Straight-talker John Cleary brings continuity

August 8th, 2022 9:00 AM

By Kieran McCarthy

Cork senior football manager John Cleary.

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KIERAN McCARTHY on why John Cleary’s appointment as Cork football manager makes perfect sense



JOHN Cleary must have felt that his chance to manage the Cork senior football team had passed him by.

It appeared that this particular ship had sailed.

Turns out it hadn’t. It took the scenic route. Longer than expected.

In 2013 and 2015 the Castlehaven man was tipped to get the biggest job in Cork football. Both times he missed out, first to Brian Cuthbert and then to Peadar Healy.

Niall Cahalane, as tough with his words as he was on the pitch, didn’t sugarcoat his thoughts when chatting to the Irish Independent in May. By then Cleary had assumed temporary reins of the Rebels, stepping up when manager Keith Ricken stepped aside due to health reasons – but Cahalane made his feelings clear.

He said it was a ‘complete and absolute disgrace and shame and a loss to Cork football’ that Cleary hadn’t been appointed Cork football boss in the previous decade.

Cahalane’s point is valid. His fellow Castlehaven club-man, and former team-mate, has the the pedigree. For various reasons over the years, the stars didn’t align. Even in the Cork GAA press release confirming that Cleary is taking over from Ricken as new manager, Kevin O’Donovan admitted the Haven man’s graduation to the job was ‘long overdue’. But now his time has come, as he has been handed the reins to the Rebels for three years.

It’s an appointment that makes sense. Cleary has the credentials, first as a player and then as a manager himself. A serial winner with club and county. The man knows what’s needed to win. The reality, however, is that the current Cork senior football team is a long way off contending for the big prize right now.

Reaching the All-Ireland SFC quarter-finals this season was an unexpected bonus. Cork are a mid-table Division 2 table. That’s the starting point for Cleary, but he knows this. He’s a straight-talker.

‘For us as a group, the ultimate aim is to get up to the very top and we're a good bit off it there now,’ he admitted after Cork’s 0-21 to 0-10 quarter-final loss to Dublin in June.

‘We were beaten by Kerry by a similar type of score that we were beaten by Dublin. That's the standard and we're not at that, we're nowhere near it.’

For Cork to move to the next stage of this group’s development, they need consistency in team selections and performances and results. That’s another reason why Cleary’s appointment is a positive one. It brings continuity.

Keith Ricken brought Cleary on board as coach in his management team. He has now worked with this group for a full season, and as manager for the last three months and for six games (two league, four championship). He knows the players. They know him. That’s a solid platform to build from because this is –  and it’s a drum Ricken beat regularly – a long-term project, albeit with year one completed.

‘Good timber takes its time to grow and we have to be patient,’ Ricken stated in January. Patience is key, but so too are signs of progress and development. There were green shoots in the championship. Cork pushed Kerry and Dublin for sizeable chunks of their battles, before the Rebels were left struggling for air at the higher altitude. Cork can’t match the fitness and conditioning of the top teams. That’s not a shock. It takes time to develop a team to win an All-Ireland. Look at Kerry this year – that team is years in the making. Cleary knows this process takes years, and at least this Cork group has year one under their belt.

Now to year two. Division 2 will be a scrap in 2023. The Dubs are down. Ulster champions Derry are in there. Kildare. Meath. Clare. All teams with points to prove. Add in promoted Limerick and Louth, who Cork had their hands full with in the All-Ireland qualifiers. The league is the target. Regular tests against the top teams.

‘Hopefully going forward, the idea is to get up to the top of Division 2, and then maybe ultimately try and get into Division 1,’ Cleary said.

‘The next level that Cork need to get to is that, try and get up to the top of Division 2. And hopefully that can happen over the next couple of years. It’s going to take an awful lot of hard work to do that.’

The hard work has already started. It’s time for Cleary to show he was worth the long wait.

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