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LONG READ: ‘John Cleary sets high standards and you have to meet them’

January 29th, 2023 7:30 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

Cork senior football manager John Cleary.

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He has had to wait a lot longer than most expected to take charge of Cork’s senior football team, but those who know JOHN CLEARY best expect him to make an impact
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MARK Collins has felt the brunt of a few choice words from John Cleary, but confesses they were justified.

Before taking the challenge of resurrecting the Rebels’ footballers, Cleary was a selector for the Castlehaven senior football team. One early Sunday morning training session highlights his high standards.

‘It could have been nine o’clock in the morning,’ former Cork footballer Collins says, ‘and we were after a hard session on the Friday night so fellas were feeling stiff, sore and half sorry for themselves.

‘There was a drill. It was Brian (Hurley), Cathal (Maguire) and myself involved. We didn’t do it right – and John bit the heads off us. 

‘It was something like a simple pass across the goal that should have been given, but wasn't. He let us know what he thought. And he was right.

‘We might have thought it was a Sunday morning session that didn't mean a whole pile but John’s enthusiasm and his want to win made sure we got the most out of that session. He doesn’t care who you are or what you have done, he sets high standards and you have to meet them. You’d be afraid to leave him down or make a mistake.’

 

Cork captain Brian Hurley, and fellow Castlehaven clubman, cheekily quips that Cleary can be hot-headed at times, before adding important context: ‘but in a constructive and good way.’ Hurley has worked with Cleary several times: with the Cork U21s, Castlehaven and now the Cork seniors. 

‘He’s a winner. No matter what he does he wants to win. He will challenge you to get the best out of you,’ Hurley explains. 

‘He wants the best for you. For what he has done for the club and for Cork, there is huge respect for him. He loves football and is passionate about it.’

The respect for Cleary is there. Both inside his football-mad club and in the world outside Castlehaven. Before he coached and managed, he played – and he stood out inside the white lines, too.

‘John is not that much older than me but I remember being in Skibb at an U21 game for Castlehaven, against Bantry I think,’ recalls James McCarthy, Castlehaven’s current senior manager.

‘He got a ball out on the wing around midfield – and John wasn’t the biggest of players, maybe 18 years old at the time – and he went straight through and buried a goal. That’s one of my abiding memories of him for Castlehaven.

‘He read the game better than most as a corner forward. They all talk about the loop now and how David Clifford comes on the loop, but John and Mick McCarthy (of O’Donovan Rossa) had it down to a fine art. They’d let someone else do the hard graft and they would come on the loop and finish it.’

Cork manager John Cleary.

 

Cleary could certainly move, and finish.

‘I’ve watched videos and old clips of John and he was a wiry, nippy corner forward,’ says Cork attacker Brian Hurley. ‘When he got the ball he would do something dangerous with it. He was a livewire with the ball in his hands.’

Again, James McCarthy agrees. He points to the 1983 Munster football final when Cork stunned the all-conquering Kerry. That was the thunder and lightning final that shocked the Kingdom. The legend of the ’83 game centres around the drama of Tadhg Murphy’s winning goal with the second last kick of the game, but dig deeper and Cleary scored 1-6 that day; he was the star of the Cork attack in his debut senior season. There were his two penalties when Cork dumped the Dubs out in the 1989 All-Ireland semi-final. 

‘He wasn’t the biggest of men but he had the brains and the skill level – when and where to run, and his reading of the game,’ James McCarthy explains. ‘With Castlehaven he was always trying to transfer that knowledge to the inside forwards; you don't have to run all the time but where to run, when to run and how to do it.’

Cork football legend Nollaig Cleary.

 

With Cork he won two All-Ireland senior medals, but in the Cleary household John had to give way to his younger sister Nollaig who brought an incredible nine All-Irelands west to Castlehaven. John is 17 years older than Nollaig so she doesn’t have too many memories of him in his prime, but football conversations drifted around every corner of home growing up. Like John, she was a forward that caused havoc.

‘You would naturally pick up things,’ Nollaig explains.

‘I remember the talk at home about moving into the right position, being out in front, all those little snippets, almost picked up by osmosis.

‘The one thing with John is he was always a team player and wanted to bring others into the game. Finding players in a better position, that is something I would have picked up by listening to and watching him. 

‘John puts a lot of importance on being a team player, whether that’s as a player or a manager; it’s all about the team, not the individual. Certainly as a manager, it’s not about you, it’s about the team on the pitch and the team he has around him.’

His management team with the Cork footballers now includes Nollaig’s husband, Micheál Ó Cróinín, John’s brother-in-law. Micheál knows the ins and outs of the Cleary clan better than most, and their innate competitiveness that can be traced back to the late Ned Cleary. He is one of the most influential figures in the rise of Castlehaven football, the Mayo native once hailed as ‘the greatest man to arrive in Castlehaven since our Lord’. Ned was known as an innovator. ‘Why not?’ he often said. That’s a trait John – one of Ned’s eight children – also has. ‘He’s very strong when it comes to organisation. It’s “why can’t we do this?” instead of “we can’t do this”. If something was never done before he'd ask why can’t it be done,’ James McCarthy explains. Cleary is the first man McCarthy says he would call in a crisis.

‘During those Covid seasons we were the first club to come with a tent to a game because there was no dressing-room; the following week everyone had one. From a Castlehaven point of view we try to stay ahead of the posse, and a lot of the time John is the brains behind that.’

Nollaig sees those similarities between her late father and John. 

‘Dad would have coached Castlehaven over the years and many people would have said that he came up with new ideas and innovative ways. John is a bit like that; he doesn't live in the past, he likes to find out about new things, drills and new ways of doing things. He moves forwards,’ she says.

The late Ned Cleary, of Castlehaven GAA Club.

 

Cleary ticks a lot of boxes, with his football knowledge championed by all who know him. 

‘Whether it’s ladies football or men’s football in Cork, he knows all the players,’ Mark Collins says. ‘He has an unbelievable knowledge of football.’

Just look at his coaching CV. He managed the Cork U21 footballers for six seasons (2008-13), and won one All-Ireland and four Munster titles. He was an U21 selector under Tony Leahy before that (2004-07). As Cork minor ladies manager he won four All-Irelands in five seasons (2015-19). He has been involved with Castlehaven teams and managed the Éire Óg ladies football team too. 

The general consensus is that Cleary should have been Cork senior football manager before now. In 2013 and 2015 he was tipped to get the biggest job in Cork football, but the stars didn’t align. His brother-in-law Niall Cahalane – married to John’s sister, Ailish – told The Irish Independent last summer that it was a ‘complete and absolute disgrace and shame and a loss to Cork football’ that Cleary didn’t get the top job before now. The Haven man, brought in as coach in Keith Ricken’s management team for the 2022 season, stepped in mid-way through last year when Ricken had to step aside for health reasons. When Ricken stepped down as Cork manager last summer, Cleary was the obvious choice. The only choice. His time has come, later than expected. This is his Cork team now, and the start to the season has been encouraging, though he knows the real challenges start now: Division 2 of the league.

Mark Collins retired from inter-county football ahead of last season, and admits the decision was made harder when he heard Cleary was getting involved. Queue a few ‘tough conversations’. But while Collins felt his time was up, he is backing his clubman to get Cork moving in the right direction.

‘John just gains respect the moment he steps into a room and steps onto a field. He has that aura about him. Cork is in good hands,’ he feels. 

Sean Powter echoes that.

‘He loves football, he loves Cork football and he represents what Cork football should be about. He has played the game, has won two All-Irelands and knows what it takes to get to the top. Slowly and surely he is instilling that in us. The way we are going about our business you can see there is a bit of John Cleary in all of us at the moment,’ Powter says.

Quiet and unassuming off the pitch Cleary will want Cork football to do the talking this season. He’s not one to seek the spotlight; that’s not his style. When he landed the Cork job last July he didn’t announce it into a family WhatsApp group. There was no fanfare. He’ll save his words for when they are needed: on the football pitch.

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