09 February 2009

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.

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