Cork fall deeper into crisis as players walk away  

Sunday October 26 2008

CORK hurling manager Gerald McCarthy may have to field an almost entirely novice team against Tipperary in next year’s Munster championship as several leading players won’t be available in 2009.

An unprecedented number of high-profile retirements from the current team are expected in the coming months in protest at McCarthy’s re-appointment.

According to sources on the team, players will be left to make up their own minds whether or not to come back but the signs are that very few will — the Sunday Independent understands only two of the 32-man panel have indicated they want to play next year.

This could see the careers of stars like Donal óg Cusack, Diarmuid O’Sullivan, John Gardiner, Ronan Curran, Seán óg ó hAilpín, Tom Kenny, Ben and Jerry O’Connor and Joe Deane coming to an end. Long-serving player Timmy McCarthy and many others, including Niall McCarthy and Shane O’Neill, could also depart the scene.

At a meeting in the Sunset Ridge Hotel last Thursday night, where all bar three of the squad were present, 27 senior hurlers took a decision not to play for the county next season after the outgoing manager was ratified by the board. Earlier in the week, the team had also objected to the selection process that re-appointed the St Finbarr’s man.

"Fellows will make up their own minds but there won’t be too many coming back," said one player.

On Monday, two team representatives told McCarthy that they had no confidence in him. The manager stood firm, however, and holding his ground, he replied that they could choose to play or not, but he would remain in charge.

"We know that Gerald’s selectors told him not to go back, we didn’t want him back and we’re very surprised he’s staying on," the player claimed.

Former goalkeeper Ger Cunningham was the man the squad wanted, but they felt the board only focused on one man from the start.

They also maintain that last winter’s recommendation by Labour Relations Commission chairman Kieran Mulvey that a seven-man committee be appointed (including five county board members and two current players) to find a new manager was not properly adhered to. However, the board have denied this and McCarthy was duly ratified 88-6 by delegates last Tuesday night.

Yet the hurlers continue to insist they had no voice in the process. And when it became clear the committee favoured McCarthy, who has previously guided his club to four county titles in five years, the two player representatives rejected the process and walked away.

"Had the board been cute they could have brought in Gerald, Ger Cunningham or Tomás Mulcahy for a discussion about taking the job, but they still would have got the votes for Gerald and there would have been little we could complain about," the player continued.

"But they didn’t entertain it and we feel the selection process has been unfair. Let’s be honest: Ger Cunningham wasn’t considered because the board feel he is too close to the players and is good friends with Donal óg — they played together with Cork and Ger was his goalkeeping coach for a while."

So, where to from here? "We can’t go on strike again (the players are bound by the terms last February’s arbitration agreement which precludes further strike action) and fellows have no desire to take the board on again. At the meeting on Thursday night, we just decided to let every player make his own mind up. There will be no grand announcements or further meetings. Lads will now decide themselves whether they are coming back, or not. But there won’t be many back," said the source.

As a result, a golden age for Cork hurling is in danger of passing in the most disappointing of circumstances.

"There is no big plan," the player reiterated. "We have no desire to fight again. We’re just going to make our minds up over the next couple of weeks. None of us have the stomach to go through this shit again."

With the players fully aware that their stand against McCarthy — and the fallout — will not sit well with the Cork public, they say the only move left is to communicate their position to clubs over the next fortnight.

United they fall
Sunday October 26 2008  

THE reconciliation didn’t last too long, did it? But then, there was never really a solution to the problems in Cork GAA that were first revealed back in 2002 — more a papering over the cracks.

Tensions did lift for a few years because the hurlers were contesting and winning All-Ireland titles, but old wounds were soon reopened and the drama was revisited last Monday when John Gardiner and Donal óg Cusack met Gerald McCarthy and told him straight out that the team had no confidence in him as senior hurling manager. Cusack is understood to have told McCarthy that if he remained as manager, he wouldn’t play next year. McCarthy didn’t blink an eye.

Later that evening, the players gathered in The Commons Inn on the Mallow Road for a meeting that lasted until 1.40am. Just like previous impasses, there was bitterness in the air, but unlike the last two sagas, one or two players questioned the agenda. Was there a need to remove McCarthy? In fact, a couple of younger players, including one highly-talented forward, stated openly that they had no problem working under the St Finbarr’s man.

Still, the majority of the team wanted him out and sought a meeting with the manager the following morning. When McCarthy showed up at the Imperial Hotel, he was met by a delegation of nine players.

From the start, the battle lines were clearly defined. McCarthy was once more told that the team had no belief in him. The players pointed out that they had lost five championship matches in two years and had gone backwards. The training programme and coaching drills were also criticised and, in their opening gambit, certain players reiterated that they wouldn’t be around next year if he stayed in charge.

For a man who won five All-Ireland medals with Cork and guided his club to four county titles in five years, such criticism must have been hard to stomach, but McCarthy didn’t flinch. Instead, he too let fly.

For two years he had felt hamstrung by the players. His backroom team had grown weary of fighting different issues with the team on a weekly basis. McCarthy had stood by them during the Semplegate saga and again during their most recent strike. But he had enough; this time he was doing it his way.

Some players were left in no doubt that they might not feature in his plans for next year anyway. He told another, who had praised him a few months earlier in an interview but who was now objecting to him, that he was talking out of both sides of his mouth.

Both sides were rapidly reaching the point of no return. One player reminded McCarthy that they had never lost a battle with the establishment and didn’t plan on losing this one. The manager simply replied that he had been voted in via a democratic process and wasn’t going anywhere. He added that if they didn’t want to play for him, so be it, but if they did, he would love to pick from a full bunch.

An established team member asked McCarthy exactly what he had left to contribute to Cork hurling and, hardly surprisingly, great offence was taken at that remark. Soon afterwards, the meeting was terminated. As they left, players were taken aback at McCarthy’s defiance. They had felt throughout the autumn that he was going to step down.

That night, the county board ratified his appointment (88-6) and in the days afterwards the manager openly admitted that his status had been questioned. "The players were anxious that I wouldn’t take the job," he revealed to the Irish Examiner. "They had problems with the process and they let that be known too. That’s true."

But he added: "It’s also true that I told them it was a great honour first to be asked to do this job, and then to be allowed to do it. I let the meeting know I wasn’t going to step back from that."

On Thursday night, the players regrouped at The Sunset Ridge Hotel and discussed the ongoing saga.

They held a secret ballot and only two players out of 29 declared that they would play next year. But there was little defiance left and instead the mood was sombre; they just didn’t have the stomach for another battle.

"At that meeting we just decided to leave it to every individual to make up his own mind," one player told the Sunday Independent. "But you won’t see too many of us back next year; that’s for sure. We can’t go on strike again, we don’t want to and the public don’t want that either, but in our view we’re back fighting the same issue we fought with the footballers last winter. Enough is enough now; one or two of us were going to retire anyway, but this is the final push."

The player added: "We told Gerald we felt we’d gone backwards under him. We were lucky to beat Galway this year and in two years we have been beaten twice by Tipp and twice by Waterford. Clare should have beaten us too. And we beat Dublin. That’s why we’re surprised Gerald himself has come back. All the signs were that he was going to step down." With no interest in fighting the county board again, a drip-feed of high-profile retirements is now expected in the coming weeks. You’re essentially talking about all the big Cork names that have lit up hurling over the past decade. A brand new team looks likely to be fielded against Tipperary in next year’s Munster quarter-final because, according to our sources, none of the major players will be back.

Of course, last week’s events are only another spin-off of the previous two strikes. During last winter’s impasse, the hurlers threw themselves wholeheartedly into what had initially been a football problem, stood shoulder to shoulder with their footballing brethren over the appointment of Teddy Holland and justified it by saying they could be faced with a similar dilemma in 12 months.

Well, here they are again. But having signed an agreement that they would never take the nuclear option again, there can be no more strikes.

So, it seems that the core of these strong-minded players will now move on after years of great service. It’s a great shame that they depart in this manner. They brought style and panache to the game; played intelligent hurling at breathtaking speed and brought the stands to life with their sublime skill levels. Tactically, they gave opponents much to think about and looked almost unbeatable for some time. They took on the strongest county board in the land on two occasions and after talking the talk in the boardroom, they walked the walk on the playing fields.

As for McCarthy? There’s a train of thought that wonders why he would stay around where he was not wanted, but he has shown serious strength. He’s a Leeside legend and at the tempestuous meeting he reminded the team that no one in the room was bigger than Cork hurling. Admirably, he has stood his ground but without so many key players his preparations will be badly affected in 2009.

"Right now, it doesn’t look like the best scenario," he told a local paper. "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."

It later emerged that Teddy McCarthy could replace outgoing selector Martin Bowen in the backroom team. The dual star was a Cork football selector briefly under Teddy Holland earlier in the year and was deeply entrenched in the stand-off against the players. Talk about rubbing salt in the wounds.

And so the war of attrition which has raged between the board and the players looks to be over. Whether over facilities or conditions, players not getting fed after training, perceived weaknesses in managers, militant players, questionable selection processes or even simple choices like which isotonic drink to sup on match days, Powerade or Club Energise, both sides have clashed on every issue.

And the winners? There never are any in these instances.

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