'The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.' - John Maxwell
It is not stretching the point to state that Cork GAA has undergone a significant transformation in recent times. Starting with the arrival of new CEO Kevin O’Donovan, Páirc Uí Chaoimh’s renovation, a complete club championship overhaul and the county’s senior hurlers reaching an All-Ireland final under Kieran Kingston.
Then there are the county’s underage teams delivering a staggering return of silverware in 2021 including Minor and U20 Munster hurling and football, All-Ireland minor and U20 hurling championships.
It hasn’t been all plain sailing though.
In the midst of that aforementioned positivity, something Cork GAA is not used to, the county’s senior football fortunes did not match their underage or senior hurling counterparts successes.
Yes, there was that never to be forgotten last-minute victory over the Kingdom in the Munster championship at a rain-sodden Páirc Uí Chaoimh last year. But, an inability to build on that win coupled with a long injury-list and lack of consistency cost Ronan McCarthy, a fine manager, his job.
After so many false dawns when it came to contending let alone winning senior All-Irelands, Cork football needed someone new, someone innovative, someone who could inspire a young senior team to greatness. Pure and simple, Cork football needed a new leader.
Keith Ricken may not necessarily fall into all of those categories but it looks like the Cork GAA county board believes he is the man to lead the county’s senior footballers into the future.
The former St. Vincent’s and CIT football manager looks set to be ratified at the Cork County Board’s meeting in November. That appears to be a mere formality as his backroom team has already been announced. Micheál Ó Cróinín (Naomh Abán), James Loughrey (St. Brigid’s / Mallow), Barry Corkery (Éire Óg), Des Cullinane (St. Nicholas) Ray Keane (St. Finbarr’s) and John Cleary (Castlehaven) are set to form an intriguing management setup.
So, for all his positive qualities, can Keith Ricken be a success with Cork in a potentially revamped All-Ireland football championship in 2022?
There is little doubt that the county’s new manager is a very good coach, a natural leader, orator and an individual capable of getting the best out of whatever raw material is at his disposal.
A quick glance at some of the quotes from Ricken’s 2020 All-Ireland U20 winning-squad including Brian Hartnett and Cathail O’Mahony reappeared in print this past week and underlined the value of his man-management skills.
The vast majority of players and management team members that have worked with Keith Ricken don’t appear to have a bad word to say about him. That’s unique in the modern-day GAA landscape.
The incoming Cork senior football manager has built an impressive club and inter-county CV, enhancing his reputation by producing attacking, vibrant and well-prepared teams.
All well and good but Keith Ricken must produce ‘winning football’ in his new role with the Cork seniors and quickly.
No one needs to tell Ricken that the step up to senior inter-county football is a brutal one. There is little margin for error or patience when it comes to Cork’s lack of success in the senior football championship.
Ricken will have thought that over before accepting a role that has been as unforgiving as it was enjoyable for previous incumbents including Ronan McCarthy, Peadar Healy, Brian Cuthbert, Conor Counihan, Larry Tompkins and Billy Morgan.
Encouragingly, the new Cork manager has faced down adversity, both on and off the pitch, in recent times and come out smiling, most notably two years ago.
Down 1-6 to 0-0 to Dublin following an awful start to the 2019 All-Ireland U20 final in Portlaoise, Keith Ricken never panicked, didn’t feel the need to roar at his players or make instant changes.
Instead, the trust he had placed in his young team and nurtured throughout the previous year reaped dividends as Cork’s U20’s turned a nine-point deficit into a stunning eight-point (3-16 to 1-14) victory.
‘It’s not that we came back to win the match. It’s because those fellas at 18, 19, 20 years of age, believed in something greater than themselves,’ Ricken commented shortly after that stunning All-Ireland U20 final win over Dublin.
‘They believed in something we were fighting for together for five months. You’re not important, it’s not about you, the next ball is what’s important. It was the one time I said to myself "I can’t believe they listened to me."’
Whatever your impression of Keith Ricken, this is a positive and necessary move for Cork football.
Only time will tell if the incoming manager will be a success at senior inter-county level but if the current squad listen, believe and buy in to their new leader’s mantra then anything is possible.