WHEN Liam Sheedy returned as Tipperary manager last autumn, one of the main narratives was Sheedy was taking a risk after nearly 10 years away from the job, and he was in danger of damaging his legacy of 2010.
There is always an element of risk involved with elite sport, especially when those decisions are taken in the public eye. Yet the high risk involved in rolling the dice is often the main attraction in the first place.
“You often hear the phrase: ‘Never go back’,” wrote Anthony Daly in his Irish Examiner column on the day after the All-Ireland final in August. “I never agreed with it. If it’s right, why wouldn’t you go back?”
Kieran Kingston doesn’t have the same pressure on his head that Sheedy had for his second coming, particularly given Sheedy’s last act during his first term in charge was to win an All-Ireland, but the time seems right now for Kingston to return.
For a start, Kingston has only been out of the inter-county senior game for two years; Sheedy was out of it for eight years.
Sheedy was upskilling himself during that period in his roles as chairman of Sport Ireland’s High Performance Unit and as a member of the Irish Sports Council. Yet, just as importantly, the time and environment was right for Sheedy to return in 2019, as it is personally for Kingston in 2020.
Kingston’s departure in September 2017 boiled down to one basic reality — work commitments.
Kingston may have only been manager for two years but few inter-county senior managers in 2020 will have as much experience as he has; before he took over, Kingston had been involved with Cork for three of the previous four seasons, all under Jimmy-Barry Murphy, one of which, in 2014, when Kingston served as coach.
For all the critics who said that Kingston should have stayed on after 2017, that he almost had a duty after Cork went so close to reaching an All-Ireland final, walking away when he did said a great deal about Kingston, and the genuineness of his reasons for going.
The easy, and attractive, option back then would have been to stay, especially for the long haul. Despite the disappointment of how the 2017 season ended, Cork were a young team on the move, especially in such an open championship.
A Munster title that season was glorious redemption for Cork but there were a number of achievements bound up in that success for Kingston. As well as rebuilding the team and introducing some brilliant new players, Kingston also returned Cork to their traditional values, which saw the team produce some brilliant attacking hurling. The verve and panache and quality the team played with brought that swagger back to Cork as a county.
Kingston will surely have learned a great deal too from his last term in charge. Those who worked with him in the past speak highly of Kingston’s professionalism, his work ethic and man-management skills.
The big question for Kingston now though, is what can he do to take Cork to that next level? Kingston will need to do something different from what he did last time around.
The second year of his last term was heavily focused on rebuilding. Kingston’s son, Shane, Mark Coleman and Darragh Fitzgibbon were always going to make it with Cork but Kingston wasn’t afraid to give them their starts as young players in 2016 and 2017.
There needs to be a certain amount of rebuilding done again now and, while Cork have waves of young talent coming, its unknown if some of those players are ready. Sheedy showed this season what can be achieved by rejuvenating older players. A couple of Cork’s marquee players certainly need to be rejuvenated in 2020.
Some of those players were excellent under Kingston in 2017 but, if he can’t ignite the spark in them next season, hard calls will have to be made.
Nobody doubts the attacking talent Cork have at their disposal but focusing on the defence has to be a priority if Cork are to move forward. And yet, the forwards also stand indicted on that count because the fundamental principle of most collective defending now begins with the forwards.
Tipperary and Kilkenny reached the All-Ireland final but Cork conceded totals of 2-28 and 2-27 respectively to both sides over the summer. On an atrocious day in mid-June in Ennis, Clare also managed to hit their biggest total of their championship, 2-23.
No team with serious All-Ireland ambitions can expect to win the big prize if they are consistently conceding those totals. In that context, Kingston and Cork will need to develop a meaner and harder edge.
The appointment of Aidan O’Connell as Cork’s high performance manager will assist in the physical development of the team but there needs to be a culture change within the group if Cork are to become harder to beat.
Higher individual standards should deliver a greater level of consistency, something Cork never had in 2019. The only two performances of real quality came against Limerick, in the league and championship. In the eight championship games Tipperary played, they hit a high level in six of them. That’s the standard demanded and expected of All-Ireland champions.
And that’s the kind of standard that Kieran Kingston and Cork will have to try and reach if they are to land hurling’s biggest prize.