Year Eighteen

In the end, the appointment of the new Cork hurling manager was a totally rational one. It’s mad that we were led to believe, for a while, that in the bowels of Thurles last July, after a harrowing exit from the ultimate rollercoaster of a championship, that, based on the consensus of a panel of players that had to be in mourning, and after Kieran Kingston had said in an interview that his thoughts were far from the future, Cork GAA officials had gathered, judged and granted the incumbent one more year.

It sounded fantastical at the time, and, thankfully, it turned out to be so. Not, solely, because of the appointment of Pat Ryan (Kieran Kingston has without doubt, done Cork hurling plenty of service), but more because of the way he was appointed. It wasn’t an emotional, unilateral selection, but a calculated, logical and sensible one. I would venture that nobody has a more encyclopaedic knowledge of the hurlers available to Cork than Ryan, he has a track record of success, has worked with the vast majority of the players on the squad already, and the values that he speaks about in relation to the game are as impeccable as they are practical.

There’s a lot to like about what Ryan has done so far. We may have only seen four games that are of absolutely no significance, but what is of significance is what he has said, which in turn gives us a glimpse into what he’s trying to implement. We’re all more than aware of the long term faults of Cork hurling, but it was both refreshing and revelational to hear him be so open and honest about them in an interview with Denis Hurley from The Echo not long after his appointment.

He is under no illusions that the game has changed beyond all recognition. And he is more than aware that it is of no importance whether we like that in Cork or not. In the evolution of any game it’s a case of adapt or die and for too long we’ve been a bit too willing to fall on our own sword of style than to strive to survive. In that interview he said that “we’ve been slow in Cork to move to what’s needed.” Nothing to argue with there, but, crucially, he also pointed out that it was a cultural phenomenon. We are what we are famous for, and that should be enough. Except that it isn’t, and hasn’t been for a long time.

One can imagine that, after stepping down from his role as U20 manager, Ryan has spent the year watching, analysing, learning and planning. That year’s sabbatical gave him the rare gift of perspective, a chance to cast a cold hard eye over everyone and everything.

He might even have taken note of our neighbours from Kerry’s latest All-Ireland triumph. As I’ve written before, one of the Kingdom’s greatest tricks has been convincing the world of their total, unwavering commitment to playing the beautiful game. We in Cork obviously know the truth, but  Michael Foley of The Sunday Times brilliantly encapsulated the spirit of it all as he highlighted how Kerry’s pragmatism has always been a central part of their success. They have always adapted, have always found a way to win. How you won can be mythologised afterwards, but you have to win first.

As I said, Ryan will also have cast a cold eye over everyone. In another interview with Hurley, he mentions how important it is to him that he treats everybody from 1-36 the same. A manager with a bigger ego may have come in and looked at Cork, looked at the scars of the past few years and come to the conclusion that a culling was in order.

Thankfully, that’s not the way here. Everyone has a chance to impress. Everyone can be coached. Everyone matters. Everything is up for grabs. The more players who are willing to do what is expected, to do what it is necessary, the better for Cork. And there are a hell of a lot of players there. Twenty-six have been named for Saturday night’s game against Limerick yet it’s easy to name another twenty players who have a chance of being involved. Obviously, that will be Ryan and his selectors’ biggest challenge; getting the right men with the right stuff into the right positions. It won’t be easy, but nobody ever said that it would be.

There have been injuries both of the niggly and severe kind. Mark Coleman, Alan Connolly and Darragh Fitzgibbon are the most perturbing, though a break mightn’t be the worst thing in the world for two of that trio. Then there’s the Fitzgibbon Cup conundrum. A Thursday night game in Dublin means that Cork’s UCC contingent start on the bench tomorrow, and with a Thursday night game again next week, the team that takes the field in Salthill on Sunday week may be similarly compromised.

Throw in the odd, odd interview, and the new management must already feel like veterans, and they must be relieved to have a proper game to focus on tomorrow as the All-Ireland champions come to town for the second time this year.

There were elements of the performances in the Co-op Superstores Munster League that were encouraging, but a lot of our long term problems were as evident as ever, such as winning our own puck-outs, competing in the air, breakdowns in marking and conceding soft goals and big scores. However, Cork won two games against Limerick and Tipperary against the head. Yes, neither game counted for much, but every game matters in its own way. There was a stage in the Tipp game where a double-figure loss looked likely, and there is no doubt that such a loss would have been damaging.

The league has always been and will always be the testing ground for championship. Due to circumstances such as the close proximity of the League Final to the opening round of the championship and the ongoing Fitzgibbon, this year’s edition will be more experimental than ever. However, as Cork again attempt to chart a course out of the hell that we’ve created for ourselves, this league will a be a barometer of Cork’s ability to become more pragmatic in their quest for salvation.

John Coleman

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