BY TOM LYONS
JOHN Cleary is a man who has seen it all in Cork football, club and inter-county, on both sides of the white line, for the past 40 years.
A member of a staunch GAA family, Cleary has won county and Munster club senior medals with his club Castlehaven, while winning numerous Munster and All-Ireland medals with Cork at minor, U21 and senior levels.
Having completed a distinguished playing career as one of the top corner forwards in Ireland in the 1980s, he turned his attention to the management side of the game, first with Castlehaven, whom he guided to two county titles in 2012 and 2013, and then with Cork U21s as selector and manager, delivering an amazing two All-Ireland titles and eight Munster titles.
Having stepped down as U21 manager in 2013, he turned his attention to ladies’ football and has overseen numerous U16 and minor All-Ireland wins with the ladies.
To say Cleary is steeped in Cork football is the understatement of the year and there was general surprise and dismay among Cork football supporters when he was overlooked for the post of manager of the Cork senior football team, not that he has ended his interest in that particular job just yet.
When John Cleary talks Cork football, people listen and we were fortunate to catch up with him at the official opening of Castlehaven’s new stand and facilities a few weeks ago, where he aired his views on the present state of Cork football.
Like many supporters, following some record defeats for the Cork senior team during the summer, Cleary is clearly worried about the present standard of Cork football.
‘Obviously, we are falling way behind the rest of the pack,’ stated the Haven man.
‘Dublin are out on their own, followed by another group and Cork are in a third group behind them again. A county like Cork wants to be up in at least the second group and contesting.
‘Since the backdoor system came in we’ve always been contesting semi-finals and quarter-finals, but now we can’t get anywhere near that. For anybody interested in Cork football it’s very disappointing. It’s not something we enjoy but that’s where we are at the moment.’
Cork have been competing in Division 2 of the league in recent years but if the new Super 8s have shown up anything it is that winning an All-Ireland from Division 2 is becoming almost impossible. Cleary thinks that it is vital for Cork to win promotion back to Division 1, a competition Cork excelled in from 2000 onwards.
‘The top four teams in the semi-finals were the top four teams in Division 1 of the league,’ said Cleary.
‘It’s highly competitive in that division and it’s absolutely vital that Cork get back up there. However, looking at this season, I honestly think Division 1 football is a bit away yet, we’re just not up to that standard. In Division 1 you know exactly where you stand as you’re playing the likes of Dublin, Tyrone, Kerry. You have to be up there to stand a chance in the championship.’
While everybody could see the weaknesses in Cork football this year, it wasn’t so easy to come up with reasons and solutions. A number of ex-Cork players have come forward with their ideas about the future but Cleary has no doubt that the rescue must start at the very bottom and work its way up.
‘We were way off the pace needed in the games against Kerry and Tyrone, we just didn’t compete, weren’t at the races,’ said a worried Cleary.
‘We didn’t get to play Dublin, who are a step above them again.
‘In a county the size of Cork we always have players, there’s plenty players there, but it’s all about building from the bottom now, trying to get a competitive group together, get them used to winning again and get them back up to the top. Dublin won’t keep going forever, and it’s a case of being ready when that happens, to fill the gap they leave.’
Between 2000 and 2010 Cork were in the top group of football counties, appearing almost annually in Croke Park and culminating in the All-Ireland win of 2010 against Down. Since then the team has slipped backwards and that slide seems to be gathering momentum in recent years.
‘We have been sliding since 2010,’ admits Cleary.
‘We lost a lot of quality players, especially in recent seasons, through retirement but you also lost players like Ciarán Sheehan, Damian Cahalane, Eoin Cadogan, Alan Cadogan, players who should be back-boning the team at present.
‘If any county lost them, they’d struggle and you’re asking guys to fill in who weren’t quite ready for it. They struggled and then they were cast aside and somebody else brought in.
‘What the team has been lacking badly is a number of leaders who could stand up and be counted when the retirements came.
‘It looks now too as if we’re changing the strength and conditioning coach every year, the manager every two years and that is very unsettling. In the long term that isn’t going to work.
‘You have to put somebody good in there, trust him, give him a chance to build for the future, rather than looking at present results. Tyrone lost most of their team but were able to build a new side that are just as competitive. We seem to have gone in the other direction.
‘At this stage it has to be about looking to the future and building from scratch.’
Cork have placed a lot of hope in the development squads, from U14 upwards, but while that system has produced results in hurling, it doesn’t seem to be working in football. Cleary believes that the lack of ex-players is the difference.
‘When you look at the development squads you have to ask why it seems to be working in hurling but not in football, as both are set up equally and the same,’ said Cleary.
‘The difference seems to be that while many ex-players are getting involved in the hurling, the same doesn’t seem to be happening in the football. The hurling was in the same poor position a few years ago but they brought in a load of ex-players to run the development squads and the past couple of seasons have been very encouraging for them.
‘Casting no aspersions on the guys involved in the football but the same thing did not happen. Hopefully, over the next few years we will see more of the successful ex-Cork footballers getting involved with the underage teams and starting to bring in the results.’
Cleary is critical of the system that operates at minor level in Munster, which has seen Cork losing out to Kerry and not getting a second chance.
‘All is not lost for the football. The main thing is that you have the main ingredients, the players, and you have loads of players,’ he said.
‘Hopefully, by starting at 14, 15, you can build it all up again. The U17 team were only a point off Kerry and Kerry are now in the All-Ireland final. We haven’t got any break in minor in recent seasons because of the system that operates in Munster, so they’re getting no chance to develop properly. If that could be changed, a second chance brought in for all teams, things might change at minor level.’