Counihan is the obvious candidate to oversee a Cork football overhaul

Counihan is the obvious candidate to oversee a Cork football overhaul
Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

IN her address to county convention last December, Cork chairperson Tracey Kennedy told delegates that there seemed to be almost an assumption that Cork GAA was at fault when something goes wrong.

Plenty has gone wrong in the past but, while Kennedy insisted that the assumption was unfair, she also acknowledged that the GAA in Cork draws some of the criticism on itself.

“We can’t control how we are portrayed in the media, but we have full control over how we present ourselves,” said Kennedy.

It is still early days but that presentation has certainly improved through the new Cork executive, led by Kevin O’Donovan. The furore on the overspend on the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh, along with the fiasco surrounding the pitch, did little to erode some of the old deep-seated concerns and suspicions but none of those problems were created by the new administration.

In any case, all the initial signs, and early developments under O’Donovan’s watch, has certainly added to the credibility of a new Cork GAA administration.

New, fresh and innovative ideas have been put on the table, which has projected a more positive image of a new way for Cork GAA. One of those moves — Cork 2024, Five Year Football Plan — was initiated before O’Donovan took over but much of its implementation will be steered and guided by the new administration.

Two of the most important appointments in ensuring that plan is carried out effectively are a ‘High Performance Director’ and ‘Project Co-ordinator’. And getting the right people for those jobs will be crucial in securing the full trust and buy-in from clubs and the Cork GAA public towards their footballers.

Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Interviews were understood to have been held last week for the position of ‘Project Co-ordinator’. And Conor Counihan — a member of the committee which mapped out the plan for Cork football for the next five years — is understood to be the favourite for the position. 

If Counihan wants the job, it should be a no-brainer that he should get it. Apart from his huge experience as a Cork player and manager, Counihan has always had his hands tied around the grassroots of football within the county.

It’s unusual that a former All-Ireland winning senior manager would be involved with the U15 Development Squad within the same county but that is where Counihan now finds himself.

That alone underlines his absolute absence of ego but Counihan has always been involved in bringing young players through, and in trying to forge a better and more successful path for young footballers in Cork.

He also always understood the importance of battling for a better way. Counihan didn’t hail from a big city club or from a traditional stronghold in the west. Aghada are in the heartland of Cork hurling but they won Junior and Intermediate football titles with Counihan in the vanguard. Counihan was always at the core of Aghada’s growth, endlessly coaching young players and building teams.

Counihan was always solid, in everything he did. He was a ferociously hard and competitive player but he had that gift of engaging in war while never harbouring the kind of grudges that war might foster.

After Meath beat Cork in a bad-tempered All-Ireland final replay in 1988, most of the Cork players were so angry and bitter that they chose to stay away from the official lunch. Counihan though, was one of the few who made a point of going to the Burlington Hotel. It just wasn’t his style to entertain spite or rancour.

Picture: INPHO/James Meehan
Picture: INPHO/James Meehan

In that sense, Counihan was always the ideal man to take over Cork in 2008 after the second players’ strike, which was sparked by the appointment of Teddy Holland as football manager. Counihan inherited a position that demanded serious diplomatic skills but he harnessed that hurt and desire of the players and led Cork to a first All-Ireland in 20 years. 

Dr Con Murphy once said that Counihan managed like he played — “dead straightforward.” That was always Counihan’s style but he was also a steel fist in a silken glove.

“Beneath that calm exterior, there’s a serious ruthless streak,” Tony Davis once said of Counihan. “Conor has always been a man that will win. He’s a bit like a Kerry man in a way. There’s no oul’ bullshit. No exterior show of anything. But there’s a serious, cold, ruthless streak involved with him.”

And yet that streak never manifested itself in any negative way. Counihan was always a man of honour, decency, integrity.

As Larry Tompkins once remarked: “If you heard someone didn’t like Conor Counihan, it would be the other fella you’d question, not Conor.”

Counihan’s integrity and profile would add huge status to the job of ‘Project Co-ordintor’ but he also has significant business management experience.

He spent 16 years as CEO of St Joseph’s Foundation in Charleville. From his time there between 2001-2017, St Joseph’s went through a huge period of development, growing into a €20 million organisation with 350 staff.

The St Joseph’s Foundation mission statement declares its intention to provide people with disabilities the opportunity to live the life of their choice to their fullest potential.

And the people in St Joseph’s certainly did under Counihan’s watch. When he stepped down as CEO in 2017, Catherine O’Connell, speaking on behalf of the service users and staff at the adult services, said: “Despite the downturn in the economy the services have continued to grow and develop.

“This is a real testament to a good leader. It is easy to grow in good and prosperous times but far harder to guide a team through difficult times when there is uncertainty and insecurity.”

Cork football has gone through a significant downturn. There have been difficult and uncertain times but having Counihan overseeing their project and development work would be a hugely positive step in trying to take Cork football back to where they need to go.

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