Cork football's big challenge will be balancing youth and experience

Cork football's big challenge will be balancing youth and experience
Promising Cork footballer Blake Murphy, who is U20 again next season. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

THERE was a kind of furore during the week when Bohemians football club gave a league debut to Evan Ferguson, a 14-year-old forward.

If it seemed a crazily extreme version of the old idea that nothing is quite so exciting for sports fans as youthful promise (and it is genuinely tough to imagine a proper case for a 14-year-old playing senior soccer), it did offer another angle on the growing argument right now on what’s best for the development of young players as to what stage they’re thrown into the arena.

We see Chelsea and Man Utd in the Premier League who are trusting youth with differing agendas and if everyone loves a project if it’s working, it also tends to get more positivity if there’s a suggestion that it’s being done in the right way and for the correct reasons. It’s an argument that Cork GAA will see coming this next few years, where the instinct to push through a new wave of talent in football (and hurling) can be offset by the need for current results.

One of the assumptions always seems to be that some certain older players will fall away/ be cast aside and some certain younger players will step in naturally. This isn’t as straight-forward as that and there are some tricky decisions to make on the size and pace of any revolution.

Back at the end of the Conor Counihan era I remember speaking with a few people who’d been in and around that group who all mentioned the necessity for a kind of reset and fresh start with a batch of young players from the U21 groups who needed game-time at that stage.

Brian Cuthbert came in with new energy and ideas, a shot of the old guard left and it just created this hole of experience and mentality and culture in the group. I’ve hardly spoken to a person inside or outside the camp about the problems in Cork football this past five or six years without this clearout being referenced as a major factor, where what seemed like a legitimate move just backfired desperately because of results and circumstances.

Cork’s finest performance of the years 2014-2018 was probably 2015 in Killarney, a display of attitude that was backboned by the comeback of Alan O’Connor, who had come out of retirement to bring aggression and presence and just all-out experience.

There’s a balance here where the natural impulse to go with the promise of youth must be reconciled with the value of those hardened of the battle as well.

For all that there will be a rush for introductions and the spreading of these will be important for balance and interactions on the field. Let’s say how Liam O’Donovan and Mattie Taylor sort of pushed each other as attacking half-backs this most recent summer, the GPS tracking devices that allowed them compete for kms earned its value for sure, or how Mark White in goal would have built up certain patterns of movements for short kick-outs from the numbers 1-9.

Cork's Mattie Taylor in action against Daniel O'Reilly of Laois. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton
Cork's Mattie Taylor in action against Daniel O'Reilly of Laois. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

One or two new defenders could interfere with these dynamics created from a summer of playing matches. Or in the forwards where more demand has grown for the use of players like Cathal O’Mahony and Mark Cronin (Blake Murphy might be the under-the-radar forward more immediately suited to the flow of the inter-county game) who offer scoring power from play and point-shooting in particular that’s been lacking in parts from the senior group.

That’s being weighed against two, maybe three of the senior forwards who had their most effective years in ages and who all showed at various stages the potential to kick on again.

In a timing sense, this has come in year three of Ronan McCarthy’s term where he’s built a solid base of performance in year two and an identifiable way of playing that asks specific jobs from his players in certain positions.

In normal circumstances you’d imagine that next season would be about moving onto another level, about hitting the ground running and getting momentum of wins into a group of players that has some belief built up from taking on Kerry and Dublin, performances that seem more impressive now given what followed.

It wouldn’t naturally feel like the winter/ spring for a large turnover of players to start again in finding a new team and a new identity, to head into the league as another experience where performances and results are seen as some kind of learning curve in finding a team. Division 3 doesn’t seem like a place for experimental teams, it’s basically a place Cork want to get out of as quickly and efficiently as possible while building on performances and results. A team will evolve naturally anyway through individual form. Some players will work in certain roles and some just won’t fit for now.

The U20s played a certain style of football as well that might take some time to adapt to different demands at senior level Evidence that development isn’t always predictable?

In the Examiner last week there was a Gaelic football team of the decade 2010-2019, predictably dominated by Dublin and Mayo and with no Cork rep. It was interesting to look at the half-way team that was picked back in 2014 though, if simply for the presence of Aidan Walsh at midfield.

Walsh had won two All-Stars at that stage aged 24. For various reasons he only started five more championship games for Cork footballers after that, for two wins and generally far less impact than everybody would have expected. Walsh included, this is less a player criticism than an example of how sometimes things just don’t work out for a pile of reasons, lack of individual coaching or a more focused role or even team dynamics.

But you’d really expect that Cork have learnt from this, that the physical and technical and tactical development of the players from the U20s (and U17s) will be far more a coherent plan than a random jumble of management ideas. Kerry showed it’s possible with David Clifford and Sean O’Shea for talented forward players to come in and make an impact right away.

Cork have calls to make here that will impact short and medium-term (some easier and/or more popular than others) and it’ll be one of next year’s ongoing lines of interest to see how quickly another group are integrated into a senior set up.

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