JAMIE WALL attempts to solve the world’s last great puzzle: why are Cork footballers so inconsistent?
‘The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency’ – James C Collins
DID you hear the one about the Corkman with the inferiority complex? He reckoned he was only as good as everyone else.
Sadly, the punch line to that tiresome joke could just as easily be, ‘He was a Cork footballer.’
For many years now, indeed, for as long as I can remember, there has always been something markedly different about the psyche of the Cork footballer, by comparison to his stick-wielding compatriot of The Peoples Republic.
The only consistency has been the ability to be inconsistent, in both style, and the results delivered. Encouraging performances followed by inexcusable collapses. Humbling defeats met with defiant displays. The joys of being a Cork footballer. The joys of being a Cork football manager. The pain of being a Cork football person.
Cork are the most successful team in the history of the now extinct Munster U21 football championship. Well, joint top, with our neighbours to the west, however holding an extra three final appearances, so let’s split hairs.
However, where this gains some real world context is when looked at through the prism of the last 15 years of the competition. From 2003-2017 the record stands Cork ten, Kerry 2, Tipperary 2, and Waterford 1.
By comparison, in the same time frame, the Cork U21 hurlers have managed just two wins at the grade, and no other final appearances. Yet, here we are, on the eve of Páirc Uí Chaoimh 2.0’s maiden Munster final, and still, questions remain. Questions that rarely abound, when conversation turns to the latest ‘mushroom’ harvest that is Cork hurling.
What is it then, that Cork football hasn’t quite cracked, that Cork hurling has? Swagger. Pure, unadulterated swagger. Kerry have it. Cork hurlers have it. Irrespective the last four years of torture, Manchester United fans have it. It’s an attitude, a defiance.
Anthony Daly’s story of Donal Óg Cusack in a pre-match parade not so gently reminding his teammates, ‘We’re Cork. We are Cork.’
Except he wasn’t reminding his teammates. They never forgot. Nor would they. He went on: ‘We’ve got 27 All-Irelands. You’ve three.’ He was reminding any would be challengers, that they were facing an arrogance that they would never encounter anywhere else.
It’s a confidence that Cork football, despite countless teams to match Kerry physically, skilfully, has never managed. The obvious anomaly to this, Nemo Rangers. Twenty county championships, 16 Munster titles.
Cork football needs Nemo, and the swagger they bring. Look no further than Luke Connolly, the once enigmatic talent who has stepped up hugely in the last 12 months for club and county to provide not only moments of sublime talent, but leadership to boot. If confidence is contagious, his more pronounced role in the team might hold the key.
So, from a management point of view, how does one go about addressing the inconsistency that has plagued Cork football from time immemorial? The first thing to do is to examine and address the root cause.
Since 2013, Cork have had four different senior football managers. Conor Counihan, Brian Cuthbert, Peadar Healy and now Ronan McCarthy. All fine football men, who, having trained under to varying degrees, I’ve no doubt are more than capable, but when you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.
In the same space of time there has been but one Ruler of the Kingdom, Eamon of the House Fitzmaurice. It shouldn’t be underestimated what this has given Kerry. A clear and defined pathway in to the senior team, for a start, but crucially, a consistent message about a style of play. A ‘system’, if you will. Stand back, and wait for Joe Brolly to explode!
However, ‘system’ needn’t be the dirty word we have seen it become over the last ten years. A definite system of play doesn’t stifle talent, it frees it. It takes the burden away from individuals and allows the express themselves within a team environment. A system of play gives your talent a fall back, a plan to execute when things aren’t going according to plan, that will allow your best players to work their way in to a game.
If we want to learn, as coaches, managers, and supporters alike, we should take in the way other sports are played. Contrast Tottenham Hotspur, under Mauricio Pochettino, to Manchester United, under Jose Mourinho. In the last two years, Manchester United have relied on individual talent, and moments of magic, to get them through games, and as a by product of spending almost a billion pounds, have had a degree of success. Tottenham, with a considerably smaller outlay have been more or less equal to United in terms of performance. Why? They have developed patterns of play. Deliberate positioning and uses of the ball to create openings in the right areas of the field, as well as being set up to press an opposition in a pre-ordained area of the pitch.
During Cork’s ‘Golden Years’ (2006-10) there was a deliberate style of play. A system, if you will. It centred on utilising the power of Cork’s team, by running hard lines, using Paddy Kelly to create, and paramount, controlling possession for as much of the game as you possibly could. The ‘Cork Way’ of the time didn’t stifle talents like Donncha O’Connor, or Daniel Goulding, it gave them a platform. It meant every time they stepped out on to the field, they were in control of their own performances.
Under Ronan McCarthy and his new management team, it appears we are getting to this stage again. As Paddy Kelly wrote in The Irish Examiner on Monday, May 28th, after the Tipp game, at last, we have ‘a clear sense of Cork are going to set up and play.’ Deep lying wing forwards, Connolly and Colm O’Neill closest to goal with Mark Collins the conduit and a cleared central channel for delivery of the foot pass.
McCarthy is a winner. Just ask the people of Rosscarbery. He will have instilled a ‘no excuses’ attitude among his charges. Whatever happens on Saturday I hope the Cork football public are willing to look long-term and recognise that progress is being made, and management get the time need to hone and develop a new style of play, a process that is but in its infancy.
Finally, a nod to my friend, and former team-mate Brian Hurley.
He’s been through the wringer with his injury but it’s really great to see him back on the field, where he most belongs. Aidan Kelleher, ‘The Doc’, and his team deserve huge kudos for their measured rehabilitation of one of the county’s most talented footballers.
I’ve never played with anyone with a higher football intelligence than Brian, his goal against Galway in 2010 in Croke Park aged just 18 a spectacular moment and testament to his positioning, awareness, and skill off both feet.
He was described by our U21 management as ‘A championship animal’, and given Saturday’s opposition, it will be great to have a few of those in our own corner too!