JOHN Hayes is a straight talker. He calls it as he sees it. As a columnist with The Southern Star during Cork’s recent Munster SFC campaign, he didn’t hold back when analysing the Rebels’ disastrous provincial final loss to Tipperary.
The crux of Cork’s attacking problem was, he wrote in the Star, ‘our long-time over-reliance on running and hand passing through teams.’
He added: ‘Even with the team I played on between 2005 and 2010, when we were relatively successful and consistently a top four team, we sometimes relied too much on the running game. The lack of variety in our attacking strategy is not a new phenomenon, but Cork were painfully one-dimensional (against Tipperary).’
Twenty-seven days after Cork’s shock loss to Tipp, Hayes received a text message from Rebel football boss Ronan McCarthy.
He was at home in Burgatia, Rosscarbery, watching the All-Ireland football final on December 19th when his phone beeped.
‘I assumed at that stage that it wasn’t my playing services he was looking for,’ former Rebel attacker Hayes says.
They met the following Monday when McCarthy laid out his plan: he wanted the Carbery Rangers forward to come on board as a Cork senior selector.
‘It did come out of the blue,’ Hayes admits, but it was also too good an opportunity for the Rosscarbery man to turn down.
In recent seasons he has been involved in coaching roles with Rangers’ minor and U21 teams, and it’s a facet of the game that interests him.
He turned 36 years old last Monday and he knows he can count on one hand how many seasons he has left in senior club football, but he has no interest in hanging up his football boots anytime soon.
Still, he has dipped his toes into coaching with Ross and the chance to get involved in the Cork senior football management team will, potentially, fast-track his coaching career by exposing Hayes to life at the top level.
‘All along my primary focus has been playing but in the last two years I have had a few injuries so I’ve missed a lot of football and I haven’t been able to train as much,’ he explains.
‘I haven’t got a consistent run of games so it started to come into my head that I might not be able to play too much longer. When you get into your late 30s – and I’m 36 now – you take it month by month and game by game, not year by year.
‘The chance to get involved in a set-up like Cork, especially in a short season and with the club action on the backburner until later in the year, I couldn’t leave that behind me. It’s a chance to improve myself as a coach as much as I can in a top-class set-up, with guys like Ronan McCarthy and Cian O’Neill, and to see how an inter-county set-up operates.’
Before Hayes agreed to join McCarthy’s management team the Ross stalwart spoke with new Carbery Rangers senior manager Declan Hayes. The latter was very supportive. That was important because the experienced Ross attacker still wants to play and he needed to make sure he could juggle both. With a clear divide between the inter-county and club seasons he feels he can. At 36 he won’t be playing every game for Ross, especially in the early rounds of the league.
It makes sense, too, given Hayes’ standing as one of the top club forwards in the county over the past two decades that part of his new role will see him involved in improving the Cork attack.
With Ross he has averaged almost 0-6 per game over 19 seasons, since he made his championship debut for Carbery Rangers in a 2002 Carbery JAFC first-round game against Gabriel Rangers. He hopes to bring that expertise and knowledge to the Cork set-up. That brings us to Hayes’ job description, as he wants to add more strings to Cork’s attacking bow.
‘The role is as a selector with a view to helping out with the attack side of our play,’ he explains.
‘Ronan and Cian (O’Neill) are the main men, Cian takes the bulk of the training, but as the season goes on I will hope to contribute in terms of our attacking game plan and evolving what they have done over the last few years. I’m very interested in that.
‘Looking at the Tipperary game, it’s about getting more variety in the attacking play and I know that’s an area that the guys inside there are keen to get going.’
Hayes is not the only new addition to McCarthy’s management team as 2019 All-Ireland minor winning Cork manager Bobbie O’Dwyer, originally from Urhan, has also come on board, to join Cian O’Neill (CIT) and Sean Hayes (Nemo Rangers), with Gary O’Halloran (Ballinora) stepping back for family reasons. With McCarthy signing a new two-year deal, the goal is to continue the improvement Cork have shown in last 18 months, albeit the loss to Tipperary was a particularly low point.
Hayes is the greenhorn in this set-up, the new kid on the coaching block, but those who know him will agree that he is not backwards in coming forward. Also, he knows McCarthy well. In 2016 the Douglas man spent a glorious year as Carbery Rangers manager and, with Hayes spearheading the attack, led the club to its first-ever Cork SFC title.
‘I was with Ronan for two years with Cork and he was involved with Ross the year we won the county so I had three years straight with him,’ explains Hayes, who won an All-Ireland SFC title in 2010.
‘Ronan is a very straight speaker and I tend to operate in the same manner myself. When it comes to football I don’t pull punches or beat around the bush, and Ronan is very similar in that respect. He is the boss, the manager, and my role is to support him and help him to get the best out of the squad that Cork has.’
Hayes is encouraged by what he saw from Cork last season, apart from the performance against Tipperary, and he’s confident too that they can build on that in the season ahead.
‘I know from talking to Ronan and Cian, they are looking to evolve what has been done over the last few years, and bring through even more young players, if we can,’ Hayes explains.
‘There are a lot of young guys on the panel, a lot of the All-Ireland winning U20s were blooded last year and you have players from the U17s who will start to come on board in the near future as well.
‘Cork had a big result against Kerry and then there was the disappointment against Tipperary, but that can happen with young players and young teams – it can be hard to get that consistency.
‘I’m looking forward to seeing what these young players can do and to see what we can do as a management too, to give them the best possible chance of success.’
And if Hayes can impart some of his knowledge on Cork’s next generation, then he could yet prove a shrewd addition.