Vastly experienced Cian O’Neill offers a huge amount to Cork football

Vastly experienced Cian O’Neill offers a huge amount to Cork football
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice and selector Cian O'Neill back in 2014. Picture: Stephen McCarthy

ANOTHER week, another positively received movement in Cork football.

This kind of efficiency could take some getting used to but it’s a welcome change when we’re counting the ways that appointments and calls are so clearly full of sense and the right thing to do rather than finding problems.

Cian O’Neill as coach to Cork senior footballers was a no-brainer in many ways. He’s got that experience of elite inter-county set-ups from Tipp, Kerry, Mayo and Kildare, has always been seen as an innovative coach and there ought to be an immediate influence on Ronan McCarthy’s preparations for another leap in 2020.

As interestingly for now, it sort of adds another piece to the growing feeling of a definite plan coming together here in how to develop players through the ages in Cork, where it’s possible to recognise a pattern to the decision making at board level and the calibre of people now being given roles in Cork football.

It’s basically the sort of joined-up thinking that creates the environment for centres of excellence to evolve, even if they’re referred to as hubs in the Cork GAA plan. Cian O’Neill is head of the sports department at CIT and brings in Kevin Smith as strength and conditioning coach, currently in the process of doing a PhD in CIT.

The manager of the Cork U20s this summer was Keith Ricken, a development officer in CIT and Con Burns (lecturer and key member of the sports department also in CIT) did a lot of the physical conditioning work with this group. Many inter-county squads use the Tyco gym for training and fitness programmes and the testing of fitness and skills done with development squads at the start of this year was done in CIT under Cian O’Neill.

Kevin Murray is in CIT doing a PhD on talent ID and is compiling massive data loads on the work done by development squads and how players develop skills through the ages of 14-17 especially. When we passed through the campus a few months back we came across a bunch of sports coaches walking around with Ed Coughlan, the skills acquisition coach who worked with Mayo footballers and who also works in the sports department here.

That’s a hell of a brains trust gathered in a small area with the access to the best information, best science, most progressive coaching ideas and knowledge, all with passion for coaching and the development of proper player pathways in Cork GAA. By the way, this isn’t restricted to CIT or leaving out UCC.

Kevin Murray was involved coaching the UCC football team with Billy Morgan, Len Browne was doing video analysis for various Cork teams this year from UCC Mardyke, Brian Cuthbert has a big role behind the scenes in Cork GAA and did his PhD research in UCC on academy systems. Part of the appointment committee for high-performance manager Aidan O’Connell was Cian O’Neill himself and there’s a clear effort across the inter-county set-up now to create this kind of continuity of ideas and people across the groups.

This CIT project has been coming with some time. When the whole new Páirc/Centre of Excellence thing was playing out initially, we had conversations with people involved with Cork teams who didn’t understand why CIT/UCC weren’t being brought into the picture with all the facilities available in the county for very little work.

There are some of the brightest GAA coaching minds in the county in the colleges in Cork now with access to the top facilities, technology (let’s say the newest and most innovative ways of tracking players, of analysing performances are all going to hit here for trial and usage first) and information. There’s a boot-room sense to this.

They exchange ideas. They figure out better ways. They get to see the brightest young coaches come through sports and PE teaching and research courses over time and bring them into the loop. They have access to most of the best young players in the county coming through from the age of 18 to 22, crucial years where they’re stepping out of development squads and becoming intercounty athletes (and all the lifestyle choices that entails) or not.

It’d be interesting to do a count on how many of the winning Cork U17/Cork U20 groups from this summer end up spending a chunk of time in UCC/CIT over the next few years and the environments and cultures they encounter have to become a serious part of how they grow into senior footballers. They are basically centres of excellence already.

Cairde Chorcaí have done a lot of work in pushing (and funding) Cork’s development in the direction of link-ups with CIT/UCC. It has just taken some time and a shift in mentality for Cork GAA to figure out how best to use these resources.

This all fits a coherent strategy and is hardly too far out there. Without getting into the whole let’s-copy-everything-Dublin-have-done routine, it’s not difficult at all to trace a line not just through the players on the panel who experienced college level football and training at UCD and especially DCU, but the obvious link of coaches and knowledge bases that have driven this Dublin football journey.

Mickey Whelan and Niall Moyna at DCU were massive influences behind the scenes on coaching and innovative ways of approaching the game. Bryan Cullen brought the sports science background from DCU into the strength and conditioning programmes that look after all Dublin squads. There was a story going around earlier in the year about Stephen Cluxton’s obsessive training work that started in his college years. 

Dublin may not have had a centre of excellence in the traditional sense but something was developing in places like DCU where knowledge overlapped with mentality to create a certain culture of doing things the right way anyway. They’ve tapped hugely into that resource in the last decade.

The battleground in Gaelic football has shifted from finding the next tactical systems at senior level to whoever can lead the way in development of young talent to come through. Cork are playing catch-up on Dublin (and Kerry) but the steps are falling into place for a decent chase.

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