For the first time since I stepped onto the terraces in Limerick in 1988 I didn’t get to witness Cork exit the hurling championship. And considering all the reports I’ve read and heard I should count myself lucky to have missed it, yet at the same time there’s the sadist in me that wishes that I was there. That I was there to wallow, rage and fume against another ‘new low’ in an a list of them that is rapidly increasing and shows no sign of slowing down. As I sat back and enjoyed my honeymoon the sporting news from home was akin to logging onto RIP.ie. U-21? Lost. Minor? Lost? Footballers? Lost, to Tipp. Club? Lost, but still there. Cork seniors? Beat Dublin, lost to Wexford. Crisis? Depends who you ask.
As a Cork man there’s quite a lot to be angry about but being away from the madding crowd gave me a chance to reflect. After much reflection the feeling that I’m left with is frustration. Sheer and utter frustration. There’s so much wrong it’s difficult to figure out where to start but at the same time there’s so much right, or at least there’s so much that could be right, so much potential. It would make you want to scream. And in that scream it would be easy to just vent about the County Board, about this person and that person, blame them for everything, convince yourself that there’s an Orwellian-like conspiracy to destroy Cork GAA. But it would be wrong to do so. Everybody involved in Cork GAA from the top to the bottom are there for the betterment of it. Why else would they be there? It’s going in the wrong direction, but the desire is there to fix it. It simply has to be, it needs to be.
Before we can heal there needs to be honesty. From everyone. The truth of the matter is that Cork hurling has been in decline since the 1980’s. At some level our organisational thinking and mindset are still stuck there too, they might even be in the 1970’s. A reasonable level of Minor (2) and U-21 (2) success in the 1990’s gave us our last great team from 1999-2008 and that was supplemented by our last Minor title in 2001. So our current position cannot be a surprise to anybody in Cork, if they’re honest with themselves. To combat this we seem to simply rearrange the deck chairs without really looking at the direction of the ship, or even checking out if the hull is rotten. We don’t want to see what’s underneath for fear we see the truth.
We can blame the demise of City hurling. But what has been done to fix it? What about the massive population shift in Cork over the past 40 years? How was that combatted? We can blame the demise of the Mon and Farna, but they weren’t simply shut down over one summer or anything like that. What about all the other schools in Cork playing hurling? What’s being done to help them? Is it enough? Could more be done? Do we have enough of our own full-time coaches? Or will we just carry on doing the same thing and hope that things will change in time? Sorry, I needed to scream a little.
A few things have occurred to me over the past while, things that have been left happen. I think they sum up the disconnect that exists between the powers that be and the laypeople. The first thing is the ‘new’ seating we got in Páirc Uí Chaoimh back in the mid-noughties. The bucket seats that were to put an end to the rotten wood benches we’d grown so accustomed to and to ‘modernise’ the stadium. We all remember how they turned out. Small, cramped and utterly unsuitable. A complete and total disaster of a job. A cheap option. I think it was the 2006 Munster Football final replay that hearlded their first big test. They failed, miserably. The solution? Take an angle-grinder to them, obviously. Result? Marginally less uncomfortable, but still pitiful. They stayed there until the very end. It was just let happen. Never mind the spectators, the paying punters.
And then there was the dressing rooms in the old Páirc. There was some sense towards the end and a team was given two of them to prepare in. But on the day of a double header, such as a county final or a Munster final, what happened then? Well then, on possibly the biggest day of your career, you togged out in the portacabins. You were crowded into a space that was derisory. Totally and utterly inadequate. Never mind the players or mentors or the small clubs. They also lasted to the very last day. It was let happen, continually, year after year. Of course players and mentors are and always were made very welcome on their arrival in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Páirc Uí Rinn, weren’t they? No, not really. There’s always the chance that you’ve taken the trouble to pack your gear-bag just to get in for free. And of course players should be happy to re-arrange their lives around the three possible dates for their next game. It’s ok, they’ll accept it.
There just seems to be a detachment between the top and the root and branch members that’s almost terminal. There’s no bad people there, just a lot of groupthink, as Kevin O’Donovan pointed out. Derek Kavanagh wrote a fabulous article where he lamented that there’s nothing there for the youth of Cork that says ‘this is who we are and this is what we’re about’. He’s 100% correct, instead there’s an assumption that everybody knows or should know already what we’re all about, and that if they don’t well, well that’s their loss. It’s such a dangerous mindset; the world has changed a lot since the 1970’s and nothing can be taken for granted. And it’s a mindset that’s brought us to where we are now.
L. P. Hartley wrote that ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’. We need to escape the past, stop drifting aimlessly and take control of the future. Cork GAA needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into this century. It needs to reconnect with its foundations and become a transparent organisation that people aspire to be a part of. It needs a vision, it needs unity, it needs to start providing regular, meaningful games for its players at all levels (that’s a whole other can of worms), it needs to stop exporting talent to our rivals but first and foremost, it needs to admit that there’s a problem, a crisis, that all this isn’t a blip. Only then can the work begin.