WHISPER it quietly and all that but little green shoots sprung in Cork football this past year.
Progress will be measured slowly and certainly not from the immediate glow of winning underage tournaments and still, good people are looking to do good things behind the scenes.
With his playing time for Castletownbere coming to an end and a stint helping out on stats work for the Cork seniors finished, Donagh Wiseman was looking for a way to stay involved; he ended up falling in as a coach with the Cork U15s around this time last year (along with the likes of Alan Quirke, Niall Twomey, Shane Martin) and it was straight to work.
Divisional trials and tournaments whittled the squad to a fluid 48 players for the season.
They trained more or less every fortnight and Wiseman references the 4G pitch down the Páirc as a huge asset for ease of access. They split the teams for tournaments and his Cork West group ended up playing 14 inter-county games and winning them all.
It was a hectic, successful year in any form you want to look at it.
Priorities for a development squad might be given away in the name and yet Wiseman knows the sort of accusations of elitism that the idea gets labelled with; the very first talk given by coach Niall Twomey to the players strongly stressed the idea of club first and that this Cork experience was additional learning.
After that, the focuses were basic and grounded. Skills like first touch and kicking were emphasised over and over.
Wiseman took the defensive side of things — it’s hard to believe it’s 20 years since he came on for the Cork seniors down in Killarney against Kerry — and was struck first, and encouraged to be fair, by the amount of players who when asked what they most wanted to work on put their hands up for extra coaching on tackling and defending.
Is it starting from scratch at that level with a batch of eager young defenders? Is it about instilling the basic idea of defending against a forward?
Wiseman explains his philosophy.
“The first thing I’d try to get across actually would be the idea of winning the ball first, of attacking the ball because it’s much easier to stop a forward if you can stop him getting possession.
“After that, yeah, it really is the basic defensive skills and know-how. From the obvious starter, what foot does your man kick with?
“Then, tackling technical skills, like the near-hand tackle where possible, like blocking down.
“You’d try and emphasise the importance of aggression too, of just doggedness in being a defender, to stick with a forward and make things as difficult as possible.
“A lot of it comes from attitude and mentality and you would see it in certain players more naturally of course.”
How do you work on that practically then?
“Well, we’d have set up a lot of 1v1s, 2v2s, that kind of work where they’re exposed to needing these skills.
“A lot of it is about decision making too, about putting them in situations on the field where they have to make the right call, rather than just telling them what to do, because there’s a limited influence from the sideline there when they go on the field, so you’re trying to lead them into figuring things out themselves.
“We’d have worked on bringing what we did into games then, on actively using what we’d worked on in those groups.”
Improvements came in big ways and small details.
Wiseman noted the personality of the group as a big plus, after one match they’d been lucky to win in the Adam Mangan Tournament against Westmeath the coaches asked the players what had gone wrong — they admitted they’d been cocky and slackened off because they had just beaten Kildare.
When Tim McCarthy from Clon hadn’t gotten his game in the Munster tournament due to pure time and number restrictions, that player went up and turned a game around for them a few weeks later up in Leinster with a wonder goal.
He mentions the communications improvement for the goalkeepers from working with Alan Quirke as a huge boost, the improvements in discipline and tackling from constant work in training over the year, and the leap made by someone like Conor Ushanowski from Kilbrittain who might not get the chance to play and be exposed to that kind of level without squads like this and went onto carry them through from midfield in a particularly tough game later in the year.
They wanted to make it a fun experience as much as anything too, somewhere the players would want to come and train and Wiseman references a talk he’d just seen by rugby referee Nigel Owens that explained the idea of being able to achieve best when in a happy environment.
The players never gave the impression they were anything but willing and open to learning and that made everything a whole pile more enjoyable.
Cork won games and if that didn’t matter in the grander scheme of things where these squads are about improving players over the course of a year, well it’s awfully hard to avoid the call that winning games at that age is still better than losing — Cork football might not have the overall winning culture right now but it can create little pockets of it that grow into something more substantial.
Wiseman talks of the buzz that was generated during the season as the team kept winning and the numbers of parents coming to games around the country kept growing and where it was easy to see the difference some momentum and a bit of confidence can make.
The process starts again with Cork U16s doing testing these past few weeks for the season ahead and he found himself heading off to club games around the county looking for players that might have slipped through the cracks or made a huge progression in the last 12 months.
The road back for Cork football is a long one, but part of the hard work at least has started.