09 February 2009

“A tear welled in my eyes”

Also from the UCC Express:

Joseph Sexton caught up with former Hurler of the Year Seán Óg Ó hAilpín after the hurling supporters march last Saturday. Humbled by the depth of the public support, this is what he had to say.

12 days ago, you and your fellow players made an appeal to the Cork public for support. Do you feel the players' call for support has been answered today?

"You know what? We more than got it today. It was very humbling. It wasn’t easy at the time asking for it, because it’s hard to quantify a figure for how many would turn out, but this superseded our expectations. There was a tear nearly came out of my eye, because it’s a Saturday in February, people have other things to be doing and other worries with the economy, sport and hurling won’t be on top of the agenda. These people, all these men, women and children came out today to show their support and voice their frustration. We share their frustration. These people want to see the Cork team back, and want to see the best Cork team possible that will bring pride and honour to the jersey. If the support today is anything to go by, then it’s very encouraging."

How important was it for you to receive the public support of the footballers the other night?

"I think it was huge, because up until now people didn’t know what the footballers were going to do. They were staying silent. But you know, I know most of the footballers well and nobody put them under pressure in any way. This time last year, they had their own problems and the hurlers supported them, and I know they’ve never forgotten that. If it’s one problem, maybe you can bury your head in the sand, but it isn’t and now the footballers are saying they’ll down tools now if things aren’t sorted. I think the county board executive have to take a look at themselves, and then come back with actions to resolve the situation before things get any worse."

We’ve heard a lot of speculation in the press that the panel are not united, that the younger players have been intimidated, and suggestions that you should all shut up, get back on the field, and say no more. What do you have to say to people who are saying this?

"I think that was the beauty of the press conference, because there were loads of rumours floating about and we had the chance to put them to bed once and for all. It was a united 30 players on show that night, there was no fellas putting any other fellas under pressure, and it’s simple; the reason why these 30 players are taking this stance and holding press conferences is because there is a problem there. If there was no problem, then there’d be none of this. The problem, as we see it, doesn’t lie within ourselves, it lies within the county board executive. We’ve answered as many questions as we can from our side... The questions have been put to them and they need to answer, not just to the players, but the the Cork public. There are supporters out there who, week-in, week-out, pay money out of their own pockets to attend the matches, and that’s money that goes back to the county board. Hard, well-earned money. They have a responsibility to tell the Cork public what went on with the appointment of Gerald McCarthy, because that’s the source of the problem. They didn’t, in my opinion, appoint him for the right reasons, for the interests of Cork hurling, or those of the people who turned out here today."

How is morale in the camp? Do you think this will be a big boost, seeing this degree of support?

"Before today, I was a bit apprehensive, d’ya know. Would there be a big crowd, because you know, if there was no big turnout, well... it would have looked a small bit embarrassing for us. But we got more than we could have ever dreamed of, and these people... they love their sport, they love their hurlers, and they want the best hurlers back. For a player, looking at that up on the stage, it’s very encouraging. It shows that, despite all that’s been said, we’re still loved, and people appreciate what we’re doing. We have no problem putting in a massive sacrifice, putting in 14 sessions a week, and driving here and there; we have no problem with that, provided we get the support back. We got that here today from the supporters, and we need that to be shown by the County Board executive too. Morale is very good amongst the players. The more the County Board drags its feet, the more strongly the players feel what we are doing is right. There’s a unity there, which was present for all to see at the press conference. If you have three fellas and you try and break them, it’s one thing; but when you have 30 guys, it’s going to be hard, so look... we’re still as united as ever."

(Photography, again, courtesy of Mark Jacob)

Rebels march in support of Hurlers

This account of the hurler's march was put together for the UCC express:

12,000 fans braved the bitterly cold weather as they took to the streets of Cork in support of the 2008 Cork hurling panel. The turnout exceeded all expectations, with the players and organisers keen to show their gratitude to the public. Present on stage were several members of the football and hurling panels, the latter having publicly announced on Thursday their intention to strike in solidarity at the end of the league campaign if matters are not resolved satisfactorily.

Rumours had abounded as to the identity of the speakers beforehand. Initially it had been expected that the players would stay away, so as to avoid giving the impression of instigating the march. As it transpired, many key members turned up to thank the public, and they were joined by an old friend; former Cork hurling and football great, Brian Corcoran.

The march began in Emmet Place at 3pm, where a sizeable crowd had already assembled an hour previous. The march proceeded onto Academy Street, left to the top of Patrick Street, and back down the same street before terminating in Grand Parade. Such was the size of the turnout that at 3:45pm- with a large crowd already thronging the area in front of the city library- that there were still people leaving Emmet Place at the back of the march.

“Summer days in Thurles, not hammerings to Dublin” read one placard. Others, distributed by the organisers read “Support Cork’s Hurlers”. Some supporters had made banners urging Frank Murphy, secretary of the CCB, and Gerald McCarthy to resign, but for the most part the messages were positive; full support for last year’s panel.

Players- including hurlers John Gardiner, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, Donal Óg Cusack, Niall McCarthy, Cathal Naughton, Jerry O'Connor, and Patrick Cronin, and footballers Graham Canty, Noel O’Leary, Daniel Goulding, Anthony Lynch, John Hayes, and Nicholas Murphy, amongst others- took the stage shortly after 4pm to rapturous applause from the crowd.

First to speak was Brian Corcoran. “I take no pleasure in this black period, but I have to defend the honour of these players who I’ve been privileged to play with”, he said. “They’ve been criticised in some quarters, unjustly in my opinion. These guys have sacrificed so much, sweat blood and tears for the cause. I take enormous pride when I see this crowd assembled here today to support these men who are willing to stand up for what they believe.”

“They have been asked to put up and shut up with conditions primed for failure. These guys know what it takes to win; in the four years that Donal O’Grady and John Allen were in charge, they reached eight finals, winning 5. During that period, there was complete harmony in the camp.”

“Some people have labelled these players as difficult, but why was there no trouble then? Four years is a very long time. I was involved for three of those, and the atmosphere was one of total and utter trust. In the last two years, that trust and belief has been eroded.”

“I would like to ask the County Board why, when John Allen stepped down, did they seek to disrupt the set-up? Why did they appoint a manager who didn’t want the job, ignoring others who did? Why, after two years of failure, was there no motivation to change something which didn’t work? These players have the best interests of Cork hurling at heart. Can the County Board say the same?”

“These guys inspired me to come back to hurling. They are my heroes, they are role models. They are not afraid to stand up for what they believe. Cork hurling is lagging behind. The board are killing the senior team. It’s time for the board to prove that they care about hurling. We must support these men. We must ask the board to allow us to believe again”.

The crowd applauded Corcoran’s speech, and a shorter speech read out 2008 captain John Gardiner. Gardiner thanked the fans for their support over the years and during the current crisis. With the players gone, the crowd dwindled, but one remained there more than an hour after events had come to a close; Seán Óg Ó h’Ailpin, who signed shirts, crutches, ugg boots and photos with typically selfless good-humour.

(Photography courtesy of the UCC Express' Mark Jacob)

The slow death of Cork Hurling

This is an editorial put together for the UCC Express.

Looking from the outside in, it’s not too hard to see why the present Cork hurling dispute has left the rest of country in a state of flummoxed exasperation following claim, counter-claim, and no little spin. Following on from 2002 and last winter, this is the third major dispute between the players and the Cork County Board executive this decade. Unfortunately, it would appear that the CCB executive (from here on referred to as the CCB) are a little slow of learning and the result is that Justin McCarthy’s words- 'No matter how many Munster or All-Ireland Titles are won, Frank Murphy will never forgive these Players''- uttered at the conclusion of the 2002 dispute ring true. In 2002 the players walked for a variety of gripes, the most infamous example of which came in the 2001 Munster championship tie against Limerick where the players were forced to urinate on towels in the gymasium at half-time because the CCB, for reasons best known to themselves, had commandeered the home changing rooms. In 2007, the issue was the right of managers to pick their own selectors. This year, the issue is what they perceive to be the violation of the spirit of Mulvey agreement, the fragile peace brokered last season.

The timeline for the current dispute runs something like this: at the end of last season’s All-Ireland campaign, Gerald McCarthy’s tenure as manager was up after a series of underwhelming results. Cork had bowed out at the quarter final stage of the All-Ireland champiosnhip in 2007, and last season lost their 80 year unbeaten home record against Tipperary. After a thrilling run through the qualifiers, they came unstuck against Kilkenny in the semi-final. That, most observers agreed, would be that. A new manager would be sought come Autumn.

Once the players representatives sat at the table to play their role in the selection process, it was clear that CCB Executive was of no mind to abide by the spirit of the agreement. The only name put forward for consideration was that of the incumbent. The player representatives voiced their objections, and outnumbered 5-2, stormed out.

It has been speculated that the CCB executive then proceeded to mislead the club delegates prior to their ratification of McCarthy’s appointment, telling the delegates that the players had agreed with the appointment. What we do know for a fact is that the delegates, just as they did last year with the appointment (and subsequent sacking) of Teddy Holland, voted to carry the CCB’s proposal.

All hell broke loose then as the 2008 panel announced their retirement in disgust at the CCB’s manoeuvrings. They had been unhappy with McCarthy’s coaching methods throughout his tenure, and felt that another two years of substandard preparation was more than they could bear. Soon we had a flow of well-crafted press releases from McCarthy, where he attacked the character of certain members of the panel, and claimed that the older heads were bullying the younger players into going along with this latest protest. Most scandalous of all was the leaking of a confidential document- the result of a facilitator's attempt to rebuild morale in the squad after last year’s Tipperary defeat- to the local press. McCarthy has refused to admit culpability on this count; the players maintain that the only other copy of this document lies with the facilitator himself.

Well-know radio host Neil Prendeville questioned the CCB secretary Frank Murphy’s competence in his column in the Cork independent, and was threatened with legal action by the secretary. In the same paper, the CCB’s Bob Honohan issued a vicious ad hominem against former Wexford manager Liam Griffin for the latter’s articles on the issue.

Back on the management side of things, McCarthy struggled to build a new backroom team, with a range of figures turning down the chance to become involved with the set-up. This process reached its nadir as the year drew to a close. Having announced former Irish rugby fitness coach Mike McGurn’s imminent appointment, the Cork boss was forced into an embarrassing climb-down as it emerged that McGurn had no intention of leaving his post with the Ospreys.

Another headache was the process of selecting a team to take the field. Again, scores of players refused to answer the call. As it stands, the current Cork ‘developmental’ panel comprises something close to a fifth or sixth string selection. The new panel were soundly beating in their first outing against an under-strength WIT in January, going down by 0-14 to 0-9. A subsequent outing against a second-string Waterford team gave little further comfort.

McCarthy then sent letters individually to the members of the 2008 panel requesting that they return; but before they reached their recipients the story had been plastered all over the press. The players declined the overture which the Sunday Times' Denis Walsh described as an exercise in 'pure optics'. McCarthy subsequently slammed the door on the 2008 players in an interview broadcast on RTE’s Six One news.

Five days later, the players called a press conference to give their side of the story. Several of the younger panel members made clear their disgust at repeated statements from McCarthy and sources close to the CCB to the effect that they had been dragged into the dispute against their will. ‘It’s a disgrace for them to suggest that”, said Cathal Naughton.

The following day a text poll on Cork's 96FM confirmed stout support for the players' stance amongst the Cork public. The broadcaster’s systems were almost overwhelmed by the flood of responses, with 1000 text messages landing within four minutes. At the close of the poll, with more than 3000 votes cast, the results showed over 90% in support of the players. The same day, well-know Cork supporter Thomas 'Bomber' Roche, announced a march in support of the players.

Last Sunday week, whilst handing out fliers for the march outside of the Cork v Meath National Football League game, Roche and his associates were subjected to a tirade of ‘foul and abusive’ language by Jim Brohan of Blackrock and the CCB, according to several witnesses. Meanwhile, in Galway, the Cork developmental team were humbled in a challenge match against club side Portumna. Three quarters of the way in, Portumna were leading by 4-13 to 0-04. It was only after Portumna made 10 substitutions that Cork managed to restore a modicum of respectability to the scoreline. Gerald McCarthy praised his players for the effort and told us that they were tired. What he neglected to mention was that their opponents had fielded the same side in a match against CIT just 24 hours previously.

On Thursday night, an embattled County Board sought to steal the limelight with a crafted press statement which was remarkably self-serving, even by the board’s own standards. If diverting attention away from the supporters march was their goal, then this was a singular failure; little over 40 minutes later, the footballers announced their intention to join the hurlers at the end of their NFL campaign, should matters not be resolved to the satisfaction of both panels.

This, in broad terms, was the background to last Saturday’s show of support in Cork. If the 2008 panel had not been clear enough in their intentions not to play for McCarthy again, the constant drip-feed of media claims will have seen to that. On Saturday, before the march, we had McCarthy and goalkeeper Donal Óg Cusack at loggerheads on the Marian Finucane show, with the goalkeeper all but accusing his former manager of lying. Such is the level of polarisation that one can see no room for accommodation between the parties. In the meantime, the real victim is the Cork sporting public. A crowd one-tenth of the size of that which marched on Saturday saw the 2009 panel hammered by Dublin in the league the following day. At this rate, relegation to division two and and the Christy Ring cup is all too real a prospect.

For the full text of the player's statement at the press conference on January 26th, follow this link.

The conference can be viewed in full here.

Gerald McCarthy's response to the statement can be read here

The Cork County Board press statement on February 5th can be read here. can be read here.

And the subequent announcement by the Cork footballers here.

Finally, the heated exchange between Gerald McCarthy and Donal Óg Cusack on SATURDAY's Marian Finucane show can be heard here; or via this podcast feed:. The item starts 1 hour and 16 minutes into the show.