an extreme low, champions Castlehaven beaten comfortably by Dr Crokes while it is 10 years since Nemo last won an All-Ireland and five since they have been competitive at national level. Furthermore the quality of the football played at club and county is neither attractive nor expansive.

Times are a changing. While Armagh and Tyrone were blamed for taking football in a different direction in the 2000s, this changed with Donegal in 2011, and again this year with Dublin. Football is changing to appeal to the masses. It is a spectator sport whereby paying fans want commitment, enjoyment and entertainment. Players want enjoyment. Ask Aaron Kernan if he prefers playing open fast football with Crossmaglen or strategic football with Armagh, irrespective of the result. Cork need to adjust their style. They need to spring life into a system of play which encourages and praises people to take chances, to be inventive, to be solid in defence while maximising scoring potential. Promise players a new way and they will follow. Lead them and they will give you everything.

Cuthbert may have lost many former great Cork leaders but he will view this as an opportunity to stamp his authority on the remaining players and create a collective support to give him the confidence to pursue a new way.

The loss of Ciarán Sheehan is a massive blow but he should not be deprived his opportunity. Few actually make it in Australia and many return home for the love of GAA, Ciarán Killkenny the most recent example.

A county the size of Cork with the underage success and talent at their disposal should be able to soak up this loss with minimal disruption. Brian Cuthbert’s job is to take Cork football and create a style suitable to the players available, make them the envy of the nation and use this to attract all the potential talent back to his doorstep.

The future of Cork football may appear in the balance and many may see this as a year where change is a necessary evil that couldn’t be avoided. I see this as a year of opportunity for Cork football where they can quickly reap rewards on the field.


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