AS soon as John Meyler stepped away from the Cork manager’s job in August, Donal Óg Cusack was mentioned, and heavily touted, as a potential replacement.
Cusack stated his interest in the position at the first opportunity and he looked to be everything that this group of Cork players needed – a modern, progressive and innovative coach with the ability to inspire and effect people.
Cusack brings energy and electricity to everything he does. He had plenty of recent inter-county experience built up too having worked with Davy Fitzgerald in Clare in 2016, before linking up with Clare joint managers Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor for the 2017 season.
Despite his history with the county board, Cusack was always likely to return at some stage under the new board leadership. Cusack had been expanding and developing his CV for a bigger job. Many felt that he was ready for the Cork senior position but that first step with Cork was never going to see him given the top job straight away.
It’s not as if Cusack was being forced to pay for his past history with Cork but that history will always be indelibly linked to Cusack when it comes to any involvement with the county. Although it stemmed from just a couple of delegates in a room full of them, some of the comments at Tuesday night’s board meeting, when Cusack was ratified as minor manager for 2020, underlined that tension.
Cusack was always going to have to bide his time for the top job but he at least has an opportunity now to audition for that position from that starting point.
Cusack was never a man to wait around but time has a different meaning in this context because he is now in the Cork managerial-coaching system, a place many thought Cusack would never occupy.
And if he thrives within that system – which he surely will – then taking those next logical steps may lead him through the U20 grade before eventually taking over at senior level.
The four appointments announced this week clearly show the succession plan in place in Cork now. Cusack and his management team may only have the job for one year, before Noel Furlong takes over next season, but the system is now loaded with a burgeoning cohort of quality coaches, managers, thinkers and innovators.
Given the huge waves of young talent coming in Cork, this is the ideal time to fine-tune, shape and develop that coaching-management system so that Cork can absolutely maximise that talent in time.
For years, Cork were being left behind other counties but the coaching culture is so much stronger now that the system can continually be honed, polished and strengthened throughout the succession plan.
Excellent coaches like Jamie Wall and Ben O’Connor have been a part of that system. If the circumstances were different, one of them could have been involved with next year’s minor team. The one-year term didn’t appeal to O’Connor but, while one season appears too short for any coach or manager to establish their framework or approach, or leave their full imprint, the limited timeframe also highlights how much Cork are looking at the bigger picture.
An All-Ireland minor title would certainly appeal to a county craving some form of national success but, while the minor championship has always been an important competition, it has taken on a whole different complexion since moving back to U-17 level.
That criterion for counties will change even more in the coming years if the vision of GAA President John Horan is realised, whereby the minor championship could become even more of a developmental competition similar to the Celtic Challenge.
For the time being, while the minor championship is still in its current format, the county board clearly want to expose as many managers and coaches as they possibly can to that white heat. That is the reason that Furlong, an extremely progressive coach, will be handed the minor job next season.
Building that stable of quality coaches, and exposing them at inter-county level, is the priority in the short term. Cusack has already assembled a quality coaching team around him. So has Pat Ryan at U-20 level.
The people involved with those teams are some of the best in Cork. Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, Tom Kenny and Wayne Sherlock have a huge status given what they achieved with Cork but Brendan Coleman is an excellent coach while Fergal Condon has done a superb job with Imokilly. Donal O'Mahoney spent two years with Meyler while he has plenty of experience with young players through his involvement with CBC.
The right people are in place now to drive that coaching culture to another level. Much of that credit has to go to Ronan Dwane, the county board coaching officer, who has more knowledge than anyone else of the club circuit and the best coaches in the county. Dwane also has a close relationship with some of the recently appointed coaches and selectors, at every level, which has been hugely valuable to the board executive.
Once Cusack’s name appeared, it was inevitable that most of the discussion would focus on him, even though he is only one part of the jigsaw that Cork are trying to put together over the next few years.
Cork still have to prove that they can find that something that all of their teams have been missing but, given the level of young talent coming down the tracks, making the right appointments to manage that talent is a fundamental part of trying to discover that missing something.
It has taken a long time but Cork are finally assembling many of the right – and most important - pieces of that jigsaw.