BARRING some notable exceptions – such as Pat Nolan of Gabriel Rangers, who will be 50 this year – playing careers have a finite lifespan, dictated by physiology more than anything.
In contrast, a coach or a manager can operate for decades.
Eamonn Ryan, who died in January at the age of 79, was involved with teams until the past few years and was an All-Ireland winner with the Cork senior ladies team as recently as 2015. The Watergrasshill native was proof that it was possible to stay in the top echelons of coaching despite the passing of the years but a key reason for that was his ability to change and adapt as the game itself evolved.
It is perhaps this willingness to keep up with – and even keep ahead of – trends that has seen quite a few successful examples of managers returning previous teams here in Cork, across a variety of sports, not least in hurling.
The most recent instance is Donal O’Grady, who is a part of Kieran Kingston’s Cork senior hurling management team for the coming season, having been the boss in 2003 and 2004.
That O’Grady is willing to come back into the fold is encouraging for a number of reasons – it shows he feels that Cork have potential he can help to unlock, but also that he doesn’t have such an ego that he could only be involved as the top man.
In fact, it’s worth noting that the St Finbarr’s clubman’s first managerial involvement with Cork was as far back as 1986, as selector of the team that won the All-Ireland.
The manager of that team was Johnny Clifford, who is another great example of somebody who had multiple stints in charge.
He first took the reins in 1983, when Cork lost to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final for the second year in a row, and after that he stepped down – to be replaced by Justin McCarthy, who had first been the Cork coach in 1975.
However, Clifford didn’t turn his back on the inter-county scene and picked up more valuable experience as he led Cork to the All-Ireland minor title in 1985. After McCarthy’s departure that autumn, Clifford was back in charge for the ’86 senior title and remained until 1988.
It was telling that, while Cork hurling was in the doldrums in the mid-1990s, Clifford was again the man who threw himself into active service, even if the previous success couldn’t be attained.
Another McCarthy, Gerald, has also had more than one involvement. Having been the manager in 1982, taking Cork to the All-Ireland final, he was happy to serve as second-in-command to Fr Michael O’Brien for the hurling leg of the 1990 double and it seemed as if he would be the one to then step up after the departure of ‘the Canon’ in 1993.
While that didn’t work out, Gerald McCarthy did take over from O’Grady’s successor John Allen in 2006.
Though that stint ended in resignation after the third strike of 2008-09, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Cork were seconds away from defeating Waterford in the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final. Had they won that, another final appearance might well have materialised.
More recently, Jimmy Barry-Murphy returned for a second spell in charge, his 2012 appointment coming 12 years after his first stint ended.
He came so close to guiding Cork to another All-Ireland, a late, late equaliser from Domhnall O’Donovan earning Clare a draw in the 2013 final, but there was at least the consolation of a first Munster title in eight years when Cork won the provincial championship in 2014.
Kieran Kingston was selector and later coach under JBM and was the natural choice to take over from him in 2016. While the first year was tough, a team infused with young talent won Munster in 2017, with Kingston’s replacement John Meyler ensuring the title was retained in 2018.
While the 2020 campaign was one to forget, any number of mitigating factors could be cited. The hope is that, with the expertise of O’Grady to call upon, 2021 can be more successful for the Rebels.