He’s the Dublin senior manager but Ger Cunningham still has more than a passing interest in Cork’s hurling affairs. TOM LYONS got his thoughts on the present state of the game here and what he thinks the future holds for Cork hurking
GER Cunningham needs no introduction to Cork hurling fans, or hurling fans all over Ireland.
The 55-year-old legendary St Finbarr’s and Cork goalkeeper stood for all that was great and successful about Cork hurling.
A dual Cork star at underage, seven Munster medals, three All-Ireland senior medals, three national league medals, four All-Star awards, three Railway Cup medals and six county senior championship medals adorn a sideboard that is weighed down with silverware, including a Texaco Hurler of the Year award in 1986.
Rated as the greatest hurling goalkeeper of his era, he was frequently named on greats of the game teams, including the Cork Team of the Century in 2000.
Having first played senior with Cork in 1981 and played 50 championship games, he retired in January 1999, narrowly missing out on a fourth All-Ireland senior medal. He was also the winner of a number of All-Ireland Poc Fada competitions.
On retiring from playing he quickly got involved with coaching, first with his own club, St Finbarr’s, and later with Ballygunner of Waterford, UCC and Cork underage development squads. He served as a goalkeeping coach and selector with the Cork senior team before taking on the job of Dublin manager in October 2014.
Cunningham was fancied by many to take over the Cork team when Jimmy Barry Murphy pulled out in August 2015 but the job went to Kieran Kingston.
Tom Lyons met up with Cunningham on Saturday night last at the Goleen celebration dinner in Schull when he presented the medals to the Goleen junior C football team that won the county championship in 2016. He has a holiday home in Goleen, frequently visiting the area, and has helped out with coaching the underage hurling teams in his few spare moments.
Tom Lyons (TL):How are you finding your present position as manager of the Dublin hurling team?
Ger Cunningham (GC): It’s a huge commitment, almost full time. Travelling takes a lot of time and between training and matches I’d be up there three or four times a week. It’s a good road but travelling does take a toll at times.
Our pre-season is coming to an end and we’re into league action next weekend. We’ve had a good look at the players during pre-season, we needed to look at new players as we’ve had a good turn-over of players during the past few seasons, but that’s natural evolution too. We’ve tried to look at players, at club championships, at Dublin’s U21s and minors. They’re the best players Dublin have produced for a long time and it’s very promising.
The last two years, they’ve been to Croke Park twice in minor and should have beaten Galway in the U21 semi-final last year. We have a lot of good young players coming through, two with strong Cork connections. Donal Burke’s mum is from White Church while Cian O’Sullivan’s people are from Adrigole. Yes, a Dublin senior hurler from Adrigole! Keep an eye on those two lads.
TL:Dublin is a dual county just like Cork, how do they manage both codes at inter-county?
GC: It is primarily football but in fairness to the Dublin County Board they’ve been very supportive of promoting hurling and trying to build hurling in the city. They’ve put lots of resources into it but, in essence, when it comes to a choice, players will opt for football. That’s unfortunate for us as there are at least five guys on the football panel who would walk onto the hurling panel if they wanted to. We’d love to have them but Dublin football is huge at the moment.
TL:Will Dublin hurlers win the All-Ireland in the near future?
GC: The main aim is to be competitive and we’re team-building at the moment so a good deal of patience is required. These young guys are the future of Dublin hurling and it’s surprising how quickly they adapt to senior level. Given time, they will win an All-Ireland for Dublin.
TL: Now to Cork. They say there’s a crisis in Cork hurling, would you agree with that?
GC: I can only speak from the outside, looking in, right now. I was involved with the Cork U15 development squad, which is minor this season, and there’s some really good young players coming through. I wouldn’t be as pessimistic about Cork hurling as some people at present.
The benefits and fruits of the development squads will be seen in the next few years. You’re already beginning to see it with the likes of Shane Kingston, Mark Coleman and young Fitzgibbon. They’ve all come through the development squads and there’s more to come. Kieran (Kingston) is going with the young lads and that’s the future. Just like Dublin, a bit of patience is needed right now.
TL:Did Cork take their eye off the ball at all levels during the past decade?
GC: It’s hard to know what exactly went wrong or to put a finger on it but it’s great to see the colleges coming back into contention in the Harty Cup again. We don’t have the volunteers like the Christian Brothers that we once had who took us all out onto the pitch when we were young. You have to train the young lads.
Hurling isn’t a game that you pick up a hurley once a week for training and then go home and put it away until the next training session. You have to be hurling every day of the week and maybe we lost that. All our resources should be geared towards getting our young hurlers out hurling every day.
TL: What is your opinion of the present Cork team – are they good enough to really mix it with the top guns?
GC: I think they are. We’ll be playing them in a couple of weeks and we’ll see then. They seem to have a very nice blend and Kieran has started the season very well, four or five competitive wins under their belt, just what was needed. Again, a little patience is needed and I honestly believe Cork will be right back up there at the top with the best.
TL:Do you think there’s a bite missing in Cork hurling, especially in the county championship where the standard is questionable?
GC: I wouldn’t be a fan of the system where you get three or four chances in the backdoor. The old championship was a straight, tough knock-out. I perfectly understand where the teams should get a second chance but giving three or four chances to get back in, I wouldn’t be for that at all.
As regards the county championship, there’s a couple of teams could win it. My own club, St Finbarr’s, is back competing again. We’re at a quarter or semi-final stage now with a young team and will see the benefits of our youth policy in a couple of years. Cork needs the likes of the Barr’s, the Glen and Blackrock coming through. Maybe the standard could be a bit better but again, it comes back to having three or four chances to get through. I think players lose their competitive edge in a system like that.
TL:Who would you fancy to win the All-Ireland this season?
GC: Tipperary won the All-Ireland last season and must be fancied again but they only beat Galway by a point.
As regards Galway, I don’t think there’s a will among the other Leinster counties to have them involved in underage level and I suppose counties like Laois, Offaly and Westmeath are all trying to build their own teams and don’t need Galway coming in on top of them as they feel they would be too strong for them. But I do believe Galway seniors need to stay in Leinster, it’s where they fit, it’s natural for them. They’re fighting their cause.
From a Dublin point of view, we don’t play any championship game at home in Parnell Park, we have to go to Croke Park or some neutral venue. So we don’t have home championship games either, which Galway are looking for.
TL: What is your own future and will we see you in charge of Cork some day?
GC: I still live in Cork, never left it. I’m not involved with UCC anymore, just can’t make the time, but I really enjoyed my time with the Freshers and the Fitzgibbon teams. I just couldn’t commit to them and Dublin at the same time.
As regards the Cork job, you have to live in the here and now. Where I am right now is what matters and nobody knows what the future will bring. Maybe I was in the frame (for the Cork job) a couple of times and it didn’t happen but we’ll just focus on the here and now and that’s all about winning an All-Ireland with Dublin.