KIERAN Kingston will decide in the near future whether he will continue as Cork senior hurling team boss, but supporters throughout the county are hoping he opts in for another campaign.
After an indifferent opening year to his two-year term, in 2016, Kingston and his management team restored the fortunes of the county over the past eight months. And, despite the disappointment of losing the All-Ireland semi-final to Waterford, there is room for plenty of optimism going forward.
“It was a difficult year in 2016 because you were in a transition process, you were new in the job and new as a management team. Suddenly you find that between the panel of players and the backroom team there are 50 people working together for the first time.
“Not that long afterwards you are playing competitive games in the Munster League and four weeks later you are into the national league. That was difficult because the league is hugely competitive and it was a strong learning curve.
“Our lead into it did not help, the relatively short time span but we put a plan in place. I have said this, this was a journey, a process to work towards and while we are still nowhere near where we want to be, 2016 was part of putting that foundation in place.
“Results did not go for us, it was difficult but we felt we were doing the right thing and laying the foundations for the future. We finished in July 2016 after the loss to Wexford but we immediately started planning for 2017 in August."
The new campaign began with a victory in the Munster League, a competition, Kingston acknowledged, that they had put a lot of emphasis into.
“We felt we needed to change and the young guys that we brought in had been on a Development Panel. These guys, we felt, were the most prominent minors and hurlers across the county for the previous few years.
“We had 14 of them on a Development Panel working away in the background all through 2016. We gave them their opportunity at the start of this year because they had been integrated for the previous 12 months, albeit in the background.
“Pat Ryan took over the coaching, John Meyler came in because we wanted a better liaison with the U21s given that we now had 12 of them on the senior panel. Winning the pre-season Munster League was important. Those young guys got the opportunity to play inter-county senior hurling and they earned the jersey for the national league during it.
“We were favourites to be relegated from a very competitive group but I think the biggest thing for us were the games against Kilkenny and Waterford. We saw improvement against Kilkenny and I thought we played really well at times in that game but their experience told in the end and it’s so hard to win in Nowlan Park.
“Winning in Walsh Park, I thought, was a turning point. It’s a very hard place to go, we hadn’t won there for 16 years and then to come second in the group was very positive from our viewpoint. A lot of the new lads played key roles in that but I thought the older heads, their leadership was more important than the influx of the new lads.
“They led the line and the young fellows followed."
Tipperary, in Thurles, in May, represented a different challenge altogether and Kingston admits they took a gamble throwing so many young guys into the fray that day.
“We were serious underdogs that day and it was a huge challenge. You had three 19-year-olds, one 20, starting but we had great belief in them. We didn’t see it as big a risk as the public saw it that day. We had the utmost belief in them, they had shown us that they could do it in the Munster and national leagues and we felt they deserved the chance we gave them.
“What comes into play on a day like that is their temperament, more than their hurling ability, to be able to deal with the biggest of occasions. We would have focused a lot on that, the type of character you are throwing in, the temperament for that day. We felt they had that and I thought the performance that day was the best of the entire campaign.’’
A Munster title, he believed, was a great reward for the huge effort everybody had put in.
“It was, to win Munster was fantastic. We had a five-week lay-off then but I don’t blame that for the loss last Sunday week.
“I thought we handled it well, with club games. We went two points up in the All-Ireland semi-final with 12 minutes left and I didn’t think Damien’s sending off was the main reason we lost, definitely not and he had a fantastic campaign for us. And in my view he’s the best full-back in the country.
“A lot was said about whether they should have had a red card earlier. We ourselves had dealt with a sending off in Munster but we just got caught with a sucker punch or two and it’s difficult to recover from that against a defensive team when you've only 14 men.
“At the start of the year if we were told that we would be 12 minutes away from an All-Ireland final place, two points up, we’d have said that was a great position to be in. But when you are there, you want more and we felt that we were playing well enough to get there so it was very disappointing to lose.
“But I’d be massively proud of the players that day and all season long. They did everything we asked of them, I couldn’t fault them. The management team, the backroom boys, I could not speak highly enough of them, they were superb for me."
So what lies ahead now?
“This time last year it was said Cork hurling was down for the next decade. Now look at it, the U21s, short two key players, were just beaten by a Limerick team now in the final. The minors are in the final, the U17s have won theirs, that’s some turnaround and it shows how things can change so quickly.
But there are no guarantees going forward.
"I think things are still evolving but next year will be even harder, there’s added pressure on us now because of this year. We won’t be 33/1 for Munster next year or 50/1 for the All-Ireland.
”That has to be dealt with because we are nowhere near the finished article yet. There are no guarantees going forward but I believe we need to keep on fast tracking the younger players coming up along and we have some very good ones.
”We are not as good as people think we are or not as bad as was thought last year, we are somewhere in between but not near the finished article yet. But I think we are on the right road again."