Former Rebels player and manager O’Grady has reservations with hurling championship system
BY TOM LYONS
DONAL O’Grady brings quite a CV with him, both on an off the field.
A quality defender with Cork, winning an All-Ireland medal in historic 1984, he rescued Cork after the infamous strikes at the turn of the century and delivered an All-Ireland title as manager.
Having made his name, the St Finbarr’s man wasn’t afraid to put his reputation on the line with Limerick hurlers when he finished his stint with Cork. Now he is a household hurling name because of his commentaries on hurling games on television, mostly as Gaeilge, and his articles in the newspapers where his insights are respected and well-thought of by all hurling fans.
We caught up with O’Grady recently as he presented medals to the successful Kilbree hurling teams of 2018 in Fernhill Hotel in Clonakilty. He left us with little doubt that, while he still enjoys hurling, he would not be adverse to a return to some of the aspects of the game that were prevalent in his time and have now practically disappeared.
‘Hurling is a different game now than it was in my time,’ he says.
‘The players are fitter and faster now, there are no set positions as such on any team, the sliotar is much lighter and goalkeepers are driving it 120 yards. Players are scoring points for fun but a lot of the physicality has gone from the game.
‘We don’t see ground hurling anymore, or overhead pulling. Now players are lauded for catching high balls, in my time you’d be a brave man to put your hand up to try to catch it. Players try to catch balls now in the most unlikely situations because it’s all about possession.
‘I described modern hurling as being like a tennis game, back and forth. I think the game has lost a lot during the past ten years or so, especially the physicality.’
O’Grady was himself a dual player with St Finbarr’s and played U21 football with Cork. Does he regret the demise of the dual player at intercounty level?
‘It just isn’t possible anymore,’ he says.
‘There is so much demanded of intercounty players that they have to concentrate on one code. Underage county players have to choose now and even at club level it’s becoming very difficult to fit in both.
‘It is sad to think we’ll never see players like Teddy McCarthy, Ray Cummins, Jimmy Barry-Murphy in action in both codes again as it definitely added something special to our games. But that’s the way the games have developed and it doesn’t leave any room for dual players.’
There’s a lot of controversy at present about fixtures, the club v county debate. Does O’Grady think the intercounty scene is doing serious damage to the club scene?
‘I’m not sure I would agree with that,’ he says.
‘It is the intercounty games that bring in the finance, create the publicity for the GAA. Every young lads growing up, his ambition is to play with the county. I think a lot of the problems at club level are self-imposed.
‘We have 32 county boards in Ireland, all independent kingdoms, doing their own thing with their fixtures. Even when the county teams were knocked out, some counties didn’t play club championships until late in the season.
‘Intercounty managers are often blamed for putting off club games but from my time involved, I know that wasn’t the case. All club players want is to know when they are playing and maybe with the new hurling and football systems at intercounty, that isn’t easy to do any more.’
Many experts hold that the hurling championship of 2018, featuring the new round-robin system, was one of the best ever. How did O’Grady view that championship?
‘I couldn’t agree that it was that great,’ he says.
‘If you took it game for game, even here in Munster, there was a lot of poor stuff as well as good. Could you actually describe any of the games as being classics? Plenty scores, lots of controversy but I would question the quality of a lot of the hurling we saw.
‘Yes, we had two good All-Ireland semi-finals but the final itself was very ordinary. The fact that Limerick won it saved the day. I wouldn’t be happy either with the imbalance between Munster and Leinster.
‘In the Munster round-robin, you have five teams that are fully capable of winning the All-Ireland yet two of them will be gone by the end of June. In Leinster, you have Kilkenny, Galway and Wexford almost guaranteed places, maybe Dublin might come into the equation. It’s not a fair championship for Munster teams and it was only introduced in response to the football Super 8. If I had a choice, I would still opt for the old championship.’
Again, referring to the new hurling championship, does O’Grady think that with the same teams meeting in the league and then in the championship, supporters will soon get tired of it?
‘Something will have to give,’ he admits.
‘The league will lose its edge as counties will be concentrating totally on getting their panels right for the important championship games No team is going to go all out to win the league in February and March and then to have to repeat it all over again in May and June in the championship.
‘So what if you are relegated in the league, as long as you discover some new players for your team. Cork are doing that and that’s what all counties will be doing. Supporters won’t bother with the league games when they will be paying big money to see the same teams in the championship.’
As regards Cork hurlers, can they bridge the gap to the final, having lost the last two semi-finals?
‘That’s a big question,’ O’Grady says.
‘They were within a touch of the final for the past two years and in my view should have won both semi-finals. Refereeing decisions were vital to the outcome in both games, and they didn’t have the bit of luck you need to win those games.
‘They got absolutely no breaks in those games. Can they do it this year? It’s a minefield. Will they even get out of Munster? Tipp and Waterford will be really hurting after last year and Limerick are the champions. Clare are nearly impossible to beat at home.
‘Cork are good enough to win the All-Ireland but they mightn’t even qualify from the group. There’s something not quite right there.’
If he were back in charge of the Cork team, what is the one thing he would do to improve the side?
‘Concentrate on the basic skills, simple as that,’ he says.
‘Hooking, blocking, pick-up, catching, basic stuff but you can never do enough of that. There are a few players on the panel who can be dodgy with first touch and you could bring them up to scratch.
‘If the first touch is right and the players know what they are doing on the pitch, then you’re always in with a great chance.’
And the big question, could he ever see himself coming back to management or coaching?
‘Every dog has his day and I had mine,’ he laughs.
‘Hurling has moved on and I wouldn’t be happy that I have kept up. The demands on intercounty managers now is unreal and I could never see myself giving that kind of time or commitment again.
‘No, I don’t think you’ll see me coming back.’