AT the Cork county board meeting last Tuesday week, the topic of Ronan McCarthy’s departure as Cork football manager was always likely to dominate much of the discussion considering the decision had only been made public earlier that afternoon.
The rationale behind the executive’s decision not to extend McCarthy’s term into the final season of a two-year agreement wasn’t explained. Instead, the discussion largely focussed on how the Irish Examiner had broken the story of McCarthy stepping down almost three hours before the county board had released a statement on the matter.
Apart from revealing the make-up of the five-person appointments committee charged with finding a replacement, there was minimal debate on who McCarthy’s successor might be.
Before the meeting even began, Tony Leen ran a story in the Irish Examiner about potential replacements, listing off the names of Bobbie O’Dwyer, Keith Ricken, John Fintan Daly, John Cleary and Ephie Fitzgerald.
Yet Leen also raised the perennial question each time the Cork managerial job comes up – is the board ready to go outside the county for a new manager?
Leen name-checked Jack O’Connor and Jim McGuinness, both of whom would be statement appointments, but who would unlikely take on the job if approached. O’Connor may yet be the next Kerry manager while McGuinness has stated that he sees his managerial and coaching future in soccer.
The appointments committee wouldn’t have even had a chance to get their heads around putting a potential list together before the board meeting began but, not long after it did, Frank McCarthy of O’Donovan Rossa asked that the committee consider available candidates from both inside and outside Cork.
Cork have some very capable people, but would the county finally break with tradition and go for an outside manager? Is this not the ideal time, especially after the hiding in Killarney in July?
Looking at the make-up of the five-man committee – Kevin O’Donovan, board chairman Marc Sheehan, board vice-chairman Pat Horgan, Cork GAA director of football Conor Counihan, and county board development officer Noel O’Callaghan - it’s hard to see how the group could secure unanimous approval for an outsider.
A couple of them may contemplate it, but securing three votes – which is what they’d at least need – would probably be a stretch too far.
Tradition may not allow Cork to make that leap but where has tradition got Cork football over the last ten years? An outside manager may bring his own coach so could a couple of more objective, colder, clinical voices provide a better alternative?
While, deep down, Cork may accept that to be the case, following through with it is a whole other matter. When he was GAA President ten years ago, Christy Cooney argued that the policy of recruiting outside managers “doesn’t and hasn’t worked”.
That certainly wasn’t true; outside managers had achieved incredible success over the previous 20 years; Mick O’Dwyer, John O’Mahony, John Maughan.
Fermanagh and Wexford contested All-Ireland semi-finals in 2004 and 2008 respectively when both were managed by outsiders. Westmeath won a first Leinster title under Páidí Ó Sé in 2004. Limerick almost won a first provincial title in 100 years, first under Liam Kearns, and later Mickey Ned O’Sullivan.
Over the last decade, the practice hasn’t been as successful because the big counties have taken over. But there have still been some notable success stories; Malachy O’Rourke led Monaghan to two Ulster titles and an All-Ireland semi-final. Anthony Cunningham guided Roscommon to the 2019 Connacht title.
There have been a multitude of other examples of counties operating far above their station, without attaining provincial success. At the outset of the last decade, Sligo under Kevin Walsh beat Mayo and Galway in the 2010 Connacht championship before losing the final to Roscommon by one point. Sligo under Walsh narrowly lost another Connacht final to Mayo in 2012.
One of the performances of the 2021 championship was Derry’s epic display against Donegal in the Ulster quarter-final. Derry manager Rory Gallagher is a Fermanagh man who managed Fermanagh to the 2018 Ulster final, and who was over Donegal when they narrowly lost the 2015 and 2016 Ulster finals. Gallagher was McGuinness’s coach when Donegal won the 2012 All-Ireland.
When Gallagher was appointed in late 2019, he was only Derry’s second-ever outside manager and the first since former Dublin midfielder Brian Mullins, who was manager when the county last won Ulster in 1998.
In an understated way, one of the biggest success stories in football over the last year has been Offaly, who have gone from Division 4 to Division 2 under John Maughan. In August, Offaly won the All-Ireland U-20 title, beating Dublin and Cork along the way.
Earlier this month, Maughan added Tomás Ó Sé to his backroom team.
Having played with Nemo Rangers, Ó Sé led Glanmire to last year’s Premier Minor title and is manager of the Glanmire Intermediate side. Ó Sé has also done excellent work with UCC alongside Billy Morgan.
Ó Sé doesn’t have the experience yet to be an inter-county manager but he is accumulating that knowledge and worldliness. Even though Ó Sé has been living in Cork for a long time now, appointing a Kerry person to the Cork job down the line would still be seen by many as too great a political and psychological leap.
Cork still have a lot of quality coaches and managers, but this year proved again that maybe they need to do something different. And maybe now is the ideal time to make that giant leap.