Former Cork minor football selector and manager Diarmuid O’Donovan explains why losing at underage doesn’t always impact on players’ developement towards the senior squad.
IN JULY 1998 the Cork minor football team was defeated 0-12 to 0-6 by Limerick in the semi-final of the Munster minor football championship.
The result was considered to be a major shock as it was the first time in 42 years that Limerick had defeated Cork in the Munster minor football competition.
The result stretched Cork’s run without a Munster title to five years. It was the longest run without success that Cork experienced since the 1953 to 1958 drought.
In 1994 Cork lost to Kerry. In 1995, Cork was shocked by Tipperary. In 1996, Kerry won a wet final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and in 1997 an injury-ridden Cork team were well beaten by Kerry in Tralee.
Then came the Limerick game. That defeat caused a lot of eyebrows to be raised. I have good reason to remember the game as it was my first year as a Cork minor football selector.
It is almost 14 years since that night and the result has a different complexion now. ‘Cork should never lose a football match to Limerick,’ we were told.
But that was no ordinary Limerick team. It included Jason Stokes, Brian Geary, John Galvin, Conor Fitzgerald, Stephen Lucey and Jeremy Staunton (later an Irish rugby international). These players have been the backbone of the Limerick senior football team for the last decade.
Pat O’Shea was coach to Limerick. He went on to guide his native Kerry to All-Ireland senior success, against Cork in 2007.
The players on the Cork team did well too. Paudie Kissane and Graham Canty have All-Ireland medals and All-Star awards. While Derek Kavanagh**, Sean Levis, Sean O’Brien Diarmuid Duggan and Conor McCarthy all had long senior inter-county careers.
That Cork minor team produced two senior All-Ireland medal winners. So did the most of Cork minor teams for the next 10 years. The All-Ireland minor championship title has only come to Cork once during that time, but the system keeps producing the players that are keeping Cork at the forefront of the U21 and senior All-Ireland championships.
By now, I hope you can see where this column is going? It concerns the burning topic of the week in Cork GAA — ‘In the light of last Wednesday’s defeat at the hands of Clare in the Munster minor hurling championship, what is the future of Cork hurling?’
I have been involved in minor grade affairs in Cork, as a selector, coach or administrator for most of the 14 years since the ‘Limerick affair’. The lack of tangible minor hurling success over that period is baffling.
Having said that, the word ‘tangible’ is important. I say this because winning trophies may be the only tangible measure of the Cork minor hurling team in a given year, but as I have shown above, it may not be the final outcome of that year.
There have been many questions asked about the Cork minor set-up over the past few days. Questions like: Are the selectors up to the job? After all, some of them have never been selectors at minor level before.
All I can say about that in 1998 three of the selection committee, Teddy Holland, the late John Kerins and myself were new to the job. The same questions were asked. In the next two seasons however, Cork won two Munster championships and an All-Ireland title.
Were we naive in 1998? To a degree, yes. Selection committees, just like teams, need time to bed down.
There is also the factor that neither God nor man can predict — how a minor team will perform on any one-off occasion. For most minor players each game is the biggest day of their sporting lives; not all of them, despite their talents, perform at their best.
The greatest selection committee in the world could not fully prepare for how a minor team will preform on a given day.
Questions have also been raised about the new development squad system in Cork, and how well is it working. To be honest, it is too early to say.
This is the third year of the revamped development squad system. I have a personal involvement with one of the football squads and this has allowed me to attend various workshops that have been organised for the coaches.
The development squad system has many advantages over the old divisional team system. Nevertheless, the system also has its flaws. There is the temptation to try and win the development squad tournaments at all costs. If that happens, a lot of young players who have the potential to become good minors will be discarded in favour of big lads more physically developed at 15 and 16 years of age.
It is also only the second year of the new underage competition structures in Cork. They are generally working well.
The new structures mean that teams are now playing against other teams of similar ability, and because there are fewer regions, there are more teams in each grade.
This should give players a better chance to develop and, in time, improve the quality of both adult club competitions and the inter-county teams. The current minor team would have played most of their teenage years playing in the old divisional system. This system had grown tired and jaded and players were probably not extended to their competitive limits as often as they should have been.
On the other hand, there have been some fantastically competitive minor hurling championship competitions in Cork over the last decade. Each year when the minor championships were complete, it appeared there was enough quality 17 year-old players on display to make a super Cork minor team the following year.
Yet the excellent work that has been put in by Sarsfields, Midleton, Blackrock, Newtownshandrum, Carrigaline, Glen Rovers, and many other clubs has not carried through to the inter-county arena.
Finally, the question has been asked why were there so few city-based players on the Cork panel?
It is important to avoid personalities here because it is easy to make a case for one individual over another. In general however, two-thirds of Cork minor panel should come from the premier minor grades.
If you look at last Thursday’s panel against Clare, 19 premier grade players (12 from Premier 1 and seven from Premier 2) were on the panel. Four were from the A grade and one from the C grade. There is nothing abnormal about the make-up of that panel.
When you look deeper, there are 28 clubs in the top two grades of Cork minor hurling. Seven of these (25%) are city based clubs.
There were three city based players on the panel. That is 12.5% of the panel.
Statistically there should have been five or six city based players on the panel, but no more. Statistics however, do not account for lack of form, and other issues that selectors have to deal with.
There is a looming crisis for the GAA in all urban areas, and Cork city is no exception this. The lack of city-based players is most likely accounted for by the falling standards urban GAA competition, and the failures of urban schools in the Harty Cup schools competition, rather than any perceived bias on behalf of the Cork selectors.
What does all this say for the future of Cork minor hurling? In truth very little. As with the case of the 1998 minor football team it could take 12 years before you can finally pass judgement on any particular team or result.
The real purpose of the Cork minor team remains the same as it ever was; to find players good enough to win senior All-Ireland medals with Cork. If the system produces two senior players of this calibre every year, then it is doing its job.
Too many variables have changed in the last two years to cast a final judgement last Thursday’s result. The selectors will have to weather whatever criticism comes there way as many a selection committee before them has had to do.
When preparing for next year they should however, keep in mind the old New Zealand rugby maxim of performance malfunction; once is an accident, twice… is a trend.
**Correction: Derek Kavanagh did not start in the 2010 All-Ireland but he did come on as a substitute during the game. This means that three, and not two, of the 1998 Cork Minor Football team won senior All-Ireland medals in 2010.