In the brave new world of GAA militancy, Cork are the originals and still the best. Gerald McCarthy wasn’t wanted from day one. Brian Corcoran made that perfectly clear. The just-retired Cork hurler went out to bat for his erstwhile team-mates against the County Board, criticising their choice of successor to John Allen and Donal O’Grady. Gerald was seen as a Frank Murphy ‘yes man’. He maintained his dignity, however, and insisted he was not a plant, pointing to his impressive record as a coach and legendary player.
He stuck by his men during ‘Templegate’ (when they conveniently befriended Frank… for a while) and though the Rebels, by rights, should have been knocked out of the 2007 championship after suffering two defeats, first by Waterford, then Tipp, they came within a last-gasp Eoin Kelly free of an All-Ireland semi-final in Gerald’s first season in charge.
When the whole Teddy Holland affair blew up last February one sensed that the initial opposition to McCarthy’s appointment was barely below the surface; with the hurlers, not the footballers, seen as the prime movers against the hierarchy. The players ultimately got what they wanted. Holland was forcibly removed and players were given a say, supposedly, in future management selections.
When that input proved ineffectual – basically they were outnumbered 5 to 2 – the GPA leadership on Leeside found they’d won the ‘selectors’ battle but looked like losing the main motive for war in the first place: picking their own manager.
In the championship just gone Cork were hamstrung from the start, having effectively missed an entire pre-season’s preparation and a number of National League games due to the stand-off. In Munster Tipperary were too good for them and everyone else and they took their chances via the back door. They showed steady enough improvement and no little resilience in coming from a long way behind to beat Clare.
Several of the Cork players are past their best but even still they are well good enough to go on for a few seasons yet – as Galway found out. Any side needs a blend of experience and youth in that order.
Still, McCarthy wouldn’t mind shedding a few of the old brigade, who are regarded by board officials as serial agitators. He must feel badly let down – especially after backing them to the hilt when they weren’t going well earlier in the summer, and slating those who’d written such great players off after they’d taken the Tribesmen.
Now those same men he stuck by are effectively blaming his methods for not being able to cope with Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final. Which is ridiculous. They gave the champions their toughest test of the campaign, but no team could live with Kilkenny this year.
With another strike not allowed under the ‘binding arbitration’ deal hammered out last winter, the Cork squad have gone for the nuclear option: the threat of mass retirements.
When Waterford said they wanted Justin McCarthy to resign or they would down hurls, that particular ‘player power’ situation was somewhat different. The manager was well into his seventh season for starters. It was eight months after his latest reappointment and things patently were going backwards at an alarming rate.
Gerald went to great lengths to assuage the hard-to-please Cork players’ grievances, even allowing an outside facilitator to mediate between players and management over issues of concern, such as his outmoded training drills (not enough cones?). You can’t imagine Brian Cody contemplating that level of intrusion and, frankly, molly-coddling.
Also, while they were condemned for not being ‘man enough’ to say it to his face, the Waterford players, to their credit, kept schtum after Justin was ousted. They praised him at every opportunity. Cork have been leaking against Gerald in the past week or so, direct quotes from anonymous players used to colour opinion against his allegedly ‘old-fashioned, demotivational’ management style.
McCarthy has called their bluff. “Right now, it doesn’t look like the best scenario, but let’s give it time. As far as I’m concerned, the future of Cork hurling is the big thing here and that’s bigger than one individual, or group of individuals,” he says.
Determined to put a squad in place for a game in Fermoy next month to mark the 150th anniversary of St Colmans College (against a team of past pupils, including Waterford’s Eoin Murphy), “as far as I am concerned it is just full steam ahead now,” he insists.
He might be old school in the Ógs’ eyes, but with public sympathy for the players in scarce supply, the Cork class of 2009 could be the equivalent of baby infants.
What’s new says you.