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Aston Villa's Conor Hourihane. Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire. 
Aston Villa's Conor Hourihane. Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire. 

Conor Hourihane once hit 2-5 for Cork: The GAA will always lose potential stars to professional sport

CORK footballer Brian Hurley tells a story about his time playing a Cork primary schools’ game before a Munster final back in 2004.

The show was stolen by another blonde lad in a Cork jersey who ran the game with a swagger and scored about 2-5 from 2-6 in the half-time game.

That player was Conor Hourihane and the Irish international soccer player is on record as saying that at that age he’d have dreamt more of playing an All-Ireland hurling or football final for Cork than lining out in the green jersey.

That story drifted back this past week or two for various reasons.

Cork football lost another potential star in Mark Keane to Australian Rules and if the first instinct is a kind of annoyance at Cork and Mitchelstown being denied the chance to see him develop, this is hardly a new thing — imagine for example what sort of difference Ciarán Sheehan might have made to Éire Óg and Cork these past several years — and it’s hardly confined to Australian Rules.

There’s a fairly decent chance that Conor Hourihane would have been a gamechanger at Bandon and maybe even at inter-county level.

Damien Delaney taking on Mayo in 1999. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE
Damien Delaney taking on Mayo in 1999. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

Think back to someone like Damien Delaney who scored two goals in an All-Ireland minor semi-final before going to Leicester or think how we all read about and saw Liam Miller’s GAA talents underage for his school and club around the time of his commemoration game.

It happens the other way too.

Kevin Cassidy did an interview last week where he spoke about how little interest he had in winning All-Irelands for Donegal when he was younger, how it was more soccer and then the club and that the idea of playing for Donegal only really came with experience and momentum of winning.

Kevin Cassidy scores for Gaoth Dobhair. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Kevin Cassidy scores for Gaoth Dobhair. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Or Seamie Crowe, who also spoke recently about playing soccer across the water with Newcastle and Wolves before coming home and winning an All-Ireland club medal with Salthill.

Players have played both GAA and soccer, chosen one when an obvious path has emerged and maybe come back to the other again afterwards; it’s almost impossible for the GAA to compete with the idea of a pro sporting life and more than one person involved with Cork football and hurling development squads has referenced the concept of just being there as a viable plan B if the plan A doesn’t work out.

Australian Rules has taken guys from Cork GAA — Michael Shields, who played Kennedy Cup soccer with Cork at U14 incidentally, and Bernie Collins are two obvious ones — on a short-term basis who haven’t really impacted at all in the long term.

Castlehaven's Bernie Collins gets away from O'Donovan Rossa's Kevin Cotter and Conor McCarthy. Picture: Eddie O'Hare 
Castlehaven's Bernie Collins gets away from O'Donovan Rossa's Kevin Cotter and Conor McCarthy. Picture: Eddie O'Hare 

Rugby has now entered the market at underage, where players from clubs in West Cork can look at the Munster Academy as a viable prospect, and still line out for clubs when not playing rugby.

This time of year always offers an interesting snapshot into the battle for hearts and minds but there are a few different elements to this.

One, the appeal and sense of place of the senior side has a role of course.

Think of a kid in Cork this year watching sport.

Would you be pulled more towards the big days in Thurles watching the Cork hurlers or the grim watch of Cork footballers falling to Kerry?

Watching the Irish soccer team is punishment enough for intrigued adults right now but too severe to inflict on anyone born after Saipan but the kinds of days produced last Saturday by the rugby team (and imagine the hype that could be generated by a World Cup run next year) has to build some level of legacy in much the same way that players like Robbie Keane and Damien Duff were inspired by the Irish soccer teams of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.

Two, traditions still matter, to a point. Kids in certain parts of the city or East Cork, or say kids attending St Kieran’s in Kilkenny, will always be more likely to grow up wanting to emulate a local hurler than a rugby player from Dublin.

Imokilly ace Paudie O'Sullivan. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Imokilly ace Paudie O'Sullivan. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The glamour and constant nature of the Premier League/Champions League will always take hold despite any lack of excitement created by the boys in green and soccer just has that unlimited advantage of kids always wanting and being able to play it — at a county championship match this year the local kids were kicking around on the training field as the match was ongoing and there were more Conor Hourihanes than Brian Hurleys there.

And so point three becomes key, the opportunities presented to players by each sport in each area.

Player pathways can come across a bit like business speak but all the national and relevant local sporting organisations have realised or in the process of realising just how important it is now to have a plan for development of players through the ages, that there’s an actual process involved in bringing a player from potential to the reaching of that potential.

Soccer has that unique interest selling point, has done some work in the setup of underage leagues and academies linked to League of Ireland clubs and still there’s a massive gap (a gap that for all the criticism and talk is an incredibly difficult fix) where basically most of the top players in Ireland from age 15 onwards are either lost to England for an unspecified and vital part of their progression or don’t yet have the step-up aspect where their needs are met by domestic football.

Simon Zebo races to score the opening try for Pres against CBC in 2007. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Simon Zebo races to score the opening try for Pres against CBC in 2007. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Rugby has an obvious restriction of numbers that can make it, with a clear lack of places to go for players who come through an academy system.

GAA has the advantage of reasonably straightforward access to local talent and in Cork for sure has stepped up the work behind the scenes, with development squads doing extra training and games at divisional level in Cork almost year round now from U10 up; there’s still an awful lot of work in binding that together as a coherent strategy and in figuring out the rights and wrongs and long-term values of the very existence of these squads.

The numbers playing sport are colossal now and if the lines are changing, there are parts of Dublin especially that were soccer-mad areas that have been invaded by GAA, there is a huge talent pool available to who can use it correctly.

The next 10 years will be interesting.