Last Thursday night in the Sunset Ridge Hotel shortly before the Cork hurling panel of 2008 took a secret ballot on whether to approve of Gerald McCarthy's reappointment, the meeting's chairman and team captain John Gardiner spoke of how he could empathise with the younger players in the room. Where they were now was exactly where he had been in the John Barleycorn Inn in Riverstown in 2002.
It had been his first year with Cork. The side had been dumped out of the Munster championship in their very first game, they had exited the championship itself after a humiliating nine-point defeat and all year there had been tension with the board and the management. But he thought the year had been great! He'd played in a league final, a couple of massive championship games in Thurles; played alongside his idols; this was the dream. A few months on and he was being handed a piece of paper to sign to withdraw his services as a Cork hurler. "And you know, lads, what was the very first thing that crossed my mind? 'Jesus, what is my dad going to say?'"
But that initial thought was countered by an overriding one. The veterans were certain they were doing the right thing. And this wasn't about their own future but the likes of Gardiner and his. Fergal Ryan never played for Cork again after that famous Imperial Hotel press conference, Mark Landers neither. This was about something bigger than all of them. So he signed it, just like everyone else. "Do I ever regret it?" Gardiner said last Thursday. "It was the best thing I ever did. I had the four best years of my career and my life."
Now they faced a similar choice. This wasn't about replicating or yearning for the past but fighting for and securing the future. A few minutes later that secret ballot was taken, the vote, 27-2 against the board's reappointment of McCarthy. Almost totally unanimous. Just like 2002 and the John Barleycorn.
But how were they there again? How did they get back to here?
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At the start Gerald didn't want it and they didn't want him. They had a winning formula, one that facilitated them to become the first Munster county in over 60 years to contest four consecutive All Ireland finals; not even Cody's Kilkenny had managed that. But then when he had accepted it they had to accept him. Along with Jimmy Barry Murphy he was the county's most decorated player since Ring. At his first meeting with them he told them only the managerial faces had changed; the managerial systems would be merely tweaked, not dismantled; he was into evolution, not revolution.
The old doubts though weren't long resurfacing. When the team showed up at Lawlor's Hotel in Dungarvan before a Waterford Crystal game that January, their pre-match meal consisted of a plate of sandwiches loaded with butter and mayonnaise. Under O'Grady and Allen, pre-match food would have consisted of chicken, pasta, yoghurt and fruit, the kind of preparatory detail which the cyberspace cynics bash the likes of Cusack and Ó hAilpín for yet laud the likes of O'Connell and O'Gara for. Later that same afternoon against Waterford, Cusack took a short puck-out which had been intercepted and driven over Cusack's crossbar and at half-time he had his knuckles wrapped by McCarthy for not going long. As the players made their way out for the second half, Cusack discreetly said to McCarthy that he had read the situation as he'd seen it and he'd probably do the same again.
The following day McCarthy called Cusack to say that exchange had been a breach of discipline, undermining his position as coach. Cusack pointed out that if there was to be a meeting with management on such a disciplinary issue, he was entitled to have another player accompany him; under the previous system, which McCarthy had said he was going to retain, such a protocol had been established so players wouldn't be left in a three or four-to-one scenario. Eventually no such meeting took place, though Cusack was dropped for the tournament final against Tipperary the following week.
They felt training wasn't up to scratch either. Like most coaches, Gerald would do the standard middle-man drill. One man by one touchline, another by the other and one in the middle, who the other two work. Under Seanie McGrath's supervision, you were in there for 40 seconds, max, just like a period of play in a game; in, out, high-tempo, match-intensity stuff. Now you'd be in for three minutes; after pucking four or five balls, your intensity naturally sagging.
One drill was of particular concern to the players. Six men in one line facing infield, six in another facing them, between them, six poles in a straight line for them to solo zig-zag through. Player One goes. Solo in open space for a few yards, negotiate the six poles, solo in some more open space for a few yards, pass the ball off to the man first in line and then go back to the end. Players felt they were standing around idle for too long waiting for their next go.
When the players convened a meeting last October to discuss the county board's controversial decision to remove the next football manager's right to appoint his own selectors, the topic of whether to remove McCarthy as hurling manager was floated. In the end, they agreed it would be premature to move against him, especially as McCarthy, to his credit, had initiated a review meeting with player representatives in which he was open to change and ideas.
The Sunday after this year's Munster semi-final defeat to Tipperary though, the notion was touted again at a meeting of the players reps. Training had improved but only marginally so. They also found his relationship and familiarity with too many players odd to say the least. On 25 May, two weeks before the Tipp game, they played Galway in a challenge game. An hour or so before, McCarthy and his namesake Timmy found themselves walking down the tunnel together. The two had shared a strained relationship for the previous 12 months on the back of the manager hauling the player off within 15 minutes of introducing him as a sub against Waterford in Thurles but now Gerald struck up a conversation. The previous night in the local county championship Bride Rovers had snatched a draw against Ballinhassing thanks to an injury-time score from Brian Murphy. "Well, Timmy, ye pulled it out of the bag last night!"
"Sorry, Gerald, what do you mean, boy?" His club was Castlelyons, always had been.
In the lead-up to the same Tipp game, Gerald, in a team meeting, talked about the movement he wanted for puckouts and referred to a great run one forward had made in a challenge game against Waterford in Mallow on 11 May. One problem. As the same player admitted in the showers to a teammate that night, he wasn't even playing that night. Who was Gerald mistaking him for? Whose place could he be taking? More worryingly, who could be taking his?
The lead-in to the Tipp game had also been the most fractured they could remember for a first-round championship game. Normally they'd have a three-week run-in in which the tone for the entire championship would be set. This year, with all those club games, they only came together 12 days beforehand. Instead of tapering down in the last week as they would under Seanie McGrath, they were cramming. But, they accepted, that wasn't Gerald's fault and it was agreed it was better to work with him.
On the surface, on match day, he deserved such support. The Galway win was magical and a big factor in that was McCarthy's ingenious use of Cathal Naughton, totally outwitting his old adversary, Ger Loughnane. Against Clare, he made the right moves too. But after they lost to Kilkenny, heavily, the players felt chickens had come home to roost. They hadn't deserved to beat Kilkenny, either on the day or in the lead up to it. That summer Gerald had instructed the players to be on the field for training at 10 to seven every night yet too often he wasn't there. And when it had started, it was still too pedestrian and that was reflected in their hurling. The sharpness wasn't there to compete with Kilkenny.
"People say the players want to run the show, that they won't listen to anyone,'" says one player. "But under [Donal O'] Grady, we were more than happy to do what we were told. It was reflected on the field. We didn't have the same confidence in Gerald's coaching."
It was a judgement which they didn't want or think they'd have to declare. The mood within the county in September was that Gerald would get out after an average if respectable stint, but when the two players representatives, Cusack and Ó hAilpín, met with the five other members of the selection committee at a meeting in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Friday, 10 October, Gerald's was the only name the five raised. At one point county chairman Mick Dolan left to establish by phone if McCarthy was interested and McCarthy verified he was.
The players acknowledged that, but said they were here to talk about processes, not personalities. How would they go about seeking the best man and system for the job? Would there be a shortlist? Interviews? It's how it worked in other counties, including Tyrone with Mickey Harte's appointment. The board informed them that wasn't how Cork operated. And sure hadn't they seen how it had worked in Limerick, with Tom Ryan issuing legal writs, and the whole media circus that went with all the speculation over the shortlist. And who would be on theirs? Give names. The players declined, saying again, this was about establishing a process, but as they left, they knew the board had only one man in mind. That Sunday night there was a meeting of the players reps, who all contacted players in their sub-unit to gauge their opinion on the prospect of Gerald being retained. The overwhelming mood was that it was time for a new man.
This was relayed to the board at a further meeting between their five members of the selection committee and the players' two delegates, but again it was dismissed. At a further meeting this day two weeks ago, the board reiterated Cork and Gerald had been unlucky this past two years, including against Kilkenny. "I laughed when I heard that," says one player. "Unlucky? We were hammered. Maybe we were unlucky Kilkenny didn't get the dates mixed up or their bus didn't crash. Otherwise luck had nothing to do with it." At that Cusack and John Gardiner outlined the blunt truth. In the squad's opinion their preperation wasn't adequate, and the following evening at a private meeting facilitated in selector Donie Collins's house in Blackrock, they made their position clear to Gerald. McCarthy was visibly upset at that, but made it clear he was going to accept the post.
That same night Gardiner and Cusack called another meeting of the players for 10.30 in the Commons Inn Hotel to update their colleagues on developments and if their message to Gerald accurately gauged that of the group. They were informed that they had, and if needs be, all 30 of them would deliver it. Such a message would have to be delivered before the following night's county board meeting though, and all 30 couldn't do it because of work commitments. Instead, after McCarthy had taken a call at 12.30 that night, nine players met him in the Imperial Hotel at 10.30 that Tuesday morning.
As Gardiner and Cusack had spoken to him the previous day, this time Seán Óg Ó hAilpín was the first to address Gerald. This, he said, had nothing to do with him as a person, father, respected businessman and former playing great, but they felt he wasn't the right man for the job. McCarthy disputed that, citing his five All Irelands as a player and his record with Cork and St Finbarr's as a coach and trainer in the early '80s and '90s and his time with Waterford. Ó hAilpín said that was all fine and good but they were going on what they'd seen the previous two years.
Niall McCarthy seconded the motion, saying at 63, a player and man of such standing did not need such hassle. Joe Deane asked how could he have faith in an appointments process in which the views of the players had been completely discarded? What hurt McCarthy the most though was the interjection of Ronan Curran, who wondered how McCarthy could say either he or the players had enjoyed the past two years, and how could they enjoy the next two. That really wounded him. A fellow Barrs man saying that. And Gardiner, Cusack and Ó hAilpín too. He'd backed Seán Óg and Donal Óg to the hilt through Semplegate. He'd made Gardiner captain. This was their gratitude? At that, his mind was made up and left. He and Cork would be back with the cuckoo but not with those cuckoos.
So, that's how they're back where they are. Another faceoff with the board, with another coach and loyal servant of Cork caught in the crossfire. The players' vote in the Sunset Ridge would indicate that if Gerald wants 30 players next year, he'll have to look for another 30 outside those who were in that room that night, but privately they'll accept this latest battle will be the greatest test of their unity and willpower. The board know the players will struggle to get the backing of the public on this one now they're two years without reaching an All Ireland final, even though the players will justifiably argue it's because a system was dismantled and then imposed upon them that has led to that wait. That is the players' dilemma. The longer they go on without winning silverware, the less support they have for change, yet the more change is needed.
The players aren't blameless. Sometimes their bluntness isn't the virtue they think it is and they could have adopted a more diplomatic approach in their dealings with McCarthy. But it's a sad state of affairs, when a sporting body appears to be more anxious to see its players retire rather than win. This is about power alright, and not necessarily player power.